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Agronomy on Ice — ag’s big 'freeze-your tail'-gating event — mixes work and play

A loose-knit group of agronomy professionals in North Dakota — with podcast, blog and Twitter connections — staged their fourth annual Agronomy on Ice event at Devils Lake, North Dakota, on Feb. 2, 2022. Hundreds of people shuffled in and out on the ice, enjoying Scandinavian and German delicacies and conversation in ice houses while temperatures dipped to the -30 degree range, with wind chills in the -50 territory.

A placard in an ice fishing village with a graphic of a fish going for a lure is yellow and green with the words "NDSU Soil Health" and "Agronomy on Ice."
Numerous companies and entities fly their colors at the Agronomy on Ice event at Devils Lake, including educational institutions like North Dakota State University and the local Lake Region State College. Photo taken Feb. 2, 2022, at Devils Lake, N.D.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — It was just a tad chilly when the “cool kids” of agriculture gathered Feb. 2, 2022, on Devils Lake, North Dakota, for the fourth annual “Agronomy on Ice” event.

A placard for Woodland Resort's beach are is flanked by a white, frozen lake with an ice house village for the Agronomy on Ice event, with people walking back and forth to shore.
The Agronomy on Ice ice shack village is about 200 yards off the shore of Devils Lake, in Creel Bay near Woodland Resort. It’s like a tailgating event for self-described agricultural production nerds. Photo taken Feb. 2, 2022, at Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The event is a quirky Upper Midwest happening — 60 ice fishing houses lined up “tailgating style” in Creel Bay. Hundreds of ag nerds shuffling among the shelters, thawing out to smile, creating a wintertime tale to tell the folks back home. Perhaps 500 people attended, coming and going through the day.

Agronomy on Ice promoter Jason Hanson stands in 10-below-zero weather, flanked by the event's fish ice house village.
Jason Hanson of Webster, North Dakota, owner of Rock and Roll Agronomy LLC, and a few buddies have staged four years of Agronomy on Ice events on Devils Lake at Devils Lake, North Dakota. It’s like a tailgating event and has attracted hundreds of participants, despite harsh weather. Photo taken Feb. 2, 2022, at Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

It’s fair to say it’s a brain (freeze) child of Jason Hanson of Webster, North Dakota, owner of Rock and Roll Agronomy LLC, and his happy-go-lucky buddies. The friends started the snowball rolling a few years, saying they wanted to meet somewhere outside the standard North Dakota meeting places like Grand Forks, Fargo or Bismarck.

021422.AG.AgronomyOnIce05.jpg
Agronomy on Ice 2022 gathered ag production consultants on Devils Lake, North Dakota. The lake is renowned as a walleye and perch fishing mecca in its deepest spots. Social media sites shared this photo of two unnamed participants holding up a northern pike they scored from a the Creel Bay ice house. They were wearing vintage “ag swag,” or clothing designed for ag promotions of yore.
Courtesy / Eric Lahlum

“We decided, 'hey, let’s have a meeting in Devils Lake.' But somebody floated the idea of, 'why don’t we have it on Devils Lake,'” Hanson recalled, “A lot of meetings I go to, you get a lot of networking and the good conversations are done after the meeting. We’re trying to provide an environment where it’s sort of like tailgating, with an ag flavor, on a lake.”

Hanson thought they’d have had close to 700 attendees this year, if the weather hadn’t turned. They might have had 1,000 if the U.S. Department of Homeland Security hadn’t required proof of vaccination against COVID-19 for people traveling into the U.S. beginning on Jan. 22, 2022.

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Agronomists and ag professionals eat ethnic delicacies, flanked by a Norwegian and German flag in an ice house.
Professionals at Agronomy on Ice enjoyed the camaraderie and the region’s ethnic food, but also shared tidbits about what they’re expecting for the 2022 growing season, only about two months away. Photo taken Feb. 2, 2022, at Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Of course it rained on Jan. 31, followed by a blizzard and a cold front. “That really hampered the traffic,” he said.

The wildest yet

A group stands chatting outside an ice house promoting a sub-surface drainage installation company at Agronomy on Ice.
Agronomy on Ice is like a combination of an ice fishing tournament and ag show social event. Several hundred agronomists and consultants attended, moving among about 60 fish house lodges at Devils Lake, one of the nation’s prime walleye and perch fishing destinations. Photo taken Feb. 2, 2022, at Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The fourth Agronomy on Ice will be remembered for the weather.

Event-goers slid into the lake area on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022, with temperatures in the high 30s and several hours of rain, turning to ice, and snow on top. Some participated in the “virtual” fishing tournament on Feb. 1, with temperatures of 10 below zero and winds averaging 24 mph, and gusts to 55 mph.

A man stands in the wind, flanked by yellow-and-green tent shelter typically used for North Dakota State University Bison football game gives shelter to Agronomy on Ice visitors on Devils Lake.
Agronomy on Ice is something like tailgating for North Dakota State University Bison football games, said some of the participants. But the event is also a discussion meet for self-described agronomy nerds. Photo taken Feb. 2, 2022, at Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The Feb. 2 event itself had temps of negative 10 to negative 20 and average winds at 10 mph winds, gusting to 25 mph, with wind chills more than 30 below.

No one seemed to mind.

A lutefisk eater holds a quivering piece of gelatinous codfish, flanked by the camp stove on frozen Devils Lake.
While few fish were caught, some lucky Agronomy on Ice-goers got to dine on lutefisk – a gelatinous Scandinavian specialty that is a codfish, pickled with lye, prepared out on the ice by Ryan Taylor, a Ducks Unlimited policy specialist and renowned rancher from Towner, North Dakota. Photo taken Feb. 2, 2022, at Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
Ryan Taylor, in a red ear-flapped hat, is on his knees at right, boiling lutefisk on the ice of Devils Lake, while hungry eaters wait.
Eager eaters wait as Ryan Taylor, right, of Towner, North Dakota, prepares lutefisk on the ice in 25-below-zero Fahrenheit wind chills on Feb. 2, 2022, at the fourth annual Agronomy on Ice event at Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The gathering has the feel of a tailgating party, about 200 yards out in Creel Bay, close to Woodland Resort. The resort cleared 1- to 2-foot snow drifts, covering the 20-inch-thick ice. All the stars of the region’s ag media were there. There were vintage “ag swag” contests.

Hanson noted a “strong presence of Scandinavian food,” including Norwegian and Icelandic delicacies. This year was rømmegrøt, lefse and krumkake. And lutefisk — a gelatinous codfish, pickled with lye.

“This year, the people of German heritage have had enough,” Hanson joked. “So, we’re having kuchen, sauerkraut and sausages, pretzels and desserts. (The Devils Lake Chamber of Commerce served walleye fingerlings, from the Lake Region Angler’s Association, underlining their reputation as a renowned walleye capital.)

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Ryan Taylor uses his two-tined fork to check the doneness of lutefisk, cooked over a camp fire at Devils Lake.
Ryan Taylor of Bismarck, North Dakota, who works in policy for Ducks Unlimited and ranches near Towner, North Dakota, prepared Scandinavian lutefisk in a pot as eager eaters waited for their helping. “It’s good it’s in the open air,” he said, joking about the aversion some people have to the smell of the cod that has the odor of the lye it is pickled in. Photo taken Feb. 2, 2022, at Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Of course there was Ryan Taylor, one of Hanson’s cohorts from their North Dakota State University days, cooking his lutefisk out on the ice. Taylor ranches near Towner, North Dakota, and works for Ducks Unlimited in the Dakotas and Montana.

“You can cook it outdoors and the smell won’t get you too bad,” Taylor told one passer-by.

And something special this year — “Lutefisk Lager.”

Lutefisk Lager

One of Hanson’s chief chums is Kyle Okke, an agronomist for WinField at Dickinson, North Dakota. Okke said the “lutefisk beer” idea emerged from the “Agronomist’s Happy Hour” a podcast the two host.

A man in a black stocking cap holds up a six-pack of Lutefisk Lager beer.
Kyle Okke, an agronomist for WinField at Dickinson, North Dakota, said he and Jason Hanson, an agronomist from Rock and Roll Agronomy of Webster, North Dakota, said the idea for a “lutefisk beer” emerged as a joke from their “Agronomist’s Happy Hour” podcast. Their Lutefisk Lager brand was made by Laughing Sun Brewery in Bismarck, North Dakota, and emblazoned with a custom label. The friends used the beer as a gift for those who would donate to the North Dakota FFA Foundation. Photo taken Feb. 2, 2022, at Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

At the end of their podcasts, they typically “review” a couple beers. “One of these beers, Jason had, and he thought was not his favorite. He said ‘I’d rather have a Lutefisk lager!’” Suddenly, the two thought, "Why not create 'Lutefisk Lager' beer?”

An artist friend who designed the logo for Hanson’s business, designed a beer label — a Norwegian flag, a drawing of a plate of gray lutefisk, impaled with a drawing of Taylor’s two-tined fork, and of course “Agronomist’s Happy Hour.” They put it on a “crisp golden ale” made by Laughing Sun Brewing Co., of Bismarck, North Dakota.

The duo had some six-packs labeled and offered it for donations for the novelty beer at the Agronomy on Ice, as a fundraiser for the North Dakota FFA Foundation. (They got permission, as there would be no underage current FFA members at the event.)

Students from Lake Region State College in Devils Lake ran shuttles for people from the land to the lake, as a fundraiser. Some students from the University of Minnesota-Crookston also attended. Some reportedly made internship and job connections.

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Angling for contacts

Amid the fun can be heard some serious ag talk. Mike Ostlie, an NDSU research agronomist from Carrington, and Abbey Wick, a soil scientist, were there. Tim Hammerich and Wick were doing recordings and “dropping to Twitter" with their insights.

The Agronomy on Ice fish house village in the foreground starts to get cold as the sun sets on Devils Lake.
This year’s Agronomy on Ice at Devils Lake, N.D., on Feb. 2, 2022, drew several hundred ag consultants from three states and more, despite slick roads, h wind gusts up to 55 mph, and temperatures as low as 25 below zero Fahrenheit. Photo taken Feb. 2, 2022, at Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Alec Winmill / Agweek

Greg Dahl, senior research manager for product development at Winfield United, has been to three of the events and praised the one-on-one and small group opportunities.

“I think it’s a great place to meet the people who are in your field of work,” Dahl said. “They’re wonderful people. They know a lot. You’re going to learn a lot. You’re going to enjoy their company, meet new people. Make new connections.”

Hanson said the long-term hope is to grow the event into some kind of ag show.

But the weather is an issue. “Either too cold, not enough ice, too much snow, blizzards — that type of thing,” he said. But he likes the spirit: “We’re out having a get-together on a lake. That’s pretty ‘North Dakotan’ if you ask me.”

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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