Al Gustin, the “dean” of agricultural broadcasters in western North Dakota, is leaving the building. And on a high note.
Gustin of Mandan, N.D., was named National Farm Broadcaster of the Year at the National Agricultural Farm Broadcasters convention in Kansas City, Mo., last week. He is retiring as director of KFYR and KBMR Radio in Bismarck on Nov. 30, after a career that has won him every honor in the book from livestock and agricultural groups near and far.
Turning age 65 on Nov. 20, Gustin says happy he won’t have to get up at 3 a.m. anymore. He’d get to work at 4 a.m. and prepare for 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. broadcasts, and through the noon hour. Gustin was often caught up in the day-to-day, but his bigger pieces on topics like farm stress, dust, and farm labor brought national recognition. Now, he’ll spend more time on the farm-ranch south of Mandan.
“There’ll be no lack of things to do,” Gustin says. “There’s more work than I have time to get done.”
A key to Gustin’s success is his natural empathy with the region, his gentlemanly demeanor and his tireless work ethic. He comes by that honestly.
Gustin’s grandfather, Thomas, was a “German from Russia” and homesteaded before 1910. His father, Adam, established a typical, diversified farm in 1945. Al and his younger brother, Dennis, were the youngest of six children.
Al graduated from Mandan High School in 1969. He studied agricultural economics at North Dakota State University and as a junior started working part-time at the Fargo KXJB-TV Channel 4 television station, assisting the farm director. At the time, he saw it only as a job that would help him work his way through college.
Until that point, he’d thought his broad agricultural economics topic would take him elsewhere, perhaps into a farm credit career. Post-graduation, John Boler, who owned the KX network in Bismarck and Minot, made an opening for Gustin at the television station in Bismarck. He worked for KXMB for over a year and a half, starting the farm department.
He married Peggy Gunsch from Bismarck in 1968 and they had three daughters. They lived in town until the girls graduated high school, and then moved to a farm place near his brother’s. When that station sold, Gustin went to KFYR radio and television in 1970, a new specialty position for the stations. When Dennis took the farm over in 1973, Gustin continued to help, and remains a minority partner in Diamond D Gelbvieh, owning some land and cattle.
As for how he started his career started in ag broadcasting, Gustin says, “I never had the initiative to do anything else.” Regardless, he’s seen a lot, and this is how he’ll remember the decades:
AL’S AG BY DECADE
1970s – This was a “pretty good time” after the Soviet grain deal, and markets taking off. “It was an exciting time to be in ag broadcasting,” he says.
1980s– Gustin’s was discovering a broader world of trade. In 1976 he’d gone on a trade mission with North Dakota Gov. Art Link to Egypt and Jordan. In 1982 he went to Japan and China with Gov. Allen I. Olsen. “From a professional standpoint, these are things that stand out,” Gustin says. “It’s one of those things that very few people get to do.”
But farm crisis tightened its grip after 1982, and Gustin was losing neighbors. “It was so hard to try to get a handle on what was going on in the countryside. To stick a camera in somebody’s face when they’re losing their farm is a very difficult thing to do. Here was this huge story, but there was the difficulty in covering it.”
In 1987, two sociologists from Rutgers were proposing that the Great Plains be turned into a Buffalo Commons. “Now we’re the fastest-growing place in the United States,” Gustin says.
1990s – This was the decade of the emerging new generation cooperatives, with some successes. He covered the Dakota Growers Pasta Co. in Carrington, and the Northern Plains Premium Beef effort that didn’t come to fruition.
It was the beginning of the huge change in grain transportation that continues today. “When I started they were using wooden boxcars and now we’re not only into sub-terminal elevators, but farmers have gone from pickup trucks to semi-trucks” to deliver grain.
2000s – Cropping patterns are the biggest change in the past decade, Gustin says.
“Someone asked me, if you could take a picture that describes agriculture in North Dakota today, what would it be? I said it would be a very large field of corn. That’s true in western North Dakota as well as the east. The fact that it’s very large tells you what’s happened to our farms and farming practices. There might be an ethanol plant in the background. And the field would be very clean, indicating crop protection and biotechnology.”
He sees some encouraging signs in agriculture, including the return of younger generations to farming in good times. “It’ll be really interesting to see if those people can sustain it and be the next generation of farmers,” he says.
It’s important that while there are groups opposed to livestock interests, the internet is providing farmers and ranchers with a means to speak up. “All we have to do is be active,” he says.
In 2002 – after doing radio and television for 30 years – Gustin left and moved to Pro Radio in Bismarck. In 2004, Clear Channel Radio bought both KFYR and the Pro Radio KBMR group, and so he was again working at KFYR.
In retirement, Gustin says he’ll spend more time with his family. There will be trips to visit his daughters, and five grandchildren. Peggy remains an office manager for an accountant.
The Gustin’s Diamond D Gelbvieh operation has 300 head of registered females, and the family has a cropping operation with small grains, sunflower and corn. Sarah, 27, is Dennis’ daughter, is also a minority interest co-owner.and recently moved her own house onto the place. She’s an award-winning farm broadcaster for KX News in Bismarck.
“Uncle Al is by far the best mentor I could have ever asked for,” Sarah says. “He’s been so encouraging to me, to be a part of this business. He’s definitely someone I looked up to.”
As for his future, Gustin says he won’t disappear from the public scene all together. There may be freelance or contract opportunities. He’ll continue his “Farm Byline” column for Dakota Living Magazine. Other than that, he isn’t sure.
“I won’t prejudge anything,” he says.
Ahh, I thought. That’s one reason I admired you as a reporter.