Mother Nature is still in charge

A veteran farmer once told me this of his profession: “We’re not in charge. Mother Nature is.”

I think of that line often, and I thought of it again this past weekend when much of the region received a much-needed rain. Fields that got the additional moisture will enjoy better yields, and the extra bushels could be the difference between profit and loss for the producers who farm them. Fields that got too much, or too.little rain, may not produce enough to be profitable.

Good farmers, and just about every producer today is good at what they do, find ways to mitigate risk and increase the odds of being successful. But no matter how good you are, no matter how carefully you mitigate risk, Mother Nature is still in charge.

On Monday morning I wrote a quick story on the weekend rains. It’s posted on the Agweek website, An expanded version, with more information, will appear in our Sept. 1 print edition. If you’re a farmer who got just the right amount of rain, or if your received too much or too little, drop me a line.

The delights of dairy

The North Dakota family farm on which I grew up didn’t include dairy cows. Thank goodness. Beef cows and small grains, which we did have, held some appeal. Dairy cows had none, at least to me. We had neighbors with milk cows, and I saw how hard they worked and the 24-7 commitment that dairy required.

But the dairy industry holds considerable appeal to me as an journalist. Dairy includes so many of the issues and topics — economics, lifestyle and technology, among other things — that make agriculture in general interesting to me.

One of the stories I’m working on this week involves South Dakota’s expanding dairy industries and efforts in Minnesota and North Dakota to revitalize their dairy industries. Dairy officials are optimistic that technology, including robotic milkers, will make dairy more attractive to small and mid-sized operators.

I’m not smart enough to predict dairy’s future in the Upper Midwest. But I’m pretty sure that it will be an interesting one.

You can read the story in the Aug. 25 print version of Agweek.

Pivotal week ahead

What happens during the next week could determine whether many area farmers harvest a good crop or merely an OK one.

Generalizing is always risky, but many Upper Midwest corn and soybean fields are running short of moisture. A nice shot of rain would change that, and give still-good-looking crops a big boost at a key time.

Because crop prices have plunged, farmers generally will need better-than-average yields to turn a profit. To achieve such yields, fields need rain. And soon.

A successful hunt?

When I first heard about the Wheat Foods Council’s Wheat Safari, I thought, “Seems like a smart idea. It’ll be interesting to see how things work out.”

The results, so far at least, appear pretty good.

The nonprofit Wheat Foods Council is an industry trade group that promotes awareness of grains as a necessary part of a healthy diet. The group recently sponsored a “safari” in which bloggers, dietitians and others with ties to food and nutrition visited eastern North Dakota. The trip included a tour of a farm that grows wheat. I went to the farm, too, to visit with safari participants. Here’s a link to the story:

From what I saw and heard, the participants were open to facts, logic and common sense. They certainly asked good, valid questions.

The big question, of course, is the extent to which participants will take what they learned in North Dakota and apply it in their professional work.. It’s too early to fully assess that. But there are encouraging signs. Here’s what safari participant says about it on her blog:

A fresh crop of farmers

A deep, longstanding concern in Upper Midwest agriculture involves recruiting and retaining the next generation of farmers and ranchers. With so many aggies nearing retirement, it’s essential to bring in their successors.

So I’m encouraged by the influx of energetic, enthusiastic young farmers during  the past few years. I’ve written about some of them, most recently Jayme Boeshans, who farms and ranches in the Beulah, N.D., area. He also works full time at a Beulah coal mine. My visit to his farm included a guided tour of the mine.

Read more about Jayme and his father, Jerome, in the cover package of the Aug. 11 issue of Agweek. The package includes a story on the guided tour. (Yeah, farm equipment keeps getting bigger, but it’s dwarfed by the huge machines used in open-pit mining.)

Going into August with optimism

A few days ago, I made an eyeball, passing-on-the-road inspection of roughly two dozen  fields in a small area of central North Dakota. Wheat and soybeans grew on most fields, corn and dry edible beans on the rest.

I’m a journalist, not an agronomist, so my observations were hardly those of an expert. But I didn’t need to be an expert to see partial drown-out in some of the fields and hail damage in parts of others. Nor did I need to be an expert see that, overall, the wheat looked really good and that corn, soybeans and dry beans looked promising, albeit late.

That small group of fields reflects the region’s overall crop. Farmers in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota generally are optimistic about their crops, despite late planting and subsequent weather problems.

A lot of things can still go wrong, and nobody is taking a good harvest for granted. And of course there are pockets where crops have been been ravaged by bad weather already. But we’re going into August in good shape overall; that can’t be said every year.

Fate of key deduction still uncertain

I wrote a story this spring about Section 179, a key tax break that’s important to farmers and ranchers. Members of the region’s Congressional delegation, as well as farm equipment dealers, said the were hopeful of good news but that there were unsure when and if might not come.

Section 179 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code had allowed farmers and other businesspeople to deduct up to $500,000 of new or used equipment purchased during the tax year. On Dec. 31, however, the limit was restored to $25,000, its original limit, plus a small adjustment for inflation, for the 2014 tax season. Farmers and others want a higher limit, preferably a much higher one.

I’ve been watching the issue for new developments. So far, though, there’s really been nothing to report.

Others are watching, too, of course. Kim Dillivan, crops business farm management specialist with South Dakota State University Extension, says in an online extension publication that it remains to be seen whether Congress can come up an agreement in the next few months.

Section 179 is a big deal in agriculture. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, Congress decides.


Crop spraying critical, controversial

The late and often-wet growing season has complicated crop spraying for many area farmers. Producers, and the professional applicators they hire, have struggled to find enough favorable weather to spray.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of spraying crops to protect them against weeds, bugs and disease. Without spraying, yields sag, potential profits disappear and the world becomes a little hungrier. Nonfarmers sometimes lose sight of that.

But there’s another aspect to it. No matter how careful farmers and hired applicators are, chemical drift from fields can hurt nearby vegetation, frustrating and angering nonfarmers.

It’s a complicated issue; I don’t pretend to have solutions or answers. But this much I know: there are two sides to it, and both sides need to recognize that.

The shortcomings (and necessity) of generalizations

A few years ago, I wrote a harvest story that said Upper Midwest farmers, on balance, were enjoying good yields. I was careful to note that crops in some areas had been hurt by unfavorable weather and that overall average yields didn’t reflect some farmers’ situation.

Shortly after the story ran, an angry farmer contacted me to complain. His yields had been terrible; how could I possibly write that the harvest was a good one? I pointed out that the story mentioned there were exceptions, which the overall averages didn’t reflect. It didn’t do much good; he was disappointed and frustrated, and needed to let off steam. His anger was really directed at the elements, not at me.

Raising crops in this part of the world requires a huge commitment, both financially and emotionally. Poor prices and yields hurt financially and emotionally. I get that. I really do.

I also get that what’s true for farmers overall isn’t true for all of them. Generalizing about crop and harvest conditions is inherently imperfect, especially in the Upper Midwest. But without making an occasional generalization, I can’t do my job.

Complicated and controversial

It’s said that every story in journalism is important — but that some stories are more complicated than others.

That’s certainly the case with the repeated Souris River flooding that has hurt ranchers in the Towner, N.D., area. Ranchers and water management officials have different takes on what’s causing the problem and what can be done to address it.

Water management is inherently complicated. Controversial, too. Souris River flooding is a prime example.

My article on the flooding and Towner ranchers is the July 14 cover package in Agweek.