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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

Should I be writing about this?

One of the questions I keep asking myself is whether I should write news articles on upcoming deadlines and signups for federal farm programs.

On one hand, farmers and ranchers are smart, responsible people; do they really need me to write stories reminding them of what they should be doing? On the other hand, farmers are ranchers are busy and often preoccupied; maybe they’ll benefit from a reminder in a new article. Typically, I’ll write something when the program is especially important and the deadline/signup comes at an especially busy time of the year.

At any rate, a farmer recently told he was going in to his county Farm Service Agency office to finish signing up for an important farm program. He had been so busy during harvest that he’d put off doing so and it had slipped his mind — until he read an article on the signup deadline that I’d written.

Yeah, I know, he was just one farmer and I shouldn’t make too much of it. Still, it encourages me to keep writing — occasionally and when appropriate — about upcoming federal farm program deadlines and signups.

The sweet sound of rain in the night

I went out early this Sunday morning to check the rain gauge on my family farm in central North Dakota. It told me that a little more than an inch fell during the night.

My ears told me that most of the rain came slowly and gently. There’s nothing like the sound of slow, gentle rain in the night when moisture is needed. You hear it against the roof and windows, against the concrete steps. Each drop recharges soil moisture, each drop helps crops and pastures, each drop replenishes optimism.

Most of the Upper Midwest needed rain after what’s generally been a dry August. Still-maturing crops — including corn, soybeans and potatoes –haven’t had enough moisture to develop properly, and last night’s precipitation will help. It would have helped more if had come a week or two earlier, but we’re glad to get it now.

I haven’t talked yet with farmers across the region, but TV reports indicate the rain was widespread. If so, it’s not exaggerating to say the precipitation will put tens of millions of additional dollars into the the pockets of Upper Midwest farmers.

So, yes, rain in the night sounds so sweet partly because of its financial benefits. But even more than that, I think, the sound replenishes optimism — and you can’t put a price tag on that.

Taking the top off yields

The mid-August heat wave that hit much of the Upper Midwest has ended, at least temporarily, and I’m still trying to get a good handle on how much damage it did to developing crops.

There’s no easy or simple answer: it varies from area to area, depending on factors such as local temperature, subsoil moisture and the type of crop.

But three people — two farmers and an agronomist — used the same phrase to describe the heat wave’s impact: “It took the top off yields.”

In everyday English, that means fields won’t produce as much as they would have if the weather had cooperated. We won’t know until harvest whether it’s a little less or a lot less.

One thing is clear, though: Many fields in the Upper Midwest need rain. The end of the heat wave helps, but a widespread soaker would help even more.

Potatoes: Peril and potential

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — I’m here at the summer meeting of the U.S. Potato Board, the nation’s potato marketing organization. Carl Hoverson, a Larimore, N.D., potato grower, is chairman of the group, which typically holds its summer meeting near the chairman’s home.

The meeting is looking at efforts, both domestically and overseas, to promote potato consumption and sales. The opportunities are greatest in foreign markets, but the U.S. market is getting plenty of attention, too.

It’s no secret that a lof of Americans wonder if potatoes can be part of a healthy, nutritious diet. So there’s plenty of peril for the potato industry.

But there’s plenty of potential as well. The industry increasingly stresses the nutritional benefts of potatoes – their high Vitamin C and potassium levels, among other things — and it’s optimistic that message will win out in the end.

Potatoes are a fascinating crop, holding both peril and potential for the industry. My best guess, for whatever it’s worth, is that spuds will remain a big deal for U.S. consumers and become even more popular with folks overseas.

My article about the summer meeting will be posted on the Agweek website later today.

In any case, potatoes are a major crop in the Grand Forks area (where I’m based), and it’s good to have the industry leaders here.

Welcome to Grand Forks.

Williston, woohoo!

WILLISTON, N.D. — I’m staying tonight in Williston, N.D., after spending Monday working on ag stories in the area. I’ll work on other ag stories Tuesday before returning to Grand Forks, N.D., Tuesday night.


Agweek is based in Grand Forks, but we cover the entire Upper Midwest. I’ve driven from the mountains of Montana to the lakes of Minnesota — and flown to Washington, D.C. — in my job. I’ve covered literally dozens of different crops and a half-dozen kind of animals. I’ve written about people, politics, commodity prices, weather, regulations and technology, among many other things.

If it involves Upper Midwest ag, it’s important to Agweek — and to me. Tonight I’m in Williston, and happy to be learning more about ag in the area.

Williston, woohoo!

An agricultural dilemma

I talked this week with a North Dakota farmer about two of his fields. They’re adjacent: one a good-looking field of soybeans that could use a drink of rain, the other a nearly-ready-to-combine field of wheat that would benefit from no rain.

I asked him whether which he prefers: rain to help the beans or no rain to help the wheat.

He hesitated a bit and then said, “Rain.” The thinking is, the benefit to the beans would outweigh the potential harm to the wheat.

That agricultural dilemma is common across the Upper Midwest right now, at least in the many areas where both small grains and soybeans are grown. In a perfect world, farmers who grow both would receive exactly enough rain, at exactly the right time, to maximize the gain for soybeans while minimizing the harm for wheat. In the real world, well, let’s hope for the best.

Harvest is important, but not ‘must-win’

Years ago, the Buffalo Bills pro football team was preparing to play in the Super Bowl. Marv Levy, their coach, was asked if it was a “must-win” game.

Levy shrugged and said, “This is not must-win. World War II was must-win.”

The intensely proud and competitive coach wanted badly to win, of course. But to his great credit, he kept things in perspective.

I think of Levy now that another harvest is nearing in the Upper Midwest. Farmers have invested so much — financially, physically and emotionally — in this crop. It’s important to them — personally and professionally — to “win” harvest by getting off their fields as quickly as possible. There’s self-induced pressure to push themselves long and hard to do it.

The danger is, they’ll push themselves to the point where they risk their safety or a healthy connection with their family.

Agweek readers don’t need lectures from me. But I’ll give this unsolicited advice nonetheless:

Yeah, a successful harvest is important. But it’s not must-win. Your safety is must-win. Staying close to your family is must-win.

Good luck this harvest season.

Aggies will like this photo

CARRINGTON, N.D. — I was at the Carrington NDSU Extension Research Center recently for an upcoming story and spotted the sign here. It’s encased in glass and there’s some glare, which hurts the photo quality — but I’m sure area aggies will agree with the sentiment.


Agriculturalists — farmers, ranchers, seed salesmen, agronomists and all the others who play a vital role in modern ag — do it primarly to support themselves and their families. That’s a good and sufficient reason. But, yeah, most aggies I know really do think they’re in a noble profession.

Can you guess why he grows tomatoes?

LARIMORE, N.D. — Carl Hoverson of Hoverson Farms in Larimore, N.D., is one of the region’s biggest potato farmers. But he raises tomatoes, too — well, a few of ’em, anyway.

I visited Hoverson’s operation today for an upcoming Agweek story (which you can read in our July 27 issue) on a big potato industry meeting. Next to his office is a garden plot with a few tomato plants.

“Twenty guesses of why we have tomatoes there,” he told me.

The answer: tomatoes, like potatoes, are suspectible to late blight, a disease that can hammer both yields and quality in spuds. Hoverson walks by the tomato plants nearly every day, helping him to assess the threat of late blight to his potatoes.

The region’s potato crop has avoided late blight so far this growing season. Recent warm weather helps to reduce the threat.

Good luck to Hoverson and other potato growers on late blight. And I hope his tomato crop turns out well.