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Published June 17, 2013, 09:28 AM

Adapting to change

ND farmer and mom overcome rare double loss

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

KILLDEER, N.D. — It rained about 11 inches in North Dakota’s Dunn County in April and May, so Shane Olson and his mother, Jackie, were able to plant only 60 percent of their acres on their farm near Killdeer.

That’s important, but the Olsons have had to adapt to bigger things.

By all measures, the Olsons had as much equipment as anyone to adapt to a brief planting “window.” In March, the Olsons had acquired two 60-foot Horsch Anderson drills, each equipped with 1,000-bushel tending air carts. They also had a 40-foot-wide International Harvester disk drill.

The big Horsch Anderson rigs are wonders to behold — the largest made by the company and made in Andover, S.D. Shane says they’re only two of three in existence, and are made to handle difficult conditions. The seed carriers run on 12-foot-long tracks and each carry four, 250-bushel poly tanks. Shane says he didn’t take the PowerTrak option that would have given them hydraulic motor drives, as a prototype in

Canada employed. Even without the drives, they retail at about $500,000 each.

The Olsons had intended to plant 100 percent spring wheat and typically hope to get it planted by May 10 — June 1 at the latest. The last they planted this year was May 25.

“We kind of ran out of time for this season,” Olson says.

Paternal passings

Time. They say time heals all things, and the Olsons know about that.

Shane’s biological father was Kevin Olson. He married Jackie who grew up in Killdeer. Kevin and Jackie had only the one child. As a little kid, Shane wore a T-shirt that said “Dakota Wheat Farmer.”

Shane was age 10 and Jackie was 32 when Kevin died from a heart attack related to diabetes.

Kevin and Jackie had been married 13 years. “After Dad passed away, Mom picked it up to keep things going,” Shane says. “There never was any other option. You just have to keep on going.”

Jackie farmed in cooperation with her father-in-law, Kenneth, and her brother-in-law Londell “Ole” Olson, Kevin’s brother. She eventually married Ole, who taught seventh grade life science at Simle Middle School in Bismarck, N.D., and coached wrestling at the junior high.

“Ole had always been involved in my life since I was little,” Shane says. “A few years after dad passed away, ‘mom and dad’ got married.”

Second Olson dad

Life for the newly re-combined Olson family clicked along for 16 years. The family would spend the weekdays in Bismarck and travel 140 miles to the farm and ranch on the weekends, where they tended crops and maintained a cow-calf operation.

“Every weekend, any time we had off,” the family was at the farm, Shane recalls. “We’d go home on Fridays unless we had a wrestling tournament.”

Shane graduated from Century High School in 1995. He was class valedictorian and was one of the top-ranked wrestlers in the state. At a national tournament, a wrestling coach from Harvard University talked to his parents about him applying at the famous school in Cambridge, Mass.

Shane had another dream. “I guess I always wanted to be a farmer, as long as I could remember,” Shane says.

Shane attended Bismarck State College for a couple of years and was an Academic All-American wrestler there. He took one year at University of Mary in Bismarck and finished at Dickinson, (N.D.) State University in 1999. With his accounting degree, he passed the certified public accountant examination, but came back to the farm. In the wintertime, he coached wrestling in Killdeer. He was named Class B Wrestling Coach of the Year in 2002.

Initially, when Shane came home full-time, the farm covered about 2,500 acres. “It was everybody’s goal — everybody’s direction to grow the operation,” Shane says.

Facing it again

In 1997, grandpa Kenneth suffered a heart attack while fencing and died at age 84.

In 2002, Ole was chasing a cow when he collapsed and died at age 57. Shane was 25, and fatherless for a second time.

Faced with a changed labor situation, the Olsons got out of livestock in 2003 and expanded farming acres. In 2005, Shane hired Josh Roll, a local man he’d coached in wrestling. In recent years, he’s hired another worker.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Shane has focused his farming on wheat. “We’ve tried sunflower and corn, but corn out here is a hit-and-miss thing — either really good or really poor, depending on how much moisture you get in August. This is still an arid area out here, and with wheat, you get it in early and you get it off (in August) and it seems to do more for us.”

Often, the Olsons have planted a fourth of their acreage to durum, a fourth to winter wheat and half to spring wheat. The fall of 2012 was so dry until October that they didn’t plant any winter wheat.

The Olsons have planted durum every year since the mid-1990s but this year decided to swing toward spring wheat and avoid the quality risk. “It wasn’t worth it for the premium you were getting,” Olson says, acknowledging that that might change in future years.

Embracing change

Shane is a proactive person. In late 2007, he went online to find a girlfriend. Jessica Schoening was a cosmetologist living in Billings, Mont. They’d met on eHarmony.com and married in 2009. Their first child, Summer, was born in 2011. They’re expecting a son in July.

Shane and Jessica live with Jackie in the house where Shane has always lived. The arrangement seems to suit everyone. They have a cabin at Brush Lake where they can flee when it’s too wet, or not a farming season. They’ve spent more time there this spring than they’d expected, but they know life doesn’t go as planned.

2011 was an extremely wet year, and only 40 percent of their land was planted — the first year the farm has had prevented-planting claims on crop insurance. “For a year later, we had springs flowing out of the side of hills, and cattails,” Shane says.

That was followed by the idyllic 2012 crop year — when they planted early and it matured before things turned wet in late July. And it was a good price year.

At age 60, Jackie says she’s proud of her son — how he’s overcome adversity, like the wrestler he is. And no, she’s never run into anyone who was widowed twice, in a similar situation — ever met a son who lost two farming dads this way.

“You never get used to those changes,” Jackie says, shaking her head. “But you do the best you can and move on.”

The hardest part for her was to adapt to the farm planning and knowing the right move.

“Not the physical things, but the planning to make sure you were planting the right things,” she says. “It was a lot on [Shane’s] shoulders that was hard for me to watch. But we made it.”

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