Perspective is an interesting thing. Some people have it and some people don't. Those that have it might not even realize that they do. And those that don't might think they have it all figured out. Most of us don't have it all the time; sometimes it just takes a moment to help us achieve it.
It's been an interesting spring on the farm. We've been wet. I haven't seen some of our fields this wet...ever. And as we've been struggling to get into fields, I've got friends and fellow farmers that are praying for rain. All of North Dakota is currently listed on the US Drought Monitor as being "abnormally dry" with areas of central and southern North Dakota in a "moderate drought." Is a wet field so bad when a family in central North Dakota is having to ship cattle off farm because their pastures are too dry to produce decent grass? Is a muddy field so bad when my college buddy is planting into dry dirt? No. And farmers in my area should thank their lucky stars to have such moisture....and should pray for the farmers that are asking the Lord for rain. As I told my brother late last week, I'm sure there will be many prayers for rain in our lifetime. Sometimes it's hard to keep perspective when we are operating in our little bubble - entirely focused on getting the crop in the ground.
But then there are moments like this: It was Memorial Day weekend and we were slowly making progress seeding soybeans and pinto beans. Fortunately, it was sprinkling that Monday morning so I gave the guys the day off...and encouraged them to go to the Memorial Day program in Aneta. But that rain also gave me concern for delayed planting and poor field conditions. As I walked up the steps into the auditorium for the program that morning, I was focused on my concerns and not the point of Memorial Day. When I walked through the door, my arm was grabbed by a woman standing in the entry waiting for me. She said, "My daughter wants you and Elizabeth to sing 'I Have Decided to Follow Jesus' at her funeral." Her eyes filled with tears and so did mine as we hugged each other on the steps of the auditorium. Instantly, my field conditions weren't so bad. My problems and concerns seemed so small....I felt guilty.
Today, Elizabeth and I sang at the funeral. What a wonderful service it was. It helped us celebrate a life and a woman's inspiring relationship with Jesus. That's the important stuff. It gave us something to work toward. And that can make all the difference.
We are nearly done planting. We have good sub-soil moisture. Every one was safe this spring. And we wish the same for every other farmer.
On our farm, we try to do things safely. If it's heavy, get some help. If it's windy, park the truck so you can un-tarp it with some help. If it's muddy, stay out of there. Ok, that last one isn't the easiest to enforce but you get the idea.
For several years now, we have participated in a Safety Management Program (SMP) with North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance (WSI). We pay a premium to WSI every year in case an employee gets hurt on the job. If that is the case, our WSI insurance will cover medical costs associated with the injury. By participating in the SMP program, we get a reduction on our annual premium. In order to successfully complete our annual audit by WSI we need to have documentation of every safety-related thing we do on the farm. In order to accomplish this, we designated a "safety coordinator" who was responsible for implementing the program and all the documentation. The first safety coordinator was Eddie, the second was me, and the third - and current - safety coordinator is Elizabeth. Eddie and I both agree that Elizabeth does the job much better than we did.
At first, meeting all the requirements of our SMP was time-consuming and tedious. It was hard to remember to document everything. Safety training meetings were boring. We felt like we were doing a bunch of work just to save a little money...the safety part of it wasn't a big deal. That is all changing.
Elizabeth tends to bring a little more "fun" to the safety coordinator job than Eddie or I ever did. We have a safety committee made up of Noel, Landis, Elizabeth and myself who meet monthly and discuss safety topics related to the current work on the farm. It is not hard to go to a safety meeting when Elizabeth has made fresh muffins and coffee.
We have safety training meetings with all the employees throughout the year. In early April, we will have our big kick-off safety meeting before springs work starts. And we'll have another meeting in mid-July to discuss harvest safety.
In addition to the formal safety meetings, we have regular morning meetings each day. We talk about what's going on for the day and also discuss any safety items related to the work. Every Monday, Elizabeth comes to the meeting to ask if there are any constructive criticisms or "atta-boys" regarding safety from the previous week. It's a great opportunity for everyone to share what they've noticed regarding safe behavior.
Elizabeth does a walk-around inspection of the farm once per quarter. She documents if she sees any hazards that need to be addressed and provides a summary at a morning meeting. We've also added an eyewash station, first aid kit, ear and eye protection, a hard hat, and other safety gear to our shop. We have fire extinguishers hanging by every door in every building on the farm, and we have extinguishers on every tractor, truck, combine, sprayer, etc. Even Herlof wears his eye protection when playing with his toys. He knows that his mom is serious.
We've recently added two additional items - one we hope to never use and one we hope to use all the time. We recently purchased an automated external difibrillator (AED). Several of us on the farm are CPR-certified, and Elizabeth and I are EMTs. We are familiar with AEDs and the potential benefits, so we bought one. I hope to never use it on our farm but am glad we have it just in case.
The other recent addition is a Lockout/Tagout system. We are very excited about this and hope it gets much use. Elizabeth created a "Lockout/Tagout" dry erase board that now hangs in the shop. If something is being worked on and shouldn't be started, the keys are hung on the board and a description of the work is written down. The person responsible for the repair writes his name down and he is the only one who is supposed to remove the item from the board.
Once the item is noted on the board, then a tag is attached to the item that is being repaired. This could be a truck, tractor, electric grinder, air compressor, or anything else that should not be used while it is being repaired. We haven't had any accidents from this type of situation, but having this system will help prevent any accidents from happening.
Even just a year ago, this safety program work was tedious and time-consuming. Now it is a part of our daily routine that we take very seriously. Elizabeth has done a great job of getting everything organized and getting the guys involved. It does not seem tedious, it seems like the smart thing to do. I'm proud of our crew for understanding the importance of safety on our farm.
For the last five years, my sister-in-law has asked me to speak to her freshman-level biology class at Mayville State on the topic of Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a geneticist or a scientist or a plant breeder, but I do have some knowledge of the history and development of GMOs. In 2004, I was working on my master's thesis on the economic impacts of genetically modified (GM) wheat. Turns out that GM wheat was never commercialized, but that project brought me closer into the world of GM traits and seeds.
So I went to Sarah's class last week and did a little teaching. My main point to the students was this: the worst thing about GMO is.......the name! They all agreed that they had eaten food with GMO ingredients in it within the past 24 hours. Something with sugar? GMO. Something fried in oil? Likely GMO. But what is GMO? It's the most advanced level of plant breeding that exists. We talked about classical breeding, molecular breeding, and marker-assisted selection. The next step in plant breeding was gene modification to get the progeny plant to exhibit the desired characteristics in the fastest way possible. Gene modification is also the goal in classical breeding, it just takes several generations to arrive at the desired progeny.
We hear plenty of negative information regarding GMOs in mainstream and social media. I am for sustainability, strong science, and healthy food. I am not for trying to scare people about the food that they eat with inaccurate information. Solid research must continue. I will rely on the real scientists to help provide solutions and innovations that will help farmers, food processors, and food eaters. I hope the students will have a slightly different perspective when they hear people talking about GMO crops.
It was fun to go back to college for an hour. And I appreciated everybody's attention.
Last week, the NDSU Extension Service and University of Minnesota Extension hosted the annual Conservation Tillage Conference (CTC) in Fargo, ND. The conference is organized by Jodi DeJong-Hughes from the U of M and Abbey Wick from NDSU. Jodi is a soils and reduced tillage guru. Abbey started at NDSU only four years ago and has already established herself as an expert in the continually developing field of soil health. Abbey had invited my brother, Mark, and I to share our experiences with no-till farming practices and cover crops during a roundtable discussion at the CTC.
The conference started Tuesday morning with a keynote presentation from Bryan Jorgenson (pictured above) of Jorgenson Land & Cattle Partnership in Ideal, SD. Mr. Jorgenson emphasized the importance of learning about healthy soils from native prairies. He also discussed the need to look at soil health from an entire system approach, from no-till practices to diverse crop rotations to inclusion of cover crops to utilizing livestock for grazing. The "whole system" approach is a concept that stuck with me.
After the keynote address, we had the opportunity to attend several different breakout sessions. The first one I attended had to do with residue management and decomposition. One of the greatest difficulties in our no-till operation is managing residue from the previous year's crop. It starts with making sure the combine is set properly to spread the residue when we are harvesting the crop. But the inclusion of cover crops after harvest in the fall can actually facilitate the decomposition of residue much quicker than without the cover crop. That I didn't know before this breakout session.
Then after the breakout sessions there were table talks. These 30-40 minute discussions are in smaller groups and allow the conference attendees to ask questions and share dialogue. The above picture is Mr. Jorgenson's table talk. I asked him several questions about the use of livestock to help manage residue and speed up the conversion of residue to fertilizer. Cattle are integral to the system. (Guess what we're getting for Christmas, Elizabeth!) I was also impressed with his commitment to his 100% no-till system. The soil types and average climate in Ideal, SD are much different than Aneta, ND so it's hard to share the exact same practices, but I appreciated his passion for no-till.
Wednesday morning is when Mark and I hosted our roundtable discussion. We were supposed to begin at 9:30 a.m. At 9:31 there were two other gentlemen sitting at our table. I thought, "Well, I guess nobody wants to try no-till practices in northern North Dakota." Five minutes later, there were 20 or so folks sitting around our table.
I shared experiences that we've had on our farm. I've learned a great deal about no-till from Tim, and we've learned some new things together in the last few years. Mark shared pictures comparing no-till fields and conventional fields after heavy rains. The no-till fields provide greater water infiltration so we have less run-off and water erosion. We had great interaction from the group. I firmly believe this type of conference is what is going to help farmers get better. We had great instruction from the experts, but we also had the opportunity to visit with each other and learn some things that work...and just as important...the things that don't work.
A huge thank you to Abbey Wick for the invitation and to Jodi DeJong-Hughes for all her work in hosting the conference as well. It was the best farm-oriented conference I've ever attended.
About four years ago, Elizabeth was invited to a "Women in Leadership Development (WILD)" event that was organized by the North Dakota Farmers Union (NDFU). She attended and met some new friends and made contacts at NDFU. She must've made a good first impression, because she was invited to attend the National Farmers Union Women's Conference in Clearwater Beach, FL a few months later. The two of us travelled to Florida and she attended the meetings while I enjoyed the white sands on the beach. That meeting was an energizing experience for her to get more involved in Farmers Union.
You see, my wife would tell you that she falls in the conservative side of the political spectrum. And its no secret that Farmers Union is more of a liberal-leaning organization. In fact, after the first WILD event Elizabeth stated that she didn't see herself joining Farmers Union because of her political affiliation. But after attending our first state convention and the national women's conference, Elizabeth started to see that Farmers Union was less of a political organization and moreso a large group of farmers that had the ability to debate issues, form internal policies, and provide social opportunities for young farmers like ourselves.
Since that first year, Elizabeth has become Vice President of the Griggs County chapter of Farmers Union. She then served on the Bylaws Committee at the 2015 Annual Convention. And this year, Elizabeth was the chairperson for the Credentials/Elections Committee at the Annual Convention. There she was, my Republican wife, up on stage at the 2016 NDFU Annual Convention reading the names of the election winners, from the President down to the national conference delegates. I am very proud of her ability to get involved in an organization that serves to be a strong voice for farmers in North Dakota.
One of the top priorities every fall is to make sure that existing drains or ditches are clean. That means we remove any silt that might have settled in the drain over the summer or over multiple years. Where possible, we use our scraper to clean drains. That is a tool that is pulled behind a tractor and scoops the silt from the drain and then we dump the good black dirt on hilltops to try to improve productivity there. When it's not possible for us to get our scraper into the drain, then we call in the professionals - the excavators.
We were able to do a fair amount of ditch maintenance this fall because of the mild weather for most of October and November. Our scraper ran daily. But due to wet conditions or steep banks on ditches we weren't able to get the scraper everywhere. We hired two different excavators to clean ditches that will help alleviate water problems for years to come. Below is a video of Brent cleaning a ditch that hadn't been maintained for years. You can see as he clears the silt the water begins to flow more freely. It's fun to see immediate results like that.
Farmers aren't allowed to dig drains wherever they please. In order to participate in the US Farm Program, farmers must only maintain drains that were existing prior to the Swampbuster provisions of the 1985 Farm Bill. The purpose of those provisions was to remove certain incentives to raise crops on converted wetlands. If a farmer doesn't comply with those provisions, they could be removed from the farm program and become ineligible to receive a subsidy for crop insurance. There are some farmers who have left the farm program in order to have free reign when it comes to drainage.
We work very closely with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), county water boards, and our neighbors whenever we begin any significant drain maintenance projects. In our experience, collaboration on such projects is much more likely to result in a beneficial outcome for the long-term.
It started during spring wheat harvest. Chase checked the oil on one of our diesel triaxle grian trucks. It was gray. Water in the oil. Bad deal. I called Chad, a diesel mechanic who came highly recommended. He told me to haul the truck to his shop in East Grand Forks. Rodney and I made a midnight haul, with my dad, Don, following behind - just in case. Chad diagnosed the problem, and overhauled the truck. Expensive, but necessary. First truck.
Then, on the last day of soybean harvest, our 1998 Kenworth semi lost power while Chase was driving it. Once it died, we could not get it started. I had it towed to Chad's shop in EGF. The diagnosis - injector broke and fell into the cylinder, wrecking it. The solution - overhaul. Yikes. I started to compare cost of overhauling a nearly 20 year old truck with buying a different truck. I learned more than I ever cared to know about diesel motors, transmissions, clutches, gear ratios, etc. In the end, I found a rebuilt motor that we collectively decided that we could put into the truck ourselves. This project is still in progress. Second truck.
During corn harvest, Fred's Volvo semi lost power and had a slight knocking sound as it ran. About the same time, my Volvo fertilizer tender truck wouldn't start. Who did I call? You guessed it - Chad. He came out and looked at my tender truck. Power to the fuel pump from the engine's computer was the problem. He essentially bandaged it up so we could make it through the fall, but it would have to go in to his shop to get wiring fixed. Third truck.
Chad then went over to Fred's to look at the Volvo - the head gasket went out on the middle head. Don and I loaded the Volvo semi that night and hauled it to Chad's shop. Lo and behold, it turned out the problem was worse than originally thought. Overhaul. Fourth truck.
Both of the overhaul jobs turned out very well, and our tender is at Chad's shop getting looked at right now. Rodney and Trevor have taken the lead on the 98 Kenworth project and making good progress.
It's been an interesting and expensive summer and fall for our trucks. But at least we know we should be running in tip-top shape for next year.....I hope.