Fact and fiction: Are the North Dakota Grain Growers in a “sinister” effort to promote corn, undermine conservation?


I was fascinated to read Frank Carroll, a Rapid City Journal columnist, who this week took aim at the North Dakota Grain Growers. Carroll talks about a “sinister fight” where “360 million tons of corn contend for center stage.”

“In our rush to make fuel from our food, we inadvertently caused farmers to drain the famous prairie potholes where ducks and other birds have landed for millennia on their way here and there. Farmers are draining the water to make way for corn,” Carroll writes.

Carroll, a Forestry consultant, says the Ducks Unlimited Inc. organization is buying conservation easements on private farmland in South Dakota, and  they can’t get easements, they’re buying the land outright.” DU has $7 million for the purpose in South Dakota this year, Carroll says.

In his column, Carroll reports that “organizations like the North Dakota Grain Growers Association are working hard down low, behind the scenes to make conservation easements illegal,” and are attacking the Natural Resources Conservation Service, criticizing the agency for using “DU funding to pay for three NRCS positions.” Attacks on the NRCS are “way out of line” and “willing sellers and buyers should be able to establish conservation easements without interference.” And Carroll adds: “If there’s anything wrong here, it’s the corn lobby going after property rights in state legislatures and in the press.”

I don’t know what else in the Carroll column might be wrong, but I checked with the Grain Growers and Brad Thykeson, a recent past president and farmer from Portland, N.D., and he confirmed my recollection that  the group  has never pushed for the elimination of conservation easements.

Perhaps Carroll refers to the Grain Growers being against DU employees working in NRCS offices. The Grain Growers say DU workers are a political action group and don’t have any place in a federal office that has sensitive farm information.

The Grain Growers also are against Measure 5, a proposal promoted by DU and others that would constitutionally mandate the “allocation” of an estimated  $150 million a year on not-yet-approved programs. The Grain Growers says that kind of required spending or allocation of money into a trust fund is excessive, compared to the size of the Conservation Reserve Program, a federal program that has spent up to $188 million annually in the state and now spends $70 million. Thykeson say smaller state programs with the same purpose have struggled to spend even a fraction of the amount that would come into this proposed program.

The North Dakota Grain Growers are “not all about corn” — or even anything about corn, as Mr. Carroll might be surprised to learn. The group is about “small grains” — wheat and barley.

I don’t know about DU’s land purchase possibilities in South Dakota, but I know that a North Dakota state law dating to 1932 prevents corporations (even well-meaning non-profit organizations advocating for conservation) from owning and controlling farmland. South Dakota exempts nonprofit corporations from anti-corporate farming restrictions.  North Dakota makes no such exemption.


RRV beet harvest speeds ahead: ‘Just a picnic’ compared to 2013

Rick Nordick waits in his sugar beet lifter for trucks to arrive in a farm’s fourth day of harvest on Oct. 5, 2014, south of Moorhead, Minn.

The region’s sugar beet harvest is nearly a week old, and farmers are experiencing excellent harvest conditions — speeding through the crop in the Red River Valley, with a little more rain in northern areas. Forecasts are for no rain for the next several days.

American Crystal Co.’s  full-scale harvest started Oct. 1. “We haven’t had to pull a truck, haven’t had a truck spin — nothing,” said Rick Nordick of Elisabeth, Minn., working Oct. 5 in a field in the Moorhead factory district. The farm Nordick works for was about half finished lifting beets.

“Usually in these wet mornings, these leaves get kind of greasy, you know,” Nordick said. “Sometime between 5 a.m. to 8 or 9 o’clock the trucks will usually have some trouble,” He said.

Not this year.

 “After fighting the  mud last year, this is just a picnic,” Nordick said.

Anticipation high for STB hearing in Fargo

FARGO, N.D. — Anticipation is rising for the Surface Transportation Board field hearing, scheduled to run all day in Fargo on Sept. 4. It is unclear whether participants had a very good night of sleep, as tornado warning sirens went off in Fargo at 4:30 a.m.

The STB witness list is long and includes 240 minutes scheduled, plus politicians who are able to hold forth at various times. If speakers run past their 15-minute request times, and if questions from the board are added in, and time for changing witness panels, could allow the schedule to run seven or eight hours, according to sources familiar with the process. In Washington, D.C., some one-day hearings have gone into a second day.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., will kick off the testimony. In advance remarks, Hoeven said he would press the Canadian Pacific Railway to add resources and to change its method of reserving cars and tracking orders. “Our businesses are growing, so Canadian Pacific needs to be clear about how many more railcars, locomotives and personnel they plan to devote to our market,” Hoeven said.

On Sept. 3, BNSF Railway filed preliminary testimony in advance of the hearing. Stevan Bobb, executive vice president, said the railroad has moved all-time record volume of grain out of North Dakota in 2014 so far. The railroad says in four of the past five months, ag volume shipped in the four-state region on BNSF has surpassed the previous peak levels.

In North Dakota, traffic in and out of the state has increased 144 percent on BNSF since 2009, the company says. North Dakota represents 20 percent of all new volume in the company’s U.S. rail network.

BNSF has cut its past-due shipments to fewer than 1,000 cars in North Dakota from a high of 8,164 in March. Shuttles trains to the Pacific Northwest are at the 2.5 round trips per month for the past four weeks. BNSF will say it si ready for the harvest and will have resources to move record bushels.

BNSF’S John Miller says 2014 harvest should go smoother


I interviewed John Miller (left) BNSF Railway’s group vice president for agriculture, and Amy McBeth, a BNSF communications official for the company, in Mandan, N.D., after their meeting with theNorth Dakota Ag Rail Business Council. Miller was optimistic about turning in a better performance with this year’s crop but agriculture officials are worried about getting a fair share of the improved performance because of expected expansions in oil transportation. For details about the meeting, go to agweek.com or see the Aug. 4 issue of Agweek.


Dakota wheat crops head toward maturity

Agweek country farmers are heading toward harvest time on some of their crops. Here are NASS crop progress and condition highlights from the July 28 report.

Minnesota crop development is behind-normal. The southwest part of the state needs rain while farmers in northern  towns like Crookston and Hallock area, received more than an inch of rain early in the week. Topsoil moisture is 86 percent adequate to surplus and subsoil moisture is 93 percent adequate to surplus in the state. Crop percentages in the good to excellent categories included: barley, 49 percent; corn, 68 percent; oats, 67 percent; pasture, 73 percent; soybeans, 64 percent; spring wheat, 53 percent; hay, 66 percent; potatoes, 84 percent; sugar beets 29 percent; dry edible beans, 51 percent; sunflower, 38 percent. Spring wheat is 36 percent coloring, compared to a five-year average of 59 percent. Corn is 61 percent silking compared to a 71 percent average. Soybeans are right at average with 74 percent blooming and 26 percent setting pods.


Montana conditions were mostly unchanged. Pasture and range conditions are right at five-year averages, with 52 percent good to excellent. Subsoil moisture is 58 percent adequate to surplus. Barley, canola, spring wheat and winter wheat are all ahead of five-year averages for ripening, while flaxseed, oats and durum are somewhat behind schedule. Crop percentages in the good to excellent categories remained strong: barley, 55 percent; dry peas, 68 percent; oats, 60 percent; durum wheat, 62 percent; spring wheat, 59 percent; winter wheat, 66 percent. About 94 percent of the winter wheat was turning ripe, while 52 percent of the barley is ripening.

North Dakota corn silking is 34 percent complete, up 24 percentage points from last week and compared to a five-year average of 52 percent for the date. Corn conditions are 78 percent good to excellent, with 34 percent silking, compared to 52 percent average. About 72 percent of the soybeans in the state are blooming, compared to a 77 percent average, and 76 percent were in good to excellent condition. Barley was 81 percent rated good to excellent. Pasture and range are 86 percent good to excellent in the state.

South Dakota’s winter wheat was 18 percent harvested, compared to a five-year average of 55 percent for the date. Corn conditions were 74 percent good to excellent, with 70 percent silking, compared to 50 percent for the date. Soybeans in the state were 71 percent blooming, compared to 76 percent average, with crop condition rated 68 percent good to excellent.

What’s hay bringing in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Montana?


A A farmer east of Broadus, Mont., was getting the hay crop of his life, between cloudbursts in late June.


If you check out the July 21 issue of Agweek and the CropStop from southeast Montana, you’ll see some smiling hay and beef producers. One of these folks asked me how much hay was bringing these days.

So  I checked with Guy Garrison, who raises and markets hay from his St. John, N.D., farm north of Rolla and near the Canadian border. Garrison said that folks who run the Sauk Centre, Minn., auction, held every first and third Thursday at a truck stop there, have told him good quality dairy hay is bringing a good $250 to $280 per ton range. But it has to have relatively high food value.

Garrison says some long-standing customers 600 miles away (I won’t say where) pay him $200 a ton for good grass hay, although the stuff has brought $120 to $130 per ton in some of the auctions. Garrison says he recently talked to a dairyman in Minnesota who wanted to pay $110 per ton for good grass hay, but Garrison said he couldn’t deliver it for less than $120.

The availability of good hay depends locally on how much rain people have had, and when. Garrison was baling some nice timothy-brome hay, but it had been on the ground about 12 days. He said he’s hauled some alfalfa to a pelleting plant near Willmar, Minn., where the plant officials told him much of the local alfalfa first cutting was “trash” due to untimely rains.

Andy Swenson, a North Dakota State University Extension Service farm management specialist, says hay prices have been pretty volatile in the past few years. With all of the rain through much of the region, prices should be fairly “normal,” he says.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service breaks down hay prices by alfalfa and non-alfalfa, reports, but much of the country looks at high-quality dairy hay and some of the North Dakota’s alfalfa isn’t managed as intensely, he says. Plus, there are transportation costs that cut the farm gate price for farmers selling to dairies. Swenson says North Dakota is known of having some of the “cheapest hay in the country.”

Oh, on a side note: Swenson says he was at a national farm management education meeting earlier this summer. The group toured a farm north of Salt Lake City, Utah. The Utah farm received a lot of alfalfa grown in Montana and Wyoming and compressed and shipped it to Asia. In China, their customers are large dairies with up to 50,000 cows. At the other extreme, in  Japan, big bales are sometimes cut into smaller, 50- and 70—pound bales that are carried by bicycles to feed their “herd” of three to five cows.

That’s a farm size range of 10,000 to one, isn’t it? There’s a difference in farms and I’m not sure what “average” means anymore.



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The pros and cons of an eye-popping clover crop

Anyone who has driven through western South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana this summer can’t help but be impressed by the abundance of sweetclover. It’s been several years since the clover year has “popped” like this – the result of a wet fall and wet spring.

In the July 14, 2014, issue of Agweek, check out the CropStop that includes a visit with Jeff Gabriel of Quinn, S.D. He says the pastures look nice, but the sweetclover has its pros and cons. “It has some feed value to it, but when it gets so thick and tall if you don’t get it grazed down, it kills your grass underneath,” Gabriel says. “And when it dries out it’s a terrible fire hazard.” When it gets another week or so on it, the cattle will start to back away from it because it becomes less palatable.

Gabriel says that he and his father, Larry, a former South Dakota agriculture secretary, are about done with their hay crop and will go into pastures to cut down some of the clover to prevent potential fire problems later. “That stuff’s bound to dry out, sooner or later,” he says.

The Gabriels kept some yearlings this year primarily to chew down some of the sweetclover, that they saw coming last fall.  They kept half of their steer calves when it would have been tempting to sell them, although cattle prices have continued to be strong. He says another negative to the standing, cured clover is that holds snow and make pastures difficult for cattle to walk through, even though the resulting moisture is a good thing in this part of the world.

Check out Agweek for more details, or go to Agweek.com

Native Gann Valley, S.D., spray pilot moved west with crop shifts


Joy and Randy Yost have operated Randy’s Spray Service out of Hayes, S.D., for the past 11 years. More cropping and more rain in the area, and a shift toward sunflowers have moved their business west.

A bit of trivia: Gann Valley, with a population of 14, is the county seat of Buffalo County – reportedly the smallest population county seat in America. (I don’t know who looked into this, but Gann Valley also had the distinction in 2000 of being the “statistical center of population for South Dakota,” with Latitude 44 degrees, 2 minutes, 51 seconds North and Longitude 99 degrees, 2 minutes, 37.6 seconds West.) Anyway, recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Randy Yost, a Gann Valley native, and his wife, Joy Yost, where they now live at beautiful, bustling Hayes, S.D. They and their family run Randy’s Spray Service and say their clients are looking at a good-sized crop. I included the Yosts in a CropStop that was filed for the July 14 issue of Agweek. Look it up at Agweek.com. Don’t subscribe? Call the home office in Grand Forks, N.D., to get your own subscription – 800-477-6572!

USDA’s Scuse a popular fellow at SD Governor’s Ag Summit

U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Michael Scuse talked about farm bill implementation, livestock relief and trade at the fifth annual South Dakota Governor’s Summit on Agriculture. The event was held June 27 in Deadwood, S.D.


U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Michael Scuse seemed to be one of the most popular people in attendance at the fifth annual South Dakota Governor’s Summit on Agriculture. The event was held June 27 in Deadwood, S.D.


Scuse, a former state ag secretary from Deleware, now oversees most USDA programs relating to production agriculture and trade. The 2014 farm bill was signed into law on Feb. 7 and Scuse was key in directing efforts into livestock provisions. He noted that April 15, in 10 weeks usda has paid out $884 million in disaster assistance under those programs.

Scuse drew spontaneous applause and warm personal greetings for the federal response to the 2012 drought and the Atlas blizzard on Oct. 4, 2013, that killed tens of thousands of livestock across the state. Scuse noted that in South Dakota, USDA had made 6,100 payments for a sum of $96 million. Some $78 million was in the Livestock Forage Program relating to 2012 drought disaster.

The USDA cut in half the time it takes to make disaster declarations. USDA reduced emergency loan rates to just over 2 percent interest — previously locked in at 3.75 percent. They persuaded all 16 crop insurance companies to waive interest penalties on delayed crop insurance premium payments. USDA opened almost all Conservation Reserve Program lands to emergency haying and grazing.

Last year the U.S. experienced record-breaking exports of agricultural products of $141 billion, Scuse says. That gave the U.S. a run of the five biggest years in agricultural trade in the nation’s history. Last month USDA released projections that U.S. ag exports will “shatter” the record by going to be on pace for $149 billion in trade – giving a $30 billion trade surplus. He said beef, pork, poultry and dairy exports are at or near record levels.

For more coverage on the conference, look to the July 7, 2014, issue of Agweek.

Fick was a ‘godfather’ of the sunflower industry as we know it

It was enjoyable to attend the National Sunflower Association’s 2014 summer seminar in Deadwood, S.D., on June 25.

I was particularly pleased to be present when Gary Fick, one of the region’s preeminent sunflower breeders, was given the NSA’s “Gold Award” for service to the industry.


Bob Majkrzak, who recently marked 25 years as president and chief executive officer for Red River Commodities Inc., based in Fargo, and Fick’s long-time cohort Jay Schuler of Breckenridge, Minn., were two of the people who feted Fick.

Both told tales of his sometimes earthy, ironic sense of humor and his success. Schuler called Fick a “godfather” of the sunflower business as it is now known. Certainly that’s true for the  confection side of the business. Fick “retired” a couple of years ago, but keeps a couple of genetics projects going in the blue corn and organic businesses with Schuler.


For coverage of the sunflower event, turn to your Agweek magazine in the June 30  issue.