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About Jonathan Knutson

I'm a North Dakota farm kid, with relatives and friends who farm. Spent my career at North Dakota newspapers, covering agriculture and business

A great run for spring wheat production

Driving through central North Dakota on the Fourth of July this year, I was impressed by field after field of terrific-looking spring wheat. (I’d seen great stands of spring wheat elsewhere in the area earlier in the year, too.)  I told myself on the Fourth, “We’ve had so many good spring wheat crops these past few years. If we end up with another good one this fall, I’ll do a story.”

Well, the spring wheat harvest wasn’t easy — a long wet stretch stretched out harvest and hurt quality — but overall yields across the region were excellent. So, I’ve written a story, which is on the cover of the Nov. 3 issue of Agweek, that looks at the terrific multi-year run.  Much of the credit for the big years goes to favorable growing conditions, but a lot of  folks, including farmers, agronomists and scientists, played essential roles, too.

Good yields don’t guarantee a profit; far from it. Declining wheat prices and poor quality mean many farmers won’t make money with the crop, even with big yields. That said, having more bushels to sell is still a good thing — and the run of big spring wheat yields is a real success story.

Pat on the back for farm bill work

It can be easy to bash government employees. Sometimes they deserve it, sometimes they don’t. (That’s true for folks in any line of work, including journalism.)

It’s not so easy to give government employees a pat on the back when they deserve it. From I can tell, the Farm Service Agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that administers the farm bill, deserves one now. The new farm bill contains complicated provisions that will affect farmers for the next five years, and FSA, at least in the Upper Midwest, appears to be doing its best to help farmers understand their choices.

Farmers and others in ag may not say so publicly, but they definitely realize that FSA is trying. They might feel otherwise in five years — or even five months — but, at least for now, they’re appreciative.

Remember the big issue in ag a year ago?

An area ag commodity group leader and I were talking this week about the long decline in grain prices. He searched for 10 seconds or so to find the year-ago price of his commodity, but couldn’t locate it. “That’s strange. I wonder why it’s not there,” he said.

Then he came up with the explanation. “Oh, the government shutdown,” he said. The year-ago number wasn’t available because the federal government officials who normally prepared it weren’t on the job.

Well, until he mentioned it, I’d forgotten about the 2013 shutdown, even though I wrote a number of stories about it back then. At the time, it was a really big deal in ag.

That’s the way it is in agriculture, journalism and life. We get through one crisis and move on to the next one.

I have no idea what the next crisis in ag will be. I just hope it holds off until harvest is finished.

Just enjoying the day

I talked on the phone today with a Minnesota farmer. It was old-school technology — voice only, no video — but I had no trouble sensing his smile.

Yes, he said, he’s done harvesting his soybeans. And no, he doesn’t plan on harvesting the rest of his corn right away. Waiting a few days to resume harvesting it will allow it to dry down naturally, which will save him the expense of drying his corn artificially. The temporary delay is possible only because of the wonderfully warm, dry weather and the forecast of more ahead.

“Right now, I’m just enjoying the day. We don’t get many this nice,” he said of the mid-October day that brought sunshine and temperatures in the mid-60s.

Farmers and nonfarmers often see the world in different ways. But everyone, regardless of where they live and what they do, appreciates weather like this.

A great time to be studying ag

The 1980s and early 1990s brought tough times for Upper Midwest agriculture. Farmers generally didn’t make much money, nor did many of the ag companies serving the region. Not surprisingly, young people who wanted a job in ag frequently came up short.

Things sure have changed. If have some ag or ag-related skill or training and want a job in agriculture, you have a very good chance of getting one. College ag students aren’t guaranteed a job after graduation, but the odds are stacked in their favor.

That’s great for college ag students, not so great for employers. But employers will agree the current job market is far better than those dismal years back in the ’80s and early ’90s.

The cover story of the Oct. 20 issue of Agweek looks at the demand for college ag students, which remains strong despite plunging grain prices.

A terrific harvest run

It’s been said, not altogether in jest, that farmers are never satisfied with the weather. Too wet, too dry. Too hot, too cold. Too something, too something else.

But farmers overall have been mighty pleased with beautiful October weather.  Many farmers entered the month badly behind on harvest, and the glorious string of dry, sunny days has allowed them to catch up, at least partially. Farming is a lot more enjoyable, and a lot easier, when the weather cooperates.

There’s a great deal of crop, particularly corn and sunflowers, left to bring in from the field. But this terrific harvest run puts us much closer to the finish line.

Pasta is good for you. Really, it is.

I used to think it’s common knowledge that grains, especially whole grains, are an essential part of a healthy diet. I used to think that most Americans understand pasta is nutritious.

Boy, was I wrong. This summer, I went to a North Dakota farm where food bloggers and consultants from around the country were learning more about wheat. To my surprise, the bloggers and consultants told horror stories about widespread public misconceptions involving pasta and other products made from wheat.

With that in mind, I’ll point out that North Dakota is the nation’s leading producer of durum, traditionally pasta’s key ingredient. I’ll also point out that October is National Pasta Month and Oct. 24 is World Pasta Day. Normally I ignore special days, weeks and months that promote causes, products and occupations. There are so many of them that they run together and lose meaning. But after listening to the horror stories on that North Dakota farm, I’m making an exception for pasta.

More information: www.ilovepasta.org.

The toughest job in agriculture?

Planting a crop in a wet spring is difficult. Harvesting a crop in a wet fall is difficult. Marketing a crop is always difficult. Figuring out the farm bill — well, that’s really difficult.

OK, I’m exaggerating, but not much. I’ve seen smart, capable, confident farmers — producers who don’t shirk from most demanding jobs — cringe when confronted with the complexities of farm programs

The new farm bill passed earlier this year has a number of new, complicated programs that producers need to figure out. The farm bill always includes an alphabet-stew of acronyms, and this year is no different: ARC and PLC are two of the brain-benders.

Fortunately, the Farm Service Agency, state extension services and commodity groups are offering informational meetings this fall. I’ll be attending some of the meetings and writing articles for Agweek.

Like area farmers, I have a lot to learn in coming weeks. Good luck to us all.

Still wondering about that GE wheat?

It was a really big deal, at least in some circles, when genetically engineered wheat was found in an Oregon field on May 3, 2013. Even a lot of folks outside agriculture were interested in what the federal investigation would discover. Later, as often happens with issues that capture public attention initially, the investigation drifted off into obscurity.

But on Friday, the government agency in charge of the investigation issued its findings. The takeaway line: the case “appears to be an isolated occurrence and that there is no indication of any GE wheat in commerce.”

I’ve written a quick story about the report, with comments from two prominent wheat organizations. It will be included in the Sept. 29 print version of Agweek. It’s also available online at www.agweek.com/event/article/id/24145/.

Lots of drama in back-and-forth crop year

I was told once that one of the signs of good drama is plenty of “back-and-forths.” Which means that as the story unfolds, the reader/viewer’s expectations go back and forth: looks like the hero is going to win the big game … no, it seems now he’s probably going to lose … oh, now he seems likely to lose again. Back-and-forths are all about variability and uncertainty.

The Upper Midwest’s 2014 crop season has been filled with back-and-forths. The late, wet spring hampered planting and created concern. Then, good growing conditions during the summer raised hopes. Then, late summer turned dry, creating concern again. Then, early September rains raised hopes. Then, persistent rains in the first half of September hampered harvest, creating new concern. Then, favorable mid-September weather boosted the harvest, raising new hopes.

I sure hope harvest weather stays favorable. But the way this crop season has gone, it’s probably time for another wet stretch that hurts harvest.

Farmers, of course, don’t care about drama. Agriculture is a bottom-line business. What matters is whether producers harvest enough grain and sell it at a sufficiently high price to earn a profit. But if you like drama, it’s hard to beat the 2014 crop season.