North Dakota no-till pioneer Luther Berntson passes on
Luther Allen Berntson began no-till practices in a time and place that few were willing to attempt it.
A former North Dakota farmer once called the “evangelist of no-till” passed away March 5, 2023, at his home in Wayzata, Minnesota.
Luther Allen Berntson was 91 years old at the time of his death and is remembered by many for his passion in no-till agriculture along with his kindness and contributions to his church families.
Luther’s nephew, Paul Berntson, recalls the work that Luther did to pave the way for advancing no-till on his nearly 2,000 acres near Adams, North Dakota. In the early 1970s, no-till was a new enough idea that the equipment and technology had not yet been created. It was up to those early pioneers to engineer their own equipment to work with the soils that struggled to dry without some tillage.
“They struggled to adapt existing equipment to work in untilled soil,” Paul wrote in a eulogy about Luther. “Seed placement, residue management, weed control were huge challenges. Roundup herbicide was just being developed and sold (at about $65-$80/gallon) … a pile of money in the 1970s and early '80s. Changing farmers’ mind-set from plowing, and summer fallow to not doing tillage was an entire cultural tsunami. They were laughed at, joked about, and called ‘crazy’ behind their backs.”
Luther and several other North Dakota farmers helped form a no-till association, held conventions, did a lot of the speaking presentations and demonstrations themselves.
Was it hard work? Yes. But these farmers were convinced that their work was worth it.
Up until that time, farms were half crop, half summer fallow, Paul said. Not tilling meant the wet ground, especially the wheat stubble fields, would stay wet and hard to work with. When the ground would dry, the skies would turn brown as the soil lifted off the tilled ground.
“Luther and these other guys just came to the conclusion ... there’s got to be a better way to farm without having all this erosion. Our most precious asset we’ve got is our top soil. And they dedicated themselves to save it.”
Luther spent most of a winter working on his air seeder, making depth control wheels in order to control seed depths. Paul recalls that Luther bought a combine and a spreader that would spread the chaff across the entire width of the header. It was a vast improvement to allow the material to breakdown evenly.
Paul came to join Luther in farming in 1989 and took it over shortly after when Luther and his wife Helen retired and moved to Spring Boat Springs, Colorado. He may have never entered farming if not for Luther. It’s now a fifth generation farm, first homesteaded in 1882.
Joe Breker , who farms in Havana, North Dakota, said he was attending NDSU after high school and heard about this new no-till practice. His interest was piqued and he wanted to know who in the state was doing this. Luther’s name was one of the first among just a small handful of producers in the state. Not long after, Breker visited Luther at his farm and he began learning from him and shaping the way he would farm for the next 43 years.
Luther even invited Breker in to be a part of the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers' Association , where they both served on the board.
“Luther was more than willing to take me under his wing and share with me whatever he knew and ponder what he didn’t,” Breker said. In fact, aside from his own father, Luther was the next go-to male figure in his life for farming advice.
Breker mentions others that were among that original group of North Dakota no-tillers including Ron Swindler of Mott (deceased in April 2014), Bob Nowatzki of Langdon (deceased July 2017), and Marvin Dick of Munich.
Luther gave Breker the confidence, knowledge and inspiration to pursue no-till farming to great success. He now owns and manages Coteau des Prairies Lodge in Havana, where Breker can be found spreading the word about conservation-minded farm practices.
Born, Nov. 24, 1931, at home near Adams, North Dakota, Luther was the son of Bertha (Aune) and George Berntson. On Jan. 29, 1960, he married Helen Gryth from Pembina, North Dakota. They were married 63 years. The couple had two daughters, Margo and Kristin.
Luther and Helen finally came off the mountain after skiing for the last time at age 85. They moved to Wayzata, Minnesota, to be closer to their daughter, Margo, and closer to the health care Luther needed as his health deteriorated.
The couple were active in farming, avid skiers, and always active in churches that they lived near.
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m., March 25, at Gethsemane Lutheran church, in Hopkins, Minnesota. Live streaming of the service will be available. Inurnment will take place at Hitterdal Cemetery in rural Adams, North Dakota, this summer.
For a full obituary, visit https://www.washburn-mcreavy.com/ .