Making sheep dreams real at Stoney Hill Farms, Volga, SD


IMG_4314The fellow in this picture is Mark Pates — one of my big brothers.

Like me, Mark grew up in the town of Brookings, S.D., a “town kid” and a son to a very earnest South Dakota State University Extension Service worker.   Unlike me, Mark had a personal vision for becoming an actual farmer — not just writing about them.

Mark and his twin brother, Matthew, worked on farms as a kid, mostly doing custom bale-throwing. “The twins” were in a 4-H club that specialized in small engine projects. After high school, they together went to Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, S.D., where Mark studied diesel mechanics and Matt took auto mechanics. Both worked on a dairy farm while going to school. After graduation, Mark worked at implement dealerships in eastern South Dakota.

Working in the Brookings area, Mark connected with a farmer’s daughter named Phyllis.  They were married in 1978 and he worked in a diversified operation with her family. After specializing in the dairy part of the business, Mark eventually took a job at the Rental Depot in town, but continued to live on the farmstead where their children, Kari and Kevin, had 4-H projects, showed sheep.

Mark continued to expand a sheep operation and today Stoney Hill Farms has about 190 ewes. They market about 140 to 160 lambs a year, depending on how many they keep back.  Mark and Phyllis work on the sheep business in concert with their son, Kevin (wife, Courtney) who lives at the west end of the section and works at the South Dakota Soybean Processors at Volga. Kari, has a career in Pierre, S.D., but is a part-owner of some of the sheep and is a strong supporter.

The reason I bring this up is that the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association held their 78th Annual Convention at Rapid City, S.D. On Sept. 26 the SDSGA recognized Stoney Hill Farms with a “Master Lamb Producer” award. Mark’s family was honored in “Lamb to Finish Producer” category.  All five of them were there for the recognition program, all wearing the “Stoney Hill Farm” logo.

Jeff Held, the SDSU Extension sheep specialist and professor, evaluated the nominees.  . Among the positive features about Mark’s operation is that they contract-sell their lambs to Superior Farms, Inc., of Oregon, with processing in California and Colorado. Among other things, Mark’s place is designed for efficient for beneficial control of lamb market weight.

“You have two generations, here,” Held told me about why he recommended Stoney Hill Farms for the award. “I like to see that,” Held says. “They’ve grown it from a small enterprise. They’ve set it up to match their work and lifestyle,” Held says. He says Stoney Hill is set up to lamb in the winter time, but so the ewes are well-protected when no one is at home to watch them. They’ve joined the Pipestone Lamb and Wool Program at Pipestone, Minn. Through that affiliation, they’re able to contract lambs. The information collected from the harvest sheet gives the Pateses more direction on genetics and feeding management.”

The sheep industry seems a perfect fit for Mark, and could be for a lot of people,  Held says.

“It’s an opportunity to participate in agriculture,” Held says. “You’re engaged in the industry.” Sheep respond more to management than any other species, and Held sees that former dairy people like Mark are well suited for the enterprise.

Mark sells lambs through Pipestone Lamb and Wool Program, hosted at the Minnesota West Community and Technical College at Pipestone, Minn. Collectively, growers that participate in the classes and market some 30,000 lambs on contract with packers, based on negotiating for prices and terms. The current contract is with Superior Farms, Inc., based in Oregon, but with processing facilities in California and Colorado.

Stoney Hill wasn’t the only honoree at the convention.

Brink Hampshires of Redfield, S.D., owned by Michel and Betty Brink, won in the “purebred” producer, category, along with Jon and Theresa Beastrom of Beastrom Targhees of Pierre, S.D. Reese Clarkson of Clarkson Livestock at Buffalo, S.D., won in the feeder lamb producer category.

Congratulations to them all, but here’s a special tip of the hat to my brother, Mark — a great example as a husband and father, and man that makes his dreams come true. I’m glad he won a lamb award because the old Norwegian isn’t likely to win one for communication. I heard about the award through brother Matt. When we got together, recently, Mark didn’t bring it up.

“So, I hear you won an what did you get an award for?” I said, as he flipped a nice piece of meat on the grill for my supper, the other evening.

“Oh, I guess they say I’m a master lamb producer,” Mark replied, not particularly anxious to elaborate. It was up to me to draw out the details. That’s my role.

We all have our roles in the family, I suppose.




Will Hillsboro, N.D., be an ag UAV launch pad for RRV?

JJohn Nowatzki, a North Dakota State University machine specialist with the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems, says the rules are about what he had expected. File photo, taken in June 2014 in Fargo, at NDSU. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

I took this photo of John Nowatzki, a North Dakota State University machine specialist with the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems, and a research drone,  June 2014 in Fargo, at NDSU.

A reader texts me a link to the the Hillsboro (N.D.) Banner online version on July 24 that carries a story by Jack Dura, talking about an Israeli-based electronics company looking to use drones from the Hillsboro Regional Airport for gathering data on agriculture and other research. Dura writes that the Traill County Economic Development Commission goes before a North Dakota Department of Commerce review panel on Aug. 12 and expects an answer by Aug. 15, according to the report. The paper says that on  July 22 officials of Elbit Systems based in Haifa, Israel, toured the airport, which is about halfway between Grand Forks, N.D., and Fargo, N.D.. According to The Banner, Elbit’s vice president Danny Israeli and Yuval Chapin, the company’s director of U.S. campaigns, met with Terry Sando of the Grand Forks Regional Economic Development and John Nowatzki of the North Dakota State University Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, to look at the runway and location. Elbit hopes to use the Hermes 450, what he described as a “system of systems.” The vehicle is 1,200 pounds and can carry sensors and cameras of up to 400 pounds, and can scan at about 92 mph.  According to the article, it would be used on a variety of crops, including sugar beets, soybeans, corn, potatoes, sunflower, wheat and barley, and would be able to scan them for nitrogen deficiencies and disease, among other things.

Equintissential summer event: Draft horse weekend at Towner, N.D.

A mare awaits her turn in the ring at the Billings Livestock Horse Sale. Photo taken Aug. 24, 2013, Billings, Mont. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)(EMBARGO TO OCT. 14, 1 A.M.)

If there’s a way I can get to the 2015 Draft Horse field days, June  12-14 at RX Shire Ranch at Towner, N.D., I’m sure I’ll do it — at least to look in for a few hours. It strikes me as one of the truly North Dakota events that is emblematic of summer fun in a very rural, fun part of the state.

Host Bob Green tells me that the equine event location has a lots of room for campers, but “no electrical hookups.”

How rural? Well, he reminds me that Rugby has the closest motel, 35 miles away. The biggest day for the three-day event is Saturday, with driving and seminars into early evening.

“A lot of just visiting,” Green says, describing the event. “It’s an association; we’ve been at it for 36 years. This is our 35th field days.” There are a few of the original people in the group, chronicled from faded photos. This year, they have Theresa Early, from TnT Harness at Holland, Manitoba, to talk about the proper fit for a harness, and some horse showing basics tips for the kids. A new young veterinarian at Towner will speak.

The event moves around the region butt the Greens did it in 2010 and 2005. Last year the event had 25 to 30 head of horses. The event usually attracts 75 people.  Some come 300 or 400 miles.

There’s always GPS to find places these days — 273 69 St. N, Towner, ND, 58788. But for everyone else, or when satellites don’t cooperate:

From Towner:

*North from Cenex station to the north end of town at water tower.

*West and then north on North Dakota Highway  14, 6.1 miles.

*Left (west) 6 miles to the yard.

From Denbigh:

* Go through Denbigh on Center Avenue. Follow the correction lines to the north about 7.25 miles to the third full intersection.

*Left at 69th Street, 2.75 miles to the yard.


E-Mail the Greens at, or call (701) 537-5387; (701) 537-3231, or (701) 537–3126.

Ag journalism in the nation’s capital

Here I am (left) at the National Portrait Gallery with Jonathan Knutson at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., as part of a tour with members of the North American Agricultural Journalists group.

The picture we’re standing near is called “The Farm,”  by Knjiro Namura, an oil-on-canvas made in 1934. The Washington state farm scene was part a Depression-era Publics Works of Art Project. Some of us also heard

Congratulations to Jonathan who on Sunday was elected Midwest regional vice president of the organization. I was president of the NAAJ in 1999-2000.

Nationally, South Dakota native Gil Gullickson, a native of the Aberdeen, S.D., area, who writes for Meredith Media at Des Moines, Iowa, was elected president, and Ed White, Winnipeg, who writes for the Western Producer magazine, was elected vice president.

Today, we’ll hear from numerous top national figures, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Robert Johansson, USDA chief economist, as well as top trade officials. Clint Raine of the National Corn Growers Association, will talk about the use of drones in agriculture.

Tonight , Jonathan and I are among the writing award winners  to be recognized at the National Press Club presentations. There, we’ll  enjoy music played by Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and congressional colleagues in the Second Amendments band.

The event also serves as a fund-raiser for the Sonja Hillgren Scholarship Benefit. The NAAJ has sponsored an agricultural journalism scholarship program through the University of Missouri School of Journalism at Columbia. The scholarship fund started with a goal of $25,000 and has raised more than $70,000.  Hillgren, a native of the Sioux Falls, S.D., area, was Agweek magazine’s first national correspondent in Washington. She went on to be editor of Farm Journal magazine and was a president of the NAAJ.


Beijing: Great spot for World Potato Congress in July



060823 OFFUTTdemoplot-mjp

Here’s a photo I took of Ron D. Offutt of Fargo, attending a potato field day at the World Potato Congress in Boise, Idaho, in 2006. At right is Gary Secor, a North Dakota State University plant pathologist, and to the left is Neil Gudmestad, an NDSU colleague.  (By the way, this photo was picked up for a painting as part of Offutt’s Rough Rider Award, and is in the main hall at the state capitol.)

I see Dr. Barbara H. Wells, director general of CIP, the International Potato Centre, in Peru, is the latest to be announced a speaker at the World Potato Congress in Beijing, China,  July 28-30 in Beijing.  Wells will speak on “The Role of the Potato for Global Food Security,” an issue that I think is too often overlooked. Wells grew up in Peru and Bolivia and has a passion to improve the livelihoods of the world’s poor farmers.

I’ve attended two of the World Potato Congress events since coming to Agweek and both were fascinating.  They’re held every few years and sponsored by a non-profit organization — the world’s premier potato conferences. The first I attended was in Boise, Idaho, in 2006, and the next was in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2012. In both cases, people in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota attended or were speakers. We have some world-class people here. Neil Gudmestad, a plant pathologist at North Dakota State University, spoke in Scotland and colleague Gary Secor was in Boise, where Ron D. Offutt of Fargo, received an international award.

The Chinese conference includes a tours to places like China’s famous Xisen mini-tuber production base, a potato museum, the SnowValley Agricultural Development Co., as well as storage, chip processing, machinery and planting patterns displays, as well as tours focusing on new variety and technology.

Speakers include the chairman of the Potato Association of China, talking about sustainable development of the Chinese production, as well as the president of the China Agricultural University, talking about the bigger picture for that country.

So often North American farmers are told about how the world is getting set to produce food for 9 billion consumers, up from the current 7 billion. More and more U.S. potato products will find a home in Asian markets. If you or your company are into potatoes, I’m thinking Beijing would be a fascinating place to learn more about it. Maybe the best place in the world.

ND, MT wines score at international wine competition

The 15th annual Finger Lakes International Wine Competition is a big deal. It benefits Camp Good Days,  a summer camp for children with cancer. This is the world’s largest charitable wine competition. This year the competition was held in Rochester, N.Y., on March 21-22. It was open to commercial wineries and distilleries from all producing countries.

The competition in recent years has drawn 3,750 wines from 20 countries, including six Canadian provinces and all 50 United States. The event includes more than 70 judges from more than a dozen countries, representing Master’s of Wine, Master Sommeliers, sommeliers, educators, enologists, winemakers, writers, importers, retailers and industry consultants.

Each wine is judged on its own merit — its “presence, balance and varietal character — not how it compared to other wines in a particular flight. The wines in the competition are judged for what they are at the time of judging — not what they might become in the future.

It’s a sophisticated competition. Wines are blind-judged in flights, with each wine identified only by a computer-generated code number. Each glass is labeled with this code number and the judges are given a scoring sheet with the number and variety of the wines.

All flights are staged in a separate back room and delivered to a judging room. Re-pours, when necessary,  from a second, unopened bottle are also staged in a back room and delivered to the judging room. All wines are presented the judges in Riedel crystal stemware.040615.A.GFH.WineWinners.jpg

Jeff Broin: Poet LLC executive chair is a pioneer in his 40s

It’s been 35 years since I was an undergraduate at South Dakota State University in Brookings. I wrote about the 1978 and tractorcades to Washington, D.C., for The Collegian, the SDSU student newspaper. I was an agricultural journalist, and Editor Kevin Woster from the famed Woster journalism family in South Dakota was my boss. He created a position called “Earth Editor” for me.

About this time, Paul Middaugh was an SDSU professor who was helping farmers learn about producing on-farm ethanol from their corn that was worth about $1.30 per bushel at the time. Middaugh was a Boy Scout leader, and I was familiar with one of his older sons. In 1979 I started my first job at the Worthington Daily Globe. Farmers were in trouble and ethanol was one of their potential saviors. I covered the first wet milling plant at Marshall, Minn., and the Minnesota effort to get subsidize ethanol production and mandate its use at 10 percent in regular gasoline. “Gasahol,” they called it.

In 1983, I moved to The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. The only ethanol in our part of the country at the time was the Dawn Enterprises plant at Walhalla, N.D., which originally was to make the stuff from barley, before they started shipping corn up there. There was the Al-Chem Ltd. plant at Grafton, N.D., eventually owned and later shut down by Harold Newman from Jamestown, N.D.

Meanwhile, in 1983, a youngster named Jeff Broin was growing up on a farm south of Minneapolis where his father dabbled in on-farm ethanol plants. In 1987, at age 22, Broinand his family had purchased a bankrupt ethanol plant at Scotland, S.D. Fast-forward 25 years. Broin has gone on to build a huge ethanol empire that’s touched farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and several other states.  Broin has done it all — envisioning, building, marketing, innovating, and reinventing an industry that has made a huge impact on agriculture in this region. After all of these years, I had never met Mr. Broin until Jan. 28, when I sat down with him at his impressive Poet LLC headquarters in Sioux Falls. It’s a sprawling affair that includes research facilities. As we took a “walk down Memory Lane,” as Broin put it, we realized we knew all of the same characters — guys like Middaugh and former legislator and Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Jim Nichols, one of the key movers of Minnesota’s ethanol mandate. It occurred to me that this fellow who has hired a new CEO for Poet, LLC, was one of the pioneers in the flesh — a builder of an industry and still a young man. Broin noted that most of the players in the business were 20 years older than he, which puts them in their 70s or better. Broin already has done more in his young life than anyone I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of people. He’s been a co-investor for the plants he’s helped build, so he’s had the same skin in the game as many of his farmer-investors. He’s avoided some of the pitfalls that have impacted some of his competitors and rivals. He could take his money and buy an island somewhere, I suppose, but that doesn’t seem to be in the picture. I am interested in motivations.If you look in the  company literature, Broin hints at religious motivations and caring for his community that I find is a motivator for some of this region’s most effective leaders. You don’t have to be an ethanol believer to respect that. I surely do. Broin’s story was in the March 2, 2015, issue of Agweek magazine, and on Agweek TV. See them at

Prevented-plant crop insurance adjustments, weaknesses

IMG_1672Above is a photo I took of some cropland east of Dickinson, N.D., that wasn’t planted on July 2, 2014. It was a prevented-plant (PP) crop insurance situation because of some very wet planting season weather.

Of all of the input I receive from readers, PP is the tops. Several times a year I will get a phone call or e-mail from some farmer, wanting to know who to contact about the neighbor who outbids younger farmers for land rent and then has land that goes unplanted while neighbors seem to get their work done.

In one case, a south-central North Dakota farmer was talking about the farmer who had eight quarters unplanted — about 1,200 acres. The

Another story was about the fellow who failed to plant canola by the planting date, collected the 35 percent PP insurance, and then went ahead and planted the crop the neighbors allege they intended to plant all along. There was the insurance agent that told me that  this kind of thing isn’t as lucrative as people say it is, that the PP benefits are declining. But there’s something pervasive going on when an extension official declined to comment about PP at all, saying it is so rife with potential abuse.

Me? I think a big problem with the PP is that it is enormously difficult to enforce this kind of program across all of the variability of the American cropping picture. I think the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas are more difficult to keep it all straight. I think part of the problem is how the crop insurance companies and their adjusters view the system.

Regardless of the fraud potential, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking at some changes in the  program. In the March 2 issue of Agweek magazine look for a brief summary of some of the proposed changes a consultant, Agralytica of Alexandria, Va., has suggested to the USDA’s Risk Management Agency for formula changes that could affect such crops as corn, potatoes and green peas in our region. RMA officials say these ideas are more in the trial balloon stage — not yet to the point of proposed rules. But I’m thinking those steps aren’t far behind.

If you wish to offer input on this, I’m all ears — fingerprints or not.  My phone number — 701-297-6869 — is published in Agweek every week.


Gulke: SD banker says 85% of ag customers lost money in ’14

IMG_1603Jerry Gulke tells it like it is, and that’s why the room was filled at the Soybean Expo 2015 in Fargo, N.D.

An Illinois farmer and nationally-known grain marketing consultant and analyst, Gulke doesn’t sugar-coat the current agricultural picture. “I have a friend in South Dakota at (a very large bank), their regional banker, told me that 85 percent of their farmers at the banks lost money last year in 2014 — their Schedule F, including depreciation,” he said.

Farmers have different cash flow situations, he acknowledged. Some may have grain on the farm from two years ago, Gulke says, so there’s “a lot of money sitting in grain waiting to be sold,” Gulke says. “If you think about it in your mind, you’ve already expensed it. It’s too late to recoup something you’ve already expensed. If you’ve got 10,000 bushels of $5 (per bushel) wheat or $4 (per bushel) corn in the bin, that’s pure profit.”

Gulke perceives that farmers in North Dakota may be in a bit better shape than in South Dakota. “But there seems to be a problem brewing out there somewhere.”

Here were some of his thoughts on key areas going into 2015:

Cash flow: “This thing doesn’t cash-flow real well. I look at it and say, ‘What’s the rock bottom that I can spend in actual dollars out of my pocket, not including depreciation, that I can put a crop in, and you probably want to do the same thing.”

Depreciation is a “funny number,” he says, because that’s already been spent once. “This is the year you don’t spend that depreciation on new equipment. You put it off a year to make the balance sheet look better.”

Cash  flow was the “biggest problem that got guys in trouble in the ’80s,” Gulke says. “If you use the income tax break that you’ve saved to make a down payment on land, I don’t care how much you paid down, you’ve got a $100 principal payment, you’ve got to net $130 or $140 an acre to have enough left over to pay that. Rent is expensable,  interest is expensable, but not capital payments.”

2015 soy  acreage: The price outlook for corn and soybeans is “really up to us” farmers, he said, noting that farmers will be in more trouble if they plant as many acres as they did last year. The industry now is expecting an 88 million-acre soybean planting in 2015. “I’m hoping our numbers come down to 86 million (U.S. soy acres) or somewhere that makes the market nervous,” Gulke says.

He added that a move of 2 million acres up or down doesn’t mean as much to soybean prices as it does to corn. Gulke doesn’t see a good weather year like last year for raising beans and farmers need to be ready to catch a surge in price.

Crop insurance: “If you think of it, after Feb. 28 — after one more week in February — you really have to move that price to get the average for insurance (values) up.”

If there are three weeks of prices “going nowhere” there needs to be a $5 per bushel price for a week to get the average up to $4.50 per bushel, he noted. “We will run out of time for the crop insurance to incentivize us to plant for the profit under crop insurance. Those days are gone,” he said.

“If we’re at the levels of crop insurance now that we we’re going to be at the end of February, 80 percent of $4  something  (per bushel) on corn is $3.20,” he says. “That doesn’t work” for farm profitability.”

Gulke thinks the price of corn in the fall will be around $4 an acre in October, November, December, if there are 88 million acres of soybeans and the country gets a trend-line yield. “The  corn will be worth more than it was last fall, but not a lot. Then we’ll see if we can get a rally in post-harvest.” He thinks soybeans will be at $8.50 per bushel if they get the crop planted.

If U.S. farmers plant 171 million acres of corn again in 2015, and the crop comes through in good shape,  farmers may be in trouble on per bushel prices, Gulke says.  “You may see a 2 in front of the number, who knows?”

Cutting back on fertilizer: “If you plant the acres, you discourage efficiency, you discourage production,” Gulke says. “I don’t know where we cut back. A lot of us won’t have to, maybe we’ve gotten pretty well-heeled and won’t have to. I’ve even thought about it, and I’ve fertilized a lot when prices were good. Put the plow down, start everything (with starter fertilizer) because we need to get rid of the money. Now it’s a little different. You can say to yourself I have enough reserve, I don’t need to put on any P and K (phosphorus and potassium). I can put the minimum on and still get a crop.”

Land rent: The rent in Illinois is not coming down, very fast or far.

“I don’t know where it all ends,” he says. He says he rents out farmland and is “always $50 behind” the top per-acre levels in the community. “This year we’ll drop it $50 an acre. I think we got $350 an acre and we’ll drop it to $300 an acre. I’d rent  him all of my land for $300 that I’m farming, based on cash flow now, and just take a year off.”

Gulke owns farmland and is negotiating with his own renters. He’s telling them he’ll keep the rent at the same level for the first half of the year payment but then negotiate on the second-half payment. But he says the renter must be a smart marketer. “If you have a chance at $4.25 (per bushel) corn and you don’t take it, don’t come crying to me.”

He says perhaps 2016 will be the year when land rents come down more.

Gulke often finds a way to bring laughter to an unpleasant outlook. He told  about how he chisel-plowed all of his soybean ground last fall, some of it twice, and has it ready to plant soybeans.

“I may just plant the whole farm to soybeans. I’ve got grain bins. I’ll make sure the suckers (soybeans) are dry, put them in the grain bins,” he said, and added a joking quip:  “Then only me and you guys will know that I’ve got it. My kids could dribble them out (and sell them) over the next 10 years and Obama will never know, or his kids, you know.”

There was laughter.

“If I look at them being worth 40 percent more than they really are (right now), I’m planting $14 per bushel beans.”

More laughter. And applause.

Gulke is frequent, popular speaker in the Dakotas because he relates to the culture. He was born and raised on a grain and livestock farm near Ellendale, N.D. He received electrical engineering degrees at North Dakota State University and worked in Rockford, Ill., where he started farming part-time. He earned a masters in business administration from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. He started farming full-time in 1975 and became a contributing editor to Top Producer Magazine and writes columns on DTN, and among his many media activities.

Farming is still the most popular job in ND, SD. Truckers coming on.

If you want to see an interesting map of the United States, check out National Public Radio’s animation of the most popular jobs. You’ll see that in North Dakota and South Dakota, farming is still No. 1, but that trucking is taking over in surrounding states.