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Published October 17, 2011, 05:30 AM

ND farm-ranch takes crop, beef paths less traveled

ROBINSON, N.D. — They’ve called it Whitman Ranch since 1905 but — after 106 years — they’re still breaking new ground every day.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

ROBINSON, N.D. — They’ve called it Whitman Ranch since 1905 but — after 106 years — they’re still breaking new ground every day.

Anne (Whitman) Ongstad manages an unusual, evolving farm and ranch that has nine employees in the summer. Whitman Ranch produces both beef for both the “natural” and “grass-finished” markets, shifting among them according to profit potential.

In the past decade, Anne’s entrepreneurial strategy has moved the operation’s 4,000 of cropland into the organic market, producing organic wheat, sunflowers and flax, and sometimes buckwheat. In recent years, she developed three center-pivot irrigation systems whose rotations also are shifting into organic.

If that’s not enough, she’s a member of the North Dakota State University Central Grasslands Research and Extension Center advisory board, and she takes time to host several national and regional research plots, primarily on organic farming. She also has a happy marriage with someone who lives 50 miles away, all with a curious combination of pride and humility.

“I think I have a habit of being fairly busy,” Anne says when asked how she does it. “If I accept a new thing, I try to let go of something else.”

To Robinson, via Canada

Adaptation is an old game at Whitman Ranch.

Grandpa Frank Whitman grew up in the Pelican Rapids, Minn., area. Frank left home at age 14 to work on Bonanza farms in Breckenridge, Minn., and then went on to homestead in Canada. He returned in 1905 to the U.S., where he saw an opportunity near Robinson, N.D. He eventually married a woman from nearby Tuttle, N.D.

“His farmstead was a third of a mile from where I live now,” Anne says.

Frank and Marion had six children — all sons. Ward, born in 1927, was the fifth of the sons. He served in the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II and came back to farm with his father.

“Grandpa (Frank) was a good horse trader. He was great with livestock and could look at an animal once and discuss it later in detail,” Anne says.

Significantly, Frank got the ranch through the Depression and the Dirty Thirties. Among other things, he traveled in railroad boxcars to livestock markets in St. Paul — first Herefords and then black Angus.

Ward farmed and ranched with his father through the 1950s and purchased his first land in the 1960s. Ward and a brother, Glen, who also farmed, became private airplane pilots. In 1955, Ward started using planes to spray his crops, check cattle and to travel for business, summer and on skis.

The Whitmans were active Democrats who supported Art Link. Ward often flew Gov. Link and other party luminaries to various meetings. The Whitmans flew themselves to Florida and elsewhere, where they wintered and in various real estate deals. Some of these investments helped support the ranch back home.

All boys/all girls

Anne, born in 1953, was the oldest of five Whitman girls, who were born over an eight-year span.

The girls learned home crafts and character skills from Edith, but, without brothers, they shouldered outdoor work. All of them were involved in hay harvest, and all of them maintained buildings after Ward acquired a boom truck and paint sprayer.

The ranch included some 600 head of beef cows. The girls rode horse to move cattle.

“We each had a chance to learn to fly, and four of us became pilots,” Anne says. “I remember that every time he landed a plane — if we were around — we’d wash his windshield and help him fuel. We had a lot of kochia in this area and Dad was excited about spraying his fields without making tracks (in the) field.”

Whitman eventually got a commercial pilot’s license and sprayed for other Kidder County farmers.

Anne started learning flying when she was perhaps 12 years old. She soloed when she was 16 and got her license at 17. In 1971, Anne graduated from Robinson High School. She enjoyed farming but went on to North Dakota State University to study childhood development and family relations.

Anne acknowledges she went to college hoping, at least in part, to find a farmer. And she did.

She took agricultural classes and in her sophomore year met Bill Ongstad, who had grown up on a farm in Harvey, N.D., about 50 miles north of her hometown. Ongstad, who grew up as an only child, had planned to get a teaching degree and go back to the farm.

The two were married in 1974. Anne graduated in 1975. Bill and Anne had five children — Sam, 1975; Susanna, 1976; Rebekah “Bekah” 1979, Tabitha, 1986 and Miriam, 1990.

Grace amid tragedy

There were tough years in the 1980s.

Bill and Anne had expanded steadily, so faced the same credit challenges as others.

“I believe God was gracious to us,” Anne says. “We expanded and — yes, we sold off a few pieces of machinery one fall to make land payments, but we were blessed to be able to continue to pay whatever land debts we had. I am grateful for that. Many of our friends went through excruciating times of loss. Weather and interest rates didn’t allow some people to continue farming.”

Anne always had done bookkeeping for the farm. She started doing more fieldwork in the late 1980s, as the children were growing up.

Another kind of tragedy struck when Miriam died in a mowing accident in Fessenden, N.D., in 1995.

It eventually led to a change in their business direction. In 1997, Ward Whitman needed a coronary bypass surgery. He and Edith also needed more help on a farm that then included some 3,500 cropped acres — wheat, hay and summer fallow — and thousands more in pasture and Conservation Reserve Program contracts.

In fall 1997, it was agreed that Anne would come home and take over the reins at Whitman Ranch. She’d start buying it and managing the day-to-day operation.

Meanwhile, Bill and eldest child, Sam, a NDSU agricultural engineering graduate, would keep the conventional farm running back in Harvey. They keep a plane at both places and the family would operate out of two locations.

Whitman suggested Anne try going into organic farming in Robinson.

Organic urgings

“We started with an alfalfa field,” Anne says. “A (certification) inspector came and told us it hadn’t had any fertilizer or chemical for three years.”

There was a year of transition, breaking it up in the fall and putting rye on it. After the rye was harvested the first year, they put organic flax on the piece. Their first organic harvest was in 1999.

Since then, they’ve converted about 4,000 acres, typically switching when alfalfa got old.

“Once we started with organic, we decided to go forward as quickly as we could,” Anne remembers.

The organic rotation is then flax, sunflowers, wheat (with alfalfa under it) and then three years of alfalfa. It’s a “long rotation” with the alfalfa, Anne says, but she needs the hay for cows so that works well.

“Sometimes we put buckwheat in that rotation, and now we’ve started adding ‘cover crop’ mixtures,” Anne says.

When she breaks up CRP, she’s found a cover crop mix of turnips, radish and millet mellows the soil and makes it productive when the flax is planted.

“After the flax, we’ll spread rye on the flax stubble and chisel-plow that. So we have a mat of rye and sometimes we add other things.”

Anne says she’s happier being an organic farmer than a conventional one.

“I was a conventional farmer many years and I sprayed, and I had people do the spraying,” she says. “I never sprayed without a little ‘drift’ hitting my face or hands. I never ceased to think, ‘What does that do to me, and to the people who are helping me?’

“Now that’s not a concern, except for the cotton-picking leafy spurge.”

(She says leafy spurge in her pastures is the bane of her existence. If anybody has any suggestion s on how to get rid of it, she’d like to know about it.)

Cattle trails and tales

When Anne joined her father’s operation, the cow herd had dwindled to 400 head. The cows were a Simmental/Charolais mix and originally came from Hereford, Angus, Simmental and Charolais bulls.

Just after his bypass surgery, Ward was watching TV and when he saw a story about Piedmontese beef bulls — billed by the Italians to produce beef that is both lean and tender. They decided to try them.

Anne toured eight Piedmontese operations in a tri-state area. She bought bulls from Lawrence Soukup of Wagner, S.D., about 70 miles southwest of Mitchell, S.D. Soukup had been finishing beef for the Laura’s Lean Beef in Lexington, Ky. The brand is available in 7,000 stores in 47 states, including the Target store in Fargo, N.D.

Ward always had background-fed his calves.

Now, Anne focused on the “natural” market, finishing the “Pied-crosses” without

hormones implants or antibiotics. They continue to ship animals to Greater Omaha (Neb.) Packing Co. Inc. packing plant. All of those calves now are sold as finished natural cattle, Anne says. This year, however, she nearly ran out of reasonably priced corn.

“The calves got to be such a high price, I sold them to two markets that wanted specialty calves” rather than finishing them herself, she says.

Raising corn is iffy in the Robinson area because of drought and fertility issues. Oats and pea hay, on the other hand, can improve the cropland.

In 2008, Whitman Ranch bought a herd of red Angus cow-calf pairs, to shift their sights to the “grass-finishing” beef market. Anne sells Thousand Hills Cattle Co. in Cannon Falls, Minn., which is southeast of St. Paul. Owned by Todd Churchill, the company markets beef into the Twin Cities metropolitan markets, a metropolitan area known for its high demand of so-called “healthy” foods.

Anne chose the red Angus cattle for their ability to make 1,300 pounds in 22 months on native grass pastures in the summer and then a winter diet of oats and peas hay, harvested before the oats are grain. To be sold as grass-fed, the cattle must have enough space to roam, if they choose. Whitman Ranch winters its cattle on a couple of farmsteads, each with availability to pasture space.

“That is profitable for us,” Anne says.

The current market on them is $2.25 per pound of hanging weight. Part of the transportation cost is paid in getting them to Cannon Falls

“We’re expanding that side of the herd and shrinking the Piedmontese side,” Anne says, although she acknowledges that could change if the price of corn were to come down.

The Ongstads acknowledge their logistics are not typical.

Significantly, Anne and Bill share a common Christian faith, but are different in many ways.

Politically, Bill “can pretend to be a rabid Republican,” Anne half-jokes. She describes herself as an “independent who leans toward Democrat.”

Bill is a conventional farmer in an area of richer soils and higher rainfall. Anne’s style is more conducive to the organic. (Bill, Sam and Anne all are enrolled in North Dakota Farm Management classes with Steve Metzger at the Carrington Research Extension Center.)

Bill is outgoing and optimistic and ultra-connected, Anne says. Anne describes herself as more introverted and cautious, but also has a public life. She’s on the North Dakota Organic Advisory Board for the North Dakota ag department and is on the advisory board for the Central Grasslands Research and Extension Center in Streeter, N.D.

Kidder irrigation

Anne’s organic farming operation no doubt will continue to evolve. The overall ranch has made money every year since she came.

In 1998, Ward and Anne successfully explored for irrigation water on the farm, a process that Ward had tried in vain in the 1960s. They found water and in 1998, 1999 and 2000, so today have three irrigation circles. Initially, they rented the land to potato-growing neighbors, but now raise their own crops under irrigation. So far, she acknowledges she may have made more money renting the land under the pivots.

“But I’m learning something,” she says.

Anne describes her adventures in organic farming as “really quite fun.” There are many things to learn, she says.

“Like with any kind of agriculture, you never really know for sure why things turned out — either the good things or the bad things,” she says.

There are various rules of thumb.

One is to find mentors who are willing to share their experiences. She is particularly thankful for tips from Rick

Mittleider, an organic grower from Tappen, N.D. She’s also picked up insights from Lynn Brakke and Lee Thomas near Moorhead, Minn.

If alfalfa or grass is old, the newly plowed land will need time to “digest” the old grass and make nutrients, she’s discovered.

When she started in organic, and put a field into flax, she may have gotten 9 or 10 bushels an acre the first year. But at $12 a bushel, with the organic premium at the time, she would have gotten $120 in income — with no chemical or anhydrous risk or expense. “Today, I’m contracting flax for $25 a bushel and my average yield is more like 17 or 18 bushels,” using a field that had been in alfalfa the previous two years, she says.The alfalfa she feeds to her own cattle. The flax, sunflower and wheat all are sold into the organic market. So far, she has contracted her barley into the conventional malting barley market because it’s on transition ground, under a pivot.

“In 2012, I’m going to try some organic corn for the first time under pivots,” she says. “The buckwheat, I love to raise it, but I’m not so good at selling it.”

Marketing strategies

Marketing often is one of the biggest challenges for organic producers. For this, Anne starts with attending the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society annual winter conventions, talking with buyers about contracts. It’s a good chance to network.

“I like to contract ahead on act-of-God contracts,” Anne says. “I also like the contract to include transportation costs from the farm.”

This year, for example, she sold organic wheat through SB&B Foods of Casselton, N.D., but sold flax to at least two different buyers — Reimers Seed Co. in Carrington, N.D., and West Dakota Feed & Seed in Ross, N.D.

She’s “moderate” in her crop insurance purchases, so far.

“This year, I had lots of really heavy hail, so I was kind of wishing I wasn’t so moderate,” she says.

Anne acknowledges that organic farming can be humbling.

“Each year, I have a field or two where I get disgusted with the weeds and mow it down, make it into hay,” she says.

The record-keeping regimen sometimes makes her fantasize about quitting, but “other than that, I think it’s fun,” she says.

“You have the pleasure of learning to use tools like rotation and early- and late-seeding dates,” she says. “You can see people who are doing it right and pick their brains about how to make it work. It’s an exciting challenge, and it’s especially rewarding if it turns out well.”

Anne says the key to her farm is a staff of coworkers. She employs about nine people, some of whom have been with her for more than 10 years.

Four years ago, she hired Jim Rembleski as foreman. He grew up as a Wisconsin dairyman and is gifted mechanically. Five years ago, she hired Lacey Schneider, an NDSU grad, to be her beef herd manager.

“I assume one of Mom and Dad’s grandchildren will take it over someday when I’m ancient,” she says. “It’s a wonderful, beautiful place to live. It has a paved runway and every type of different soil from wonderful native grass to rough, rocky pastures, to sandy soils. It’s next to Horsehead Lake, which is rich soil over clay — great farmland. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”