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Published August 03, 2010, 10:08 AM

Agweek has been there to chronicle changes in agriculture

FARGO, N.D. — Agweek magazine executives chose to launch the publication in some of the most difficult times in agricultural history. A look back reminds us how varied things were. But it seems challenges are nothing new and aren’t likely to end.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Agweek magazine executives chose to launch the publication in some of the most difficult times in agricultural history. A look back reminds us how varied things were. But it seems challenges are nothing new and aren’t likely to end.

The first issues of Agweek were published in 1985, and farmers and agribusinesses in the Red River Valley were coming into some of the most difficult financial situations they’d faced since the 1930s. The region’s agriculture community had gone through the “go-go 1970s,” with government calls to plant “fencerow-to-fencerow,” and now were suffering with double-digit interest loan rates and then collapsing farm prices.

Many “young tiger” farmers of the previous decade were humbled and struggled through the darkness. Some who had kept more of their equity in reserve benefitted with the help of more sophisticated information. Agweek came into its powers as a powerful light, shining a spotlight on market factors and governmental support policies trying to stabilize the hemorrhaging ag economy and flush market-depressing government grain supplies out of the system.

Much of the region suffered another blow during the drought of 1988 to ’90 as the industry regained its footings. Agweek shifted its focus to a regional level in the 1990s and has prospered into the 2000s, at times achieving record profits.

Like the Dakotas themselves, Agweek has moved through a period of over-development and back to a lean and regional version that still strives to put useful information in the pickup and tractor cabs of the region’s farmers.

Here, then, is one journalist’s broad description of the region’s agriculture in the region in Agweek’s first 25 years — its policy and politics, its technology and its infrastructure. For those of you who have experienced it, you’ve seen a lot. All of it was in the pages of Agweek.

Politics and policy

As Agweek took its new name in 1985, it was obvious that this publication (which Forum Communications later would own, as part of the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald) was becoming uniquely qualified to delve into some of agriculture’s greatest needs — market information.

Interest rates were into double-digits.

Land inflation in the 1970s was causing financial collapse for farmers. Government storage and loan programs kept too much grain in storage, hanging over a market. A Fargo, N.D., author wrote a book, “Unwanted Grain,” to describe the situation.

In its early days, Agweek competed with The Forum, based in Fargo, N.D., and others for scoops on figures like Milt Hertz from Mott, N.D., and later Keith Bjerke of Northwood, N.D., who both would manage government price-support programs the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (the ASCS, later named the Farm Service Agency).

Sarah Vogel, a North Dakota lawyer, stopped federal farm foreclosures with her Coleman v. Block class-action lawsuit, which culminated in the Farm Credit Act of 1987. While daily news outlets (like The Forum, where I worked then) often focused on the pain — the “tractorcades,” the protests, the foreclosures, the state debt mediation, the write-offs — Agweek was more focused on the markets and policy matters. Agweek reporters were sent to cover the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade talks and the intrigue with the European Community (now the European Union). That’s what the survivors would need to know about as they looked to the future. It also made good business sense.

Policy maneuvering was happening on a dramatic scale.

Locally, reporters chased farmers who were redeeming their Payment-In-Kind certificates, to “redeem” grain out of storage, based on local county rates that were most favorable in remote places in North Dakota or Nebraska.

Sens. Mark Andrews, R-N.D., and Rudy Boschwitz, R-Minn., were big players in the Senate Agriculture Committee. Rep. Arlan Stangeland, R-Minn., was a champion for the region’s sugar cooperatives, who then were little more than a decade old. In Washington, Sonja Hillgren, a former United Press International ag writer covered the action in Washington for Agweek. Hillgren lent credibility to the magazine and went on to be editor of Farm Journal magazine. She was followed by Randall Mikkelsen, who later became a White House correspondent for Reuters, among other things.

The late 1980s was a time of big transitions. Government abandoned the standard “setaside” programs that required farmers to idle a certain number of acres to receive farm program benefits. Other land idling programs would replace them.

At Agweek, provocateur Juan Miguel Pedraza gained fame for his reporting and opinions on trade and commodity issues. In Washington, North Dakota native Jerry Hagstrom took over in the early 1990s, covering the 1996 “freedom to farm” bill, which attempted to “decouple” production from farm payments so farmers could compete in the world market with reduced trade barriers.

The Conservation Reserve Program, started in the 1985 farm bill, took millions of acres of North Dakota farmland out of production — with a railroad abandonment — speeding the demise of many small town businesses. The CRP started out as a plan to stop erosion (perhaps as a way to ease some farmers into retirement) but morphed into more of a wildlife habitat program.

On the state level, the 1990s were marked by a buildup of loan programs that would encourage the development of “new generation” cooperatives. To prosper, farmers launched numerous new efforts.

In farm bills in 2002 and 2008, the government support came back in other ways, including to the “permanent disaster” provisions that favor the Northern Plains.

Arguably the biggest thing to happen to the region for ag policy in recent years has been the ascendance of Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., to the chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., to the chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee, with attending leverage in the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Other major figures for the region’s agriculture: Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., recently has held sway over some policies as chairman of the Finance Committee. Former Majority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was defeated after being a champion of corn-based ethanol. More recently, Agweek covered Ed Schafer, North Dakota’s former governor, who made a splash when he served a brief stint as U.S. agriculture secretary in the waning months of the George W. Bush presidency. Schafer proved to be a quick study, but he had little time in the office.

Looking ahead, Hagstrom has toiled to cover Peterson’s early efforts to complete hearings for the 2012 farm bill, which likely will shift government supports toward crop insurance and away from direct payments. Ironic for a Democrat, Peterson has suggested moving away from payment limitations that historically have been popular in Northern states where Farmers Union Democrats (including departing Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.) have long pushed for increased “targeting” of benefits to small- and medium-sized “family” farmers.

Production technology

Agweek always has watched for overarching trends in the technology of agriculture.

Since Agweek’s start, readers have quickly adapted to air seeding drills, a trend led by the Dahl family’s Concord air drills in Fargo that was among the biggest changes in the industry. In the late 1980s, this technology from Concord (later Case-IH) began to revolutionize the use of land in the western growing areas — nearly eliminating the standard practice of “fallow” because crops could be grown into stubble without the moldboard plow.

Tractors were getting huge, of course, as chronicled in annual stories of “Big Iron” farm shows in West Fargo, N.D.

In the 1960s and 1970s, machinery size had been led by the “Big Bud” from Montana, as well as the green-and-white Knudson tractors from Crosby, and — of course — Steiger from Thief River Falls, Minn., and then Fargo. (I once made the mistake of writing in print they were “chartreuse.” They were “Steiger green,” sniffed then-President David Koentopf.)

All of this optimism ran into the buzz-saw of the 1980s farm credit crisis.

I remember standing next to Agweek reporter Randy Mikkelsen June 11, 1986, when Steiger President Irv Aal grimly announced his company would declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The local signature company was purchased by International Harvester, merged with J.I. Case (later CNH). As the average age of farmers increased, they demanded more comfort in bigger machines that could do more.

The drought in the late 1980s drove much of the potato production in the Red River Valley into sandier, irrigated soil. Irrigation in North Dakota’s Kidder County area, as well as the Oakes, N.D., made those regions blossom with potatoes primarily for the Russet-type potatoes used for French fries. Ron D. Offutt of Fargo became the world’s largest potato producer.

In the 1990s, farmers in the Red River Valley and elsewhere started to climb out of a financial pit and often were helped by bigger machines that could cover more ground.

Farm leaders argued over genetically modified wheat, which they said might help solve the Fusarium head blight — scab — that robbed them of yield and grain quality. Fungicides became more common for cereal grains, and cereal farmers needed them in a wet period that started in 1993.

For most nonirrigated farms, there was a huge transition into row crops.

Monsanto developed Roundup Ready soybeans, which quickly spread into the Dakotas and Canada, as farmers could more efficiently keep their crops clear of moisture- and nutrient-robbing weeds. The Plant Variety Protection Act, which allowed the companies to legally protect technologies, came into play and farmers struggled over new policies that prevented them from legally “saving seed.” Among the crops that have gone Roundup Ready are sugar beets, of late, although companies have dealt with court challenges over the technology’s regulatory approval and its costs.

Seed technology has become much much more complicated as companies have genetically modified conventionally bred varieties of most crops and then “stack” these traits. It is unclear whether the market will continue to bear the technical fees, which seem fully adjustable by the companies that make them. Farmers are starting to deal with resistance to some of the chemicals and are starting to cross-stack traits to keep weeds in check.

Mechanically, farmers have made good use of the government’s Global Positioning System satellites, which let them triangulate their position in a field to feet and then — with the help of so-called RTK tower networks, with cross-manufacturer cooperation especially in the Red River Valley — offered centimeter-level accuracy.

Today, farmers often use auto-steer and technology-assisted machine control, which has allowed for increased control of planting, spraying and harvesting of crops. GPS has become indispensible for anything related to location, from the surface drainage and field tiling trend in the Red River Valley to the application of chemicals by aerial applicators. Many farmers often have the help of crop consultants to help them monitor their crops and offer advice on how to achieve and protect what they produce.

On the marketing side of things, farmers have gone from dependence on the printed word to moment-to-moment updates, delivered to their hand-held devices.

Processing and infrastructure

Northern Plains agriculture has long been dominated by a commodity mentality. In its early years, Agweek made unprecedented efforts to help its readers prosper in this world.

In the 1990s and 2000s, as farmers healed financially, they’ve often been willing to invest in processing that would give them some “value-added” advantage. Here are some of the brick-and-mortar changes that have come in 25 years:

- Sugar: American Crystal Sugar Co. invested huge sums into molasses desugarization technology, starting at its Hillsboro, N.D., processing plant. Even more, the company over the years spent millions more on buildings and equipment to more effectively deep-freeze beets so they could be processed longer into a spring, with less spoilage. Crystal at times has processed previous-year beets into June. Crystal also purchased a beet plant in Sidney, Mont., and holds it as a subsidiary.

- Ethanol: Ethanol production has expanded mightily in the region. This started in the early 1980s in Marshall, Minn., but expanded throughout the state with the 10 percent mandated blends and production subsidies in that state. These co-ops expanded and others invested into 100 million-gallon facilities in South Dakota and finally North Dakota, as well as factories in the traditional Corn Belt. Some of the later investments faltered as grain prices skyrocketed in 2007 and 2008, but the key for ongoing prosperity in towns such as Hankinson, Casselton and Richardton in North Dakota and Fergus Falls, in Minnesota will be whether the industry can convince the public to consume more. On a separate track, the industry is working to expand ethanol and other kinds of biofuels production in places like Spiritwood, N.D., but it seems unclear whether those processes can be shifted from theory to reality on a commercial scale or how the market for new production will be developed.

- Potatoes: Potato processing has continued to hum along in Grand Forks, N.D., and Park Rapids, Minn., even as Americans attempt to slim down and eat fewer French fries and potato chips. Potatoes expanded in the 1990s in central North Dakota to serve the Jamestown, N.D., processing plant, which for several years has been owned by Cavendish Farms in eastern Canada.

- Corn: Golden Growers Cooperative and two sugar cooperatives invested $250 million in a corn wet milling plant in Wahpeton, N.D. They ended up leasing it to Cargill, which makes corn fructose products.

- Wheat: Dakota Growers Pasta Co. became one of the survivors of the value-added co-ops in North Dakota. It grew into the nation’s third-largest pasta producing company. Farmer-shareholders eventually made it into a corporation and recently sold it to a Canadian company, amid some criticism. Spring Wheat Bakers, a North Dakota co-op that was envisioned as the “mother of all cooperatives,” failed when its members couldn’t make money in a far-flung production plant, built without debt in the Atlanta area.

- Elevators: Shuttle train loading grain terminals popped up throughout the region, even in the face of more value-added ag processing efforts in the past decade. As farmers transitioned into higher-bushel crops like corn and soybeans in the region, country “terminals” have gotten huge and numerous. The most recent ones in places like New Rockford, N.D., and Harrold, S.D., are being notched up to 120-car loaders, surpassing the 100- and 110-car levels from a few years ago.

- Oilseeds: Oilseed processing has expanded from the sunflower plants in West Fargo, Enderlin and Velva in the 1980s, to shift into canola oil production. Future plans in North Dakota include canola oil plants in the Hallock, Minn., area, where the crop has expanded. Meanwhile, South Dakota Soybean Processors seems to be humming along on a large scale in Volga, S.D., even though soy processing has had a more difficult time getting going in North Dakota.

- Meat and livestock: The North American Bison Cooperative of New Rockford, N.D., is one of the few survivors in the meat processing game in North Dakota. Today, the company is planning to change governance and has moved its processing into Fargo. A beef kill that was West Fargo’s signature business disappeared. New harvest operations proposed in Aberdeen, S.D., have had a difficult time getting established. FK Partners, a South Korean company is still planning on larger-scale operation in North Dakota, although timetables remain unclear.

Larger-scale livestock production facilities are seeing mixed success in the region. There were two major failed co-op style efforts to bring a new beef kill to the Dakotas and smaller facilities failed. More beef finishing feedlots are being contemplated, especially with the availability of distiller’s grains and other byproducts, but the scale and number have been limited in some cases by local opposition. Large dairy efforts — notably, the MCC Dairy in Veblen, S.D. — have been hampered or worse by environmental issue, labor challenges or financial failures from risks involving volatile feed markets.

As I look back on the past 25 years — first as a competitor and then as a staff writer for Agweek — the pace of all of these changes astounds me. I don’t see the pace slowing any. I am confident Agweek editors and writers will continue to strive to keep you informed about changes to come — both in print and in online forms. One thing I can predict with certainty: It won’t be boring.