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Published May 19, 2014, 09:31 AM

Farmer serves as county state's attorney

You might find Peter Welte in a field near Aneta, N.D. He’ll be wearing jeans and sitting on a tractor. Or you might find him in the Grand Forks (N.D.) County Courthouse. He’ll be wearing a suit and tie.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

ANETA, N.D. — You might find Peter Welte in a field near Aneta, N.D. He’ll be wearing jeans and sitting on a tractor.

Or you might find him in the Grand Forks (N.D.) County Courthouse. He’ll be wearing a suit and tie.

But whether he’s in the field or courthouse, he’ll be enjoying what he does.

“I really like them both,” Welte says of his dual career. “I don’t feel like I go to work a day in my life.”

Welte is a fourth-generation producer who farms his family’s land. The family farmstead, where he grew up and his parents still live, is 13 miles northwest of Northwood, N.D., and has an Aneta address. He describes the family farm as “something more than a hobby farm, but something less than a big farm.”

He’s also Grand Forks County state’s attorney, a position known in some states as “county attorney.” Welte acts as a prosecutor and provides legal guidance to county commissioners and other officials.

Welte, 48, says being both a farmer and state’s attorney is unusual but not unique. As far as he knows, other people who have held both roles have served small, rural counties in which the state’s attorney position is part time. In contrast, Grand Forks County includes Grand Forks, North Dakota’s third-largest city.

Welte says his dual career is possible because of his staff, which consists of 11 assistant state’s attorneys and 14 support personnel.

“They’re like my second family. We all support each other,” he says.

He says he’s never heard any complaints, from his staff or others, about his dual career.

“I think about it all the time,” he says. “But to my knowledge, it’s never been an issue.”

He says he always puts in the time needed to be state’s attorney, and is out of the office mostly for spring planting and fall harvest.

“We don’t take family vacations,” he says. “My time on the farm is vacation time, too.”

Voters in Grand Forks County apparently agree Welte is doing the job. He was elected in 2002, reelected in 2006 and 2010 and is running unopposed this fall.

Legal career

Welte graduated with a degree in agricultural economics from North Dakota State University in Fargo. At the time, his parents were in their 50s and not ready to retire. And as Peter Welte notes, “The late 1980s weren’t a great time to get into farming.”

So he took a job with the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in New England. “It was a great gig,” he says.

After working with NASS for several years, he returned home to North Dakota in 1992. He worked in Fargo for a TV station and as a blackjack dealer before deciding to attend law school at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

“Books had always come kind of easy to me,” he says. The thinking was, income from a law practice would supplement his farm income after he began farming on his own, which he did in 1995.

After finishing law school, he practiced law at offices in Northwood, Larimore and Grand Forks, all of which are in Grand Forks County. Welte and his family live in Larimore today.

In 1997, he began doing legal defense work for indigents in Grand Forks County. About the same time, he was appointed part-time state’s attorney in Steele County, a small, rural county in eastern North Dakota. Steele and Grand Forks counties are in different judicial districts, allowing him to be both a prosecutor and defense attorney at the same time.

“It was crazy, but it was turbo-charging of what went on in court,” he says of the two roles. “What I found was, I really liked the prosecution.”

Besides his prosecution and defense work, he also continued to farm and practice law on his own.

In 1998, he took a full-time job as a Grand Forks County prosecutor. A few years later, the Grand Forks County state’s attorney retired and Welte ended up running for the post.

“I knew that if I wanted to farm, that it would be a little easier for me if I were the boss rather than working for someone else who might not understand, ‘Hey, it’s April, May, and I need a week off to put a crop in,’” he says.

“So I took a swing at it, caught lightning in a bottle and got elected,” he says.

Farm career

Welte raises wheat and soybeans, a common rotation in the area he farms.

He used to raise other crops, too, but decided to focus on just wheat and beans. It allows him to till wheat fields after they’re harvested and before the soybean harvest begins.

“There are few things more wonderful than being out on the tractor in fall, when it’s dark,” he says. “Just you and the radio and the dirt. It’s just awesome.”

Welte says he probably would raise dry edible beans, too, but growing the crop doesn’t seem to fit, for him, with the U.S. farm bill.

“Candidly, it’s easier to read the law than the farm bill,” he says.

Farmers generally use the winter to catch up on farm bill provisions, marketing and other aspects of agriculture. Welte’s off-farm job, of course, leaves him less time to do that. But he says the North Dakota State University Extension Service and neighboring farmers help give him the information he needs.

Welte farms 1,170 acres, a relatively small amount by North Dakota standards.

The average size of all farms in the state in 2012 was 1,268 acres, according to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture. But the average includes the growing number of so-called hobby farms, or ones of fewer than 50 acres. In 2012 North Dakota had 3,400 such farms, up from 2,655 in 2007. Without those very small farms, the average size of North Dakota farms would be much larger.

Welte says “with another 500 acres, I could probably just farm (generate enough income from farming.) Or if I had some cattle, I could probably just farm.”

He describes his farm as having “good land. Not great, but productive.”

He talks with Agweek in his parents’ home on the family farmstead. His parents, Bud and Fanny, sit in during part of the conversation.

Bud, 82, still helps out on the farm. He says he leaves all the farm decisions to his son.

Peter says he still gets valuable farm insights from his father.

Fanny, 77, says she and her husband enjoy living in the country. A bowl of newly picked crocuses, a spring wildflower that grows in parts of rural North Dakota, sits on a kitchen sill.

She says farming is “such a contrast” from what her son does as state’s attorney.

Peter “just seems so happy when he’s farming,” Bud says.

The future

“My dream right now is to continue to farm here and to work in the state’s attorney office,” Peter Welte says.

He also says, “Maybe, statewide, there would be an office that would be of interest to me. Whether it would be ag commissioner or attorney general, you never know. I don’t have the desire to live in Bismarck (North Dakota’s capital) right now, but never say never.”

For now, he says, “If my health permits, I’d like to do this until I die. Keep the farm going. I’d also like to keep being state’s attorney for as long as the citizens, the voters, will have me.”

Welte shrugs, smiles and says, “If the voters decide to retire me, I can come back here and farm and hang up a shingle (practice law on his own) again. But whatever happens, I love being a farmer.”

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