Being first isn’t always best

I talked on the phone today with a South Dakota farmer. Producers in his area might begin planting spring wheat early next week, provided the weather cooperates, he told me.

He also told me he’s heard anecdotal reports that some North Dakota farmers are planting wheat. He was dubious, to say the least, that planting wheat in North Dakota ahead of wheat in South Dakota is a good idea.

It’s a truism that some farmers enjoy the bragging rights of being first in their immediate area to start planting every year. Maybe they’re wise to start so early, maybe they’re not — but they were first, and that’s what matters.

If you’ve planted early — especially on a hilltop or light, sandy soil — it might work out just fine. But, like that South Dakota farmer, I’m dubious.

Taking to the field (baseball and crop)

The Minnesota Twins take to the field, at least for the start of the major league season, April 6 at Detroit. I’m optimistic about the Twins’ long-term future (their minor league system is strong), but the 2015 season isn’t promising.

Likewise, I’m optimistic about Upper Midwest’s ag long-term future, but uncertain what the 2015 growing season will bring. An early start would help — early planted crops usually fare better than late-planted ones — and  just avoiding the soggy, stressful springs of 2013 and 2014 would be welcome.

Think you’ll be in the field before the Twins open in Detroit? If so, drop me a line.

Safety is job one in agriculture

I attended a farm safety meeting this week. Organized by the Grand Forks (N.D.) County Farm Bureau, the meeting was a useful, timely refresher course on things farmers generally know already. My story on the event runs in the March 16 issue of Agweek. Three things to stress here:

— The Grand Forks County Farm Bureau deserves a pat on the back for hosting the event.  County farm groups play a vital role in Upper Midwest ag, and the Grand Forks County farm safety meeting is a fine example.

— I knew about the meeting because one of the group’s members contacted me in advance and invited me to attend. The timing and distance worked out, so I was able to get there. I can’t promise to attend every event to which I’m invited — but I do promise to consider it. At the very least, and if you give me enough advance notification, we’ll list your event in our weekly calendar.

— The most important thing in agriculture is safety. Yeah, farmers know that. They believe it. They practice it. But sometimes, when we get busy and stressed, we rush and do things we otherwise wouldn’t. During the busy, stressful planting season, please practice what a farmer at the farm safety meeting told me:

“Slow down and think.”

Small world in Upper Midwest ag

It was 2009, and I was covering a tour of eastern North Dakota tile drainage sites. Also on the tour was Brad Thykeson, a Portland, N.D., farmer who was considering installing tile drainage on some of his land.

Since then, I’ve talked with him a number of times on several issues. Last summer, I went to his farm to cover an event that helped out-of-state supermarket chain buyers and food bloggers learn more about wheat.

This week, I attended a tile drainage workshop in Grand Forks, N.D.  Speakers included Thykeson, who did indeed install tile drainage. He’s quick to stress that he’s no expert on the subject, but he’s learned a thing or three that can be useful to farmers interested in getting started in tile drainage.

The story on the Grand Forks workshop will be in the March 16 issue of Agweek

A crowded, and important, ag intersection

One of the many interesting things about covering agriculture is surveying the intersection of nutrition, food policy and commodity group influence. View differ, often greatly, on what Americans should eat and what the government should tell them to eat.

Case in point: the recently issued 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommendations. Developed by an advisory panel of experts from universities and nutrition organizations across the nation, the recommendations will help to set nutritional standards for state and federal programs such as school lunches, food stamps, and programs benefiting children and pregnant women.

This will be the first such update of federal food policy in five years, and it’s a big deal.

We’re still in the early stages of a 45-day public comment period — and some commodity groups are doing plenty of commenting about what they see as flaws and shortcomings in the recommendations.

If  you’re planning to submit comments, drop me a line and let me know what’s on your mind.

“How Will We Feed the World?”

Until recently, I hadn’t heard of PLOS ONE, the peer-reviewed, open-access online publication from the San Francisco-based Public Library of Science. But I came across it in researching articles on GM crops and wolf control efforts, and I’ve found it to to be both useful and influential

Its work includes a collection of essays and studies examining the crucial issue of “How Will We Feed the World?”  I’ve glanced over some of the information and found it to be  interesting stuff. One essay, for example, addresses “the common logical fallacy that anything natural is good, and that anything unnatural is bad, and addresses the misconception that GM, as a technique, is specifically and generically different from other crop improvement techniques.”

Maybe you agree with that assessment. Maybe you don’t. Either way, the issue is critically important.

Check out the collection — and the publication itself — at www.plosone,org.

The greatest grain in the galaxy

It’s one of the most famous scenes from one of the most famous episodes (“The Trouble with Tribbles”) of the original and best Star Trek series.

An obnoxious, self-important bureaucrat wants to lecture Spock and Kirk on a grain known as quadrotriticale. He begins by saying he doesn’t expect them to know anything about it.

Spock interrupts and says: “Quadrotriticale is a high-yield grain, a four-lobed hybrid of wheat and rye. A perennial, also, I believe. Its root grain, triticale, can trace its ancestry all the way back to twentieth century Canada.”  Spock would have gone in greater detail, but Kirk wisely tells him he’s made his point.

(If you’re wondering, I didn’t memorize the quote. I copied and pasted it from the web.)

Yeah, it’s just one scene from a 1960s TV show. But Star Trek’s continued popularity ensures that quadrotriticale remains the greatest grain in the galaxy. And anything that draws attention to the importance of grain, even an imaginary variety, is positive for Upper Midwest and Canadian agriculture.

Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Spock with skill and sincerity, died today. Good actor, good guy. He’ll be missed.

The days are getting longer (and other things we tell ourselves to get through winter)

The ongoing cold spell has been difficult on everyone in the Upper Midwest. Many of us, including me, have fallen back on trite little sayings to get through it. I’ve heard three farmers say, “Well, at least the days are getting longer.” I’ve said and thought it myself, too: Yeah, it’s really cold. But the days are getting longer. Spring is coming.

Surviving Upper Midwest winters requires more than dressing properly and driving carefully. It also forces us, some of us anyway, to  rationalize our way through it. Week by week, month by month, we mouth platitudes that give some small measure of emotional satisfaction.

In early December we say, “Well, Christmas is coming.” In early January we say,  “This is the key month. Let’s just tough it out.” In February we say, “The days are getting longer.”  In March we say, “We’re on the home stretch.:”

The platitudes and rationalizations don’t hide the fact that our winters often are difficult. But sometimes they help our peace of mind.

Do you have any favorite get-through-winter sayiings? If so, drop me a line.

Fighting the cold, feeding the cattle

Years ago, when I was in high school and beef prices were poor, I fed my family’s cattle on a  bitterly cold day. I was wearing long underwear, flannel shirt, sweatshirt, pants, two pairs of socks, snowmobile suit, heavy jacket, insulated boots, scarf, cap and gloves. I could barely move in all those clothes, and I was still cold.

The past few days on the Upper Midwest haven’t been quite that cold. But the mercury has dipped low enough to make life unpleasant, to say the least, for ranchers. Record-high beef prices make cold weather a little more palatable, though.

No, don’t send me angry emails. I’m not claiming that ranchers deserve high beef prices because they work in cold weather. Nor am I claiming that they deserve good prices now because they survived long stretches of poor prices. Ranchers chose their occupation, knowing it brings bouts with miserable weather and prices.

I’m simply saying that feeding cattle on cold winter days isn’t quite as bad when beef prices are good.

Lessons learned?


Pears aren’t exactly a major crop in the Upper Midwest. But farmers here might be able to learn a thing or two from the trials and tribulations of the California Pear Growers. Association.

A short film, The Pear Growers’ Dilemma, tells of difficult negotiations that the association went through. The film, the result of a cooperative partnership between the  U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency and the Prune Bargaining Association, is meant to help members of other agricultural bargaining associations.

If you have any involvement with or interest in ag bargaining groups, you might want to check out the video.  To view the video, click here.