What Do I Know?

Some of you have contacted me, asking more about me.

My name is Mikkel Pates. I’m a staff writer for Agweek magazine – a weekly agricultural paper based in Grand Forks, N.D. We’re a subscription-based publication that centers on agriculture North Dakota and the Red River Valley, but also in South Dakota and Montana, as well as Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Brookings, S.D., is my hometown. My father, John Pates, grew up on a farm-ranch at Philip, S.D., and was a long-time Extension Service journalist at South Dakota State University. He probably gets either the credit or blame or steering me toward agricultural journalism. A city kid who’d thrown bales during the summers, I didn’t think I’d ever feel comfortable with the topic.

I graduated from Brookings High School in 1975 and started at SDSU with a small music scholarship (viola and voice), but soon migrated toward journalism and economics. I ended up with an agricultural journalism major and just short of an agricultural economics major. I can thank Dick Lee, SDSU journalism head, for being an outstanding advocate for journalism students. I graduated with an eclectic group. Among them was Joel Westra, an agricultural broadcaster and auctioneer from Beresford. I worked for Kevin Wooster at The Collegian, student newspaper, where I was dubbed the “Earth Editor” – a sort of catch-all for topics aggie and outdoorsy – things like  Little I, Jackrabbit Stampede. Hiking and canoeing.

Out of college, I spent four years from 1979 to 1983 at the Worthington, Minnesota, Daily Globe.

If you’re my age or better, you remember this was the tail end of the “fencerow-to-fencerow” farming era of the “go-go” 70s. If you didn’t know how to write agricultural production copy, you weren’t an ag journalist. I worked hard to learn about hogs and cattle feedlots, federal commodity support programs and crop production. Among other things, I remember covering the ground-breaking of the Minnesota Corn Processors plant at Marshall, Minn. – the region’s first corn fructose and ethanol plant. I covered Jim Nichols from Lake Benton in the Legislature and later as ag commissioner, and the beginning of the farm crisis.

While in Worthington, I was threatened with lawsuits over my coverage of the Jerusalem artichoke scam at Marshall, Minn. One of my last stories there was the killing of two ag bankers at Ruthton, Minn.  They’d been lured and ambushed by a disaffected farmer and his son.

Largely due to the Jerusalem artichoke stories, I was recruited by Terry DeVine, originally of Watertown, S.D., to go to the Fargo Forum as their farm writer. I spent 17 years at The Forum the agricultural beat reporter, as well as doing general assignment work.

Every decade was different.

In the 1980s, I covered the middle of the farm foreclosures, tractorcades, sight drafts and fake trust schemes, and the bankruptcy of Fargo-based Steiger Tractor Co. On the more conventional side of things, I covered things like the government’s “payment-in-kind” system, which sent farmers from North Dakota flying to Nebraska to redeem PIK certificates, as the government drained its bursting bins full of grain.

Not everyone was in a disaster.  I learned the dark corners of the big player in the Red River Valley ag scene — sugar beets. American Crystal Sugar Co. of Moorhead and Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative of Wahpeton are big business around here.

I covered the expansion of “sustainable" agriculture and the establishment of North Dakota as a force in the organic grains business. In the 1990s, I covered the expansion of irrigated processing potatoes in North Dakota. My stories focused largely on the “new generation” closed cooperatives” – everything from bison, to durum wheat, spring wheat and now corn.

In January 2000, I made my “millennial shift” and went to work at Agweek and the Grand Forks Herald. Since then, I’ve written about the demise — or conversion of co-ops to corporate forms.  I’ve written about the controversies over Genetically-modified wheat. I’ve followed the federal conviction of a Farmers Union Insurance agent for farm program and insurance fraud. These are some of the memorable stories for me.

And now, of course, I’m here – blogging – and covering the expansion of corn, cellulose and ethanol. Who knows what’s next? If variety is good, agricultural journalism is clearly a great place to find it.