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Published April 23, 2012, 08:02 AM

All in a (long) day's work

REYNOLDS, N.D. — It’s 11 a.m. on a sunny mid-April morning, and Gregg Johnson already has put in an eight-hour day. Roughly eight more hours of work await him.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

REYNOLDS, N.D. — It’s 11 a.m. on a sunny mid-April morning, and Gregg Johnson already has put in an eight-hour day. Roughly eight more hours of work await him.

But this is the schedule he wants. By beginning work at 3 a.m., Johnson can go home in the early evening to spend time with his children before they go to bed.

“It used to be, at this time of year, I’d get here about 5 (a.m.) and stay until 10 or 11 at night. But that way I don’t get to see my kids. This way I do,” he says.

Johnson, agronomy manager at Reynolds (N.D.) United Co-op, isn’t complaining about his long work day, though.

“We’ll make up for it in the winter,” he says with a friendly wink. Then, more seriously, he adds, “These hours go with the job. That’s just the way it is.”

Spring planting is under way in earnest across the region. Area grain elevators — a source of seed, fertilizer and expertise, among other things — play a crucial role.

Johnson reflects how farmers, grain elevator employees and many others involved in production agriculture treat the season.

The crop needs to be planted, usually during a narrow, easily closed-by-the-elements window of opportunity. Without a good planting season, farmers’ odds of turning a profit for the year diminish at best, disappear at worst. If fitting into the planting window requires working from sunup to sundown — or, as in Johnson’s case, from 3 a.m. to early evening — well, that’s just the way it is.

Planting probably ranks second in agriculture’s seasonal hierarchy. As crucial as planting is, it lacks a little of harvest’s pedal-to-the-metal intensity. Harvest mixes hard-headed pragmatism and wide-eyed enthusiasm to a degree that planting doesn’t quite match,

“It’s close, though,” says Paul Coppin, the veteran general manager of Reynolds United Co-op. “Getting the crop in is just so important. And this year, after what happened last spring, we’re having to throttle guys back.”

Planting conditions in the spring of 2011 were wet and miserable across the region. Reynolds United Co-op patrons, as well as most other farmers in the Upper Midwest, struggled mightily to put fertilizer and seed into soggy fields. Millions of acres in the region went unplanted, despite farmers’ best efforts.

With those ugly memories still etched in their minds, many farmers are eager to plant as early as possible in what so far has been an exceptionally warm, dry spring, Coppin says.

But planting too soon could expose emerging plants to undue risk from frost, Coppin and others say.

“Guys really want to go. But it’s early. So like I said, we’re trying to throttle them back,” he says.

This spring is ‘orderly’

Modern farmers and agribusiness people pride themselves on their managerial skill. That skill was sorely tested a year ago.

Typically, farmers in eastern North Dakota begin planting wheat in April, shift in late April or early May to corn and finish up with soybeans. The 250 patrons of Reynolds United grow other crops, including sugar beets and dry beans, that also must be fitted into the planting schedule.

But last year, the normal planting routine jumbled together, forcing many producers to plant multiple crops in the same week or even on the same day. Repeatedly switching seed on planters, as farmers shifted from crop to crop, was inefficient and aggravating for both farmers and elevator employees.

“Last year, whatever (field) was dry was what guys were planting. It was a challenge for everyone,” Coppin says. “This year is different. It’s orderly.”

Tim Schumacher, who farms with his family in nearby Thompson, N.D., is among Reynolds United’s patrons. He appreciates the improvement in planting conditions from a year ago.

This year, he began planting wheat April 5; last year, he couldn’t start until early May.

“So we’re a month ahead,” says Schumacher, who raises wheat, corn, soybeans, pinto beans and sugar beets.

His 2011 wheat crop was “only average,” which reflects late planting, he says. This year’s early start doesn’t guarantee a good crop, but wheat, a cool-season grass, usually fares best when planted early.

Last year, Schumacher says, his family farming operation planted its entire crop in “10 to 12 days. Ten to 12 awful days. This year, things are more orderly. You can do things properly. We can plant one or two things at a time instead of three; we did it last year, and it was just a nightmare.”

So far, Schumacher says, “We’ve planted in ideal conditions. Will we need some timely rains later on? Yeah, we sure will.”

Concerns this spring

This spring isn’t free of worries for farmers and grain elevator employees. The biggest concern is seed availability, particularly for corn.

“It’s not good,” Johnson says of seed availability.

Very little, if any, seed will be available for farmers who need to replant corn fields hurt by frost, he and others say.

“If you plan on having corn, I’d wait until the forecast and soil temps say it’s OK,” Johnson says.

Some Reynolds United patrons may not have received their ideal, preferred variety of corn seed this spring, say Johnson and Lyle Hangsleben, the cooperative’s sales and seed manager.

But all the seed that was sold is suitable and appropriate for the land on which it will be planted, Hangsleben says.

Tight supplies of corn seed are exacerbated by the warm, dry spring and the region’s early planting start. Seed corn harvested this spring in South America is expected to arrive in the Upper Mid

west in late April — later than area farmers want, given the early spring.

The supply of urea, a widely used nitrogen fertilizer, is another concern.

“We’re already seeing logistical problems down south, and I think that will hit here,” Johnson says.

Reynolds United no longer sells anhydrous ammonia, which is the most common type of nitrogen fertilizer in North Dakota, according to information from the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

“Too much regulation. Too much risk” with anhydrous ammonia, Johnson says.

Anhydrous ammonia, a gas, is classified as a hazardous substance, according to the NDSU Extension Service.

Products, services

Historically, grain elevators have bought, stored and sold grain, making a profit on each bushel they handle.

But like other modern grain elevators, Reynolds United provides a wide range of products and services. The long list includes selling seed, fertilizer and chemicals, applying fertilizer to fields and providing agronomical expertise.

Reynolds United has increased its storage capacity in recent years, in part because of the rising popularity of corn in the cooperative’s trade area.

Corn yields are much higher than wheat yields, so more corn acres require more storage space. In Traill County (Reynolds straddles the Traill/Grand Forks county line),

corn averaged 108 bushels per acre in 2011 and 146 bushels per acre in 2010, while wheat averaged 36 bushels per acre in 2011 and 65 bushels per acre in 2010. Poor planting conditions last year held down yields for both crops.

Reynolds United has 35 full-time employees and adds 15 to 18 employees in the spring and fall. Many of the employees are young.

“My challenge is to keep the young guys engaged so they don’t want to move on,” says Coppin, who’s been at Reynolds since 1999 and in the elevator business since 1978.

Coppin writes the “Ramble,” a newsletter mixing humor, weather and market commentary and updates on developments at Reynolds United. He concludes every newsletter with the same maxim: “If God brings you to it, he’ll bring you through it.”

Infusion of young blood

Joe Narlock, sales agronomist and precision ag specialist at the cooperative, is typical of many of the younger employees that Coppin wants to keep engaged.

Narlock, a 2009 agronomy graduate of the University of Minnesota-Crookston, has spent two years with the Reynolds cooperative.

His duties vary greatly through the year. During spring’s work, he says, “I’ll do anything that needs to be done,” including advising farmers, delivering seed and operating the cooperative’s field equipment.

During summer, Narlock scouts fields for disease and insects, makes recommendations and sells chemicals.

In winter, he sells seed and fertilizer for the next year’s crop.

“I really enjoy the changes in the weather. By spring, you hate winter. By late summer, you hate hot (weather). Every season that comes along, I’m renewed,” he says.

Narlock enjoys every part of his job except explaining to customers why some recommendation he made didn’t work out.

“That’s the nonfun part of my job, explaining why I didn’t make the right call. But we have to establish and maintain that trust,” he says.

Narlock, who has a farm background, would like to be a farmer himself. But he and virtually everyone else involved in area ag say it’s almost impossible to start farming without help from a relative who farms.

“If I could, I would have been farming. But a young kid can’t farm. The closest thing to it, and the way I look at it, is that I get to farm without the headaches,” Narlock says.

“I get to ride on combines. I’m out in the fields. I talk with farmers every single day. I don’t know how much closer I could get without having my own farm,” Narlock says.

Ashley Walden, who’s in his second year of employment at the Reynolds cooperative, also has a strong interest in agriculture. He’d like to have his own livestock operation someday.

“This is a start,” he says.

Walden handles many duties through the year. On this mid-April day, he’s driving a truck filled with blended fertilizer to a field near Hillsboro, N.D., where another Reynolds United employee applies the fertilizer.

Long hours go with the job during spring’s work, Walden says with a shrug.

“This is the way it is,” he says. “I’ll do whatever they want me to do.”

Corn rises, wheat falls

Reynolds United employees and patrons are busy on this April day. But farmers generally aren’t as active in the field as they would have been on a similar day a decade ago, says Schumacher, the Thompson, N.D., farmer and Reynolds United patron.

On a similar day 10 years ago, more farmers would have been planting wheat. This spring, many are waiting to plant other crops.

“There’s just so much less wheat being planted now,” Schumacher says.

He says the number of wheat acres on his family farm is the smallest it’s been in his 36 years of farming. About 40 percent of acres on the farm that normally would have been planted to wheat this year will be planted to corn and other crops.

Planting less wheat, and more of the other crops, simply makes financial sense, he says.

North Dakota farmers are projected to plant a record 3.4 million corn acres this spring, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Corn is now the top crop in Reynolds United’s trade area, Coppin says.

“Wheat has turned into what I call a minor crop around here,” he says.

Most of Reynolds United’s patrons farm in the fertile Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota.

Planting statistics for 2011 are skewed because wet conditions kept many acres in Traill County from being planted. Even so, wheat acreage in the country has been trending lower, with corn acreage rising.

In 2011, Traill farmers planted 93,100 acres to corn, compared with 29,000 corn acres in 2001.

Traill farmers planted 85,000 acres to wheat in 2011, compared with 142,000 acres in 2001.

If talk at Reynolds United this spring is any indication, 2012 wheat acreage will fall even more.

Alan Adams, a Reynolds famer and Reynolds United patron, says he’s not planting any wheat this spring.

“I’ve taken the pledge (not to grow it),” he says with a smile, holding up the palm of one hand as if he were taking a legal oath.

Coppin says the shift from wheat to corn is just one of many changes he’s seen in his roughly 35 years in the grain elevator business. He expects to see many more changes, too.

“Our challenge is to change and keep giving our customers and employees what they need,” he says.