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Published November 04, 2011, 12:00 AM

Ranch changes through generations

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

By: By Mikkel Pates, Forum Communications Co.

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 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 acres 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.

“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.”

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. He eventually married a woman from nearby Tuttle.

Frank and Marion had six children – all sons. Ward, born in 1927, was the fifth of the sons.

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.

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

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.”

Anne graduated in 1971 from Robinson High School and 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, 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.

Miriam died in a mowing accident in Fessenden in 1995.

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, Anne agreed to 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, an 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.

“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.

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.”

Mikkel Pates writes for AgWeek