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Published August 31, 2009, 04:00 AM

Meet N.D.’s new FSA chief

FARGO, N.D. — Aaron Krauter still is a farmer, but he’s recently taken on a new career as executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency in North Dakota.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Aaron Krauter still is a farmer, but he’s recently taken on a new career as executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency in North Dakota.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Krauter says, in his new FSA digs in Fargo, N.D. “I’m serving the people of North Dakota — particularly ag producers. I feel at home. I’m working with an agency of people who are career-minded and want to do their best. It’s another way of serving like I’ve served in the state senate.”

Krauter, 52, has been at his work for more than three weeks now. He’ll be at the political helm of an agency that — among other things — is charged with delivering five new permanent disaster provisions that were created in the 2008 farm bill.

Circuitous career

Like many of his predecessors, Krauter’s is an unconventional career story — a mix of farm, nonfarm and political fortunes and moves.

He’s a fourth-generation farmer in Regent, N.D., in the southwest part of the state. The youngest of three siblings, Krauter graduated from high school in 1974 and went to the University of Mary in Bismarck to play the trumpet and earn a music education degree. He taught music for a year at Cooperstown, N.D., and then moved back to Bismarck to play in a seven-piece rhythm and blues band.

While in Bismarck, Krauter worked at LaBelle’s Catalog Showroom, a position that complemented his interests in photography and electronics. While there, he returned to the University of Mary for a master’s of business degree.

“At that point in your life, things start to click for career and success,” Krauter says.

It was heady stuff. He became the Bismarck store manager, managing sales grossing $7 million and a payroll of $450,000.

Almost immediately, he was courted to work as a corporate operations manager at the LaBelle’s home office in Richmond, Va.

“I told my Mom and Dad I had this opportunity. Mom said ‘You’ll never come back.’ I said, ‘I will, but I need this experience.’”

Krauter married his wife, Cindy, of Washburn, N.D., and the couple lived in Richmond, N.D., for two years.

Krauter was working with 220 stores from coast to coast.

“I was fortunate because we had stores in the Midwest and I could always come back home,” he says.

In 1987, his parents, Adam and Ann, decided to retire from farm management. Aaron and Cindy went back to the farm.

“I’ll never forget the first day back. I’m planting durum and I didn’t have a pair of jeans, so I planted in a pair of dress pants,” he says.

After struggling through the 1988 and 1989 droughts, he moved ahead.

Shifting gears

Krauter credits the LaBelle’s experience with helping him become a better business analyst on the farm.

“It taught me about the bottom line, about profitability and how you get there — skills to work with and manage people and get good results.”

In the corporate world, he’d become adept at Lotus computer spreadsheets — the hot tool of the day. He used the computer to analyze productivity data on his father’s land and to realize the strip-crop systems — leaving half of the soil fallow every year — couldn’t produce enough to pay for machinery and land payments.

His father owned 1,500 acres. He’d gotten out of livestock in 1969 and much of the pastureland had been plowed for farming.

His father raised durum wheat for 40 years and he’s raised it for almost 22 years straight.

“There’s a pocket in southwest North Dakota where there’s some very good quality durum grown,” he says. “I’m fortunate to be in that area.”

He also raises spring wheat, hulless oats and broadleaf crops including yellow flax, canola and field peas, although he’s in and out of other crops, including mustard, safflower and tame buckwheat.

When Aaron came home, he rented more land — initially going to a total of 2,000 acres and later to 3,000 acres.

After the first drought years, the 1990s brought some good moisture.

Krauter put about 600 acres into the Conservation Reserve Program, for some 10 to 12 years. When some of those contracts came out, he converted the land to no-till.

Apart from the cropping, Krauter underlines that he’s first a family man.

The Krauters’ oldest daughter, Emily, is a second-year student at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton. Mitchell is a senior in high school and Hannah is in eighth grade,

Krauter sees farm life — kids working with their parents — as a particular benefit for those who go through it. In recent harvests, Emily and Mitchell have done all of the combining and Krauter has done all the trucking, he says.

The family does as much farm work as they can, but they have hired employees at peak times such as seeding. They’ll hire a custom harvester in a particularly heavy year. For the past eight years, he’s leased a combine for the harvest period so that he has all of the latest technology, but doesn’t own it.

Political life

As Aaron and Cindy carried forward a family farm, he also took over a family political legacy. The FSA state directorship is, of course, a political appointment.

Aaron’s father, Adam, had been a state senator from 1976 until he retired from the post in 1990. Aaron ran for his father’s seat and won it.

With his business background, Krauter sought a seat in the Industry, Business and Labor Committee, and also the Committee on Natural Resources, which involved the coal, oil, wind, as well as game and fish concerns in his district.

He served in Senate leadership for two sessions, but then went on the Appropriations Committee, where he focused on human resources, as well as extension and agriculture department budgets. In 2000, Krauter was on the ticket with gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, they lost to Gov. John Hoeven and Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

Since then, he’s been sticking to his farming work and his work in the Legislature.

When Barack Obama was elected president, Krauter approached Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, and Rep. Earl Pomeroy — all North Dakota Democrats — about his interest it the state FSA post.

Krauter says he’s still active in the farming, but has hired a first cousin, Jeff Krauter, and his wife, Diane, to manage the farm for 2009. The couple are former farmers who moved back to the area for the past couple of years.

To become FSA state director, Krauter’s farming contracts were be approved by an ethics process. Since coming to the office, he’s emphasized to the state staff that his farm program dealings should be double-checked and scrutinized.

“I told them I don’t want to embarrass you in this office, or the people who appointed me. My history has been that you are up-front with everything and that’s what the people of North Dakota expect.”

Krauter says there also is a responsibility to the country as a whole.

“This nation has never gone hungry and I know the philosophy is not to let production agriculture slip financially so that we do go hungry. To help administer public policy in production agriculture is important to producers in North Dakota, and important to me,” he says.

Krauter says he’s going to “miss farming, no doubt.” He remains a state senator until 2010, when federal laws bar him from running for another term.

He is open-minded whether he’d go back to farming after serving a four-year term, or even a second term, when he’d be 60.

“Never say never; it’s a definite option, you bet,” he says. “Farming is a struggle, but when it’s good, it’s really good. And it’s a good way of life.”