Another decade in the Red River Valley

FARGO, N.D. -- Another decade of agriculture in the Red River Valley, and more history made, Hiram Drache says, and he should know. Drache, 85, of Fargo, N.D., is historian in residenceand retired history and economics professor at Concordia Coll...

FARGO, N.D. -- Another decade of agriculture in the Red River Valley, and more history made, Hiram Drache says, and he should know.

Drache, 85, of Fargo, N.D., is historian in residenceand retired history and economics professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. He still is active and remains one of the region's most enduring, prolific -- sometimes controversial -- ag thinkers.

In 45 years, Drache has written some 15 books about various aspects of the agriculture, as well as profile works on luminary business families or institutions.

Flanked by his wife, Ada, Drache still is writing about his beloved agriculture.

Among other things, he's in the process of writing a book on the history of the RDO companies, still headed by Ron D. Offutt, a one-time student and long-time friend. He says the Offutt book to be out in 2010, a story of the biggest individual potato grower and North America's largest John Deere dealer.


In his 1985 book, "Plowshares to Printouts," Drache predicted numerous technological developments in agriculture: land prices would rise, slightly in excess of inflation; profit margins would decline, "meaning the choices will continue to be expansion, greater efficiency or off-farm work." He predicted food would account for less than 10 percent of total living cost in the U.S. and that zero-tillage technology would be the "accepted standard."

Much of that has come true, although some specifics haven't -- yet. (He predicted electrically powered units would replace tractors.)

So what does Drache think will be the historic developments in agriculture from the 2000 to 2009? There are too many to think about, but here are a few that make his list:

n Transgenic crops -- Roundup Ready soybeans led a parade of genetic developments in molecular genetics for crops. While North Dakota rejected transgenic wheat, Drache says these improvements blossomed during the decade and have increased yields.

n Zero- and no-till farming -- Greatly enhanced by the Roundup Ready technology and the commonplace air drill technology.

n Global Positioning Systems -- GPS technology with so-called "RTK" tower networks have revolutionized the precision farming, with many farmers using steering systems to plant crops within centimeters of where they want them. In 1985, he'd predicted farmers would plant in the same wheel tracks, which now is done with GPS.

n Communication -- While there is room for improvement in some areas, farmers today are far more efficient because of cell phones and computers than a decade ago. Farmers today are monitoring markets and selling grain from their tractors.

n Crop protection -- While Drache had predicted of seeds being encased in super-slurper cornstarch to draw moisture, and biodegradable plastic mulches, some of those developments haven't been necessary. Meanwhile, slow-release fertilizer and seeds "stacked" with numerous traits continue to amaze.


Historian's history

Unlike some academics and writers, Drache has lived the history he has written about.

He grew up near Owatonna, Minn. His mother was a postmaster; his father owned a truck line.

Graduating high school in 1942, Drache started college at Gustavus Adolphus College, the Lutheran college at St. Peter, Minn. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in February 1943 and served in Europe, where he rose to the rank of captain and flew 32 missions as a navigator for B-17 bombers. Three times his planes landed in emergencies -- on fire, out of gas or without brakes.

Mustering out of the service in November 1945, Drache returned to Gustavus to study history and economics. There, he met his beloved Ada, who was studying secretarial work.

"Good speller," he says, with a smile and a wink.

Graduating in 1947, Drache planned to go home and work in trucking -- perhaps farm on the side, as both of his grandfathers had. He'd bought a small farm, but soon, he and Ada married and he went back to school for teaching credentials.

Drache took a social studies teaching job at Owatonna (Minn.) High School and quickly made waves when he "begged" administrators to allow him to flunk three students in his social studies classes.


"Tough love," he says.

Soon. Drache pursued a master's degree at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. There, he decided he'd preferred college teaching. In 1952, he made a casual call to Gustavus, where professors referred him to a job opening at Concordia College in Moorhead.

"I'd only been in the Red River Valley only once before -- in 1937 when my Dad helped move a minister from Ellendale (Minn.) to Minot (N.D.). I remember going through the valley and seeing 21 straw stacks on fire. I was just amazed, and I could visualize the greenness during the growing season."

Farming teacher

Drache says he's a firm believer that the Lord leads us into careers.

"You don't realize it at the time, unless you make mistakes and you get a kick in the shorts," he says.

At Concordia, Drache taught economic history. He and Ada lived in corrugated steel Army barracks, located just west of today's field house.

"We loved it," he says. But after only a year, he was lured back to the Owatonna to work as an insurance actuary. Two years later, he was welcomed back to Concordia.


A key thing: they told him he could farm on the side.

He bought 240 acres near Baker, Minn., and drove back and forth from the farm for 16 years -- the 16½ miles, six days a week for daily 8 a.m. classes.

"The purpose was to get back and get the farming done," he says of the schedule.

As this farming-teaching career developed, the Draches were growing their family -- Kay, David and Paul, were born in 1955, 1957 and 1959, respectively.

In 1958, Drache took a leave of absence and completed his doctorate at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks in 1963.

In 1964, he published the first of several books, the "Day of the Bonanza." It described the agricultural settlement of the Red River Valley, and the connection with the Northern Pacific Railway. The books were heavily covered in the region's newspapers and farm magazines.

Drache became a speaker on the topic, especially with the Kiwanis.

At the same time, Drache was becoming an innovator in farming, collaborating with Clay County, Minn., extension agent Ozzie Daellenbach.


Daellenbach was the first in the region to use growth hormones for feedlot cattle in 1953; one of the first to use Atrazine to grow corn in 1959; one of the first to test for micronutrient deficiencies in soils; one of the first to continuous-crop corn in 1960; and one of the first to computerized feedlot cattle data in 1966.

For a time, he fed surplus potatoes from Offutt's and his own land. Drache went to no-till farming before others, which was made easier because of the sandy loam he owned.

Juggling careers

As he farmed, Drache juggled his teaching career with an expanding speaking and writing career. He became a fixture on the speaking circuit, clocking 1,070 speaking engagements in 36 states and five other countries, especially during a major down-turn in the agricultural economy. Among his clients: Harvestore, Production Credit Associations, Farm Bureau and Steiger.

He especially vexed those who saw him as a proponent of large-scale farming over what he calls the "nostalgic family farm," concept.

You'd like to be liked by everybody, but you can't if you stand for something," Drache says, noting that the word Drache means "dragon" in the German language.

"I was excited about agriculture," he says. "Agriculture has so many positives you're working with -- land, whose value is historically going up. Why? The world isn't getting any larger and the population is getting bigger. People have to eat."

In 1981, he sold the farm in Baker and invested in the stock market. He gave the Owatonna farm to Concordia, but continues to rent out two others. Drache retired from active teaching in 1991 at age 67.


In the past decades, Drache has been busy with writing private works, for families and larger companies in the region. He's continued his long-time support of the Northwest Farm Managers, among other things. He was commissioned for some larger works, including two books that have been largely completed but not yet printed.

"I'm concerned that the general public knows so little about agriculture is so unappreciative of it," Drache says.

He's worried about what he calls "aberration movements" that criticize commercial agriculture, especially those that say conventional agriculture is going to ruin the soil and poison the people.

"It's not true," he says.

While global warming is an overriding world concern today, Drache thinks agriculture will simply adapt.

"We'll keep farming," Drache says. "People have to eat."

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