GACKLE, N.D. — The Zenker combines, tractors and grain trailers on Thursday, July 2, were pulled in tight to a shed, still covered in dirt and corn dust and pieces of corn stocks.

The equipment probably was barely cooled down at that point. Only the day before, on July 1, 2020, Chris Zenker, the fifth generation on the family farm just west of Gackle in south-central North Dakota, made his final round to finish up harvest of 2019 corn.

“If somebody would have told me the way I farm I would have been combining corn on July 1, I’d have said you’re crazy,” Chris said. “Because I’m kind of the one who kind of wants to get things done in a timely manner, and that’s nowhere near a timely manner.”

“I'm 54,” said Chris’s uncle, Warren Zenker, the fourth generation on the farm. “I don’t ever remember combining in July. Not corn”

The Zenkers finished combining 2019 corn on July 1, 2020. On July 2, the equipment had been pulled into the shed, but before anything could get cleaned up, the family started preparing for their big July 3 party. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
The Zenkers finished combining 2019 corn on July 1, 2020. On July 2, the equipment had been pulled into the shed, but before anything could get cleaned up, the family started preparing for their big July 3 party. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
Chris and Warren farm together, along with a few other family members. Chris takes the lead on the crop side, where they farm about 8,000 acres of corn, soybeans and barley. Warren leads on the cattle side, where they run a 450-head cow-calf operation and a 2,000-head permitted feedyard.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

On all sides, 2019 and 2020 have been a struggle. After harvest was finally completed, the equipment could wait to get cleaned. On July 2, the Zenkers had bigger fish to fry — or, actually, they had a bigger pig to roast, tables to set up and visitors to welcome.

For 10 years, in good years and bad, the Zenkers have held a July 3 party for family, friends and community members. One early attendee to the party remarked in passing that it’s “like a wedding that gets held every year.” And an especially bad year, featuring the longest harvest anyone can remember, plunging prices from a global pandemic and a variety of other problems large and small, was no reason to pull the plug on the annual event.

‘Not very good’

Chris said the struggles began in the spring of 2019, when wet conditions began. After a rough summer came a 30-inch snowstorm in October 2019. Warren said the cattle in the feedyard were stressed in the fall, and they struggled to stay healthy.

Then it was time to harvest, and that was a whole different struggle. Chris said soybeans were combined with some difficulty, but the corn was so wet that it would have had to be dried. So, they left it stand over the winter.

“The latest I’ve ever harvested in my life was Dec. 15,” Chris said. “This year is a different year.”

In April, they tried to combine and got about 300 acres done, but they buried both combines to the axles.

“I said, this is enough,” Chris said. “We’re not going to wreck our fields anymore.”

The Zenkers, like many farmers and ranchers in the Upper Midwest, have had a rough go in 2019 and 2020, including not finishing 2019 corn harvest until July 1, 2020. Photo taken July 2, 2020. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
The Zenkers, like many farmers and ranchers in the Upper Midwest, have had a rough go in 2019 and 2020, including not finishing 2019 corn harvest until July 1, 2020. Photo taken July 2, 2020. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
So, it took until July 1 to get things done. And by then, new problems were cropping up in the fields that did get planted to 2020 crops.

“When we finished yesterday, we were still leaving tracks in the fields. But the problem is, on the other side of the fenceline, the barley crop is in a severe drought, which is just completely mind boggling, but we have not had more than a half inch of rain in seven weeks in our area,” Chris said. “It’s been a struggle since really last spring, and it’ll be a struggle all the way until we get this fall’s crop in.”

The struggle hasn’t just been in the weather. The coronavirus pandemic and its effects on ag markets have been rough, too. Warren served on a North Dakota Stockmen’s Association subcommittee tasked with passing along ideas to the U.S. Department of Agriculture about how to best help ranchers struggling with the drop in the cattle market. He is optimistic more help will come for people who sold cattle after April 15. Helping out cattle feeders would help out the whole cattle industry, he said.

The Zenkers raise corn, soybeans, barley and cattle just west of Gackle, N.D. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
The Zenkers raise corn, soybeans, barley and cattle just west of Gackle, N.D. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
But the Zenkers recognize that the struggles are widespread.

“It’s all of production agriculture. I don’t care if you’re in the dairy business or sheep business or grain farming. It all is not very good right now,” Warren said.

But, that’s no reason not to have a party.

Zenk-fest?

Chris Zenker and Warren Zenker farm together near Gackle, N.D. Every year, their family hosts a huge July 3 pig roast and party on their farm. Photo taken July 2, 2020. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
Chris Zenker and Warren Zenker farm together near Gackle, N.D. Every year, their family hosts a huge July 3 pig roast and party on their farm. Photo taken July 2, 2020. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
Warren and Chris laughed as they tried to recall why they started holding their annual July 3 party. Chris explained it wasn’t a tradition they set out to establish. And Warren piped up to remind him that it all came down to someone having a pig ready to roast and everyone needing some kind of stress relief in another tough year. They held the party on July 3, and it became a habit.

The next year, they booked a live band. A few years later, Ray Erbele, then a co-owner of Napoleon Livestock, offered some prime rib to serve along with the roasted pork. And someone else offered to put on a fireworks show. And the party has continued to grow.

In recent years, 500 or so people from Gackle and the surrounding area have come to the party, which doesn’t have an official name. Chris said someone suggested they could call it Zenk-fest, but he wasn’t sold on that.

The Zenkers get a few donations to put on the party, and they put out a free-will donation basket. But they take on most of the expense themselves.

“I don’t think I’ve ever come out on top, but that’s not what it’s all about,” Chris said.

With the pandemic still going, the Zenkers weren’t sure how many people would come out for the 2020 party, but they still expected a good crowd for their 10th edition. People were welcome to wear masks or take other precautions, and they planned to have hand sanitizer at the food stations. But, they felt, even more than in prior years, that the farmers and ranchers in the area needed a pick-me-up.

“You gotta keep going. Nobody’s going to go dig a hole and go in the hole. We gotta keep moving on. We’re farmers. We’ve been through struggles. There’s not a year that goes by when you’re not complaining about something or struggling with something,” Chris said, noting they had blown a tire on an auger just that morning. “It’s just something to get everybody together and, you know, have a good time and have a few beers and hang out.”

They’ve heard of a suicide of a farmer in a nearby community, and they know there’s been a lot of stress and hardship. But Chris and Warren both urge their fellow farmers to “keep their chins up” and focus on the important things.

“Money does not buy you happiness, and it does not buy you a home in heaven,” Warren said.

Even with all the hard times, Chris remains optimistic.

“I think there’s going to be some good years coming,” he said. “My goal is to have a heckuva 2021.”