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The farming gene

MEKINOCK, N.D. - Though Brent Schmitz may be able to thank his family for helping him get started in farming at the age of 14, it was really an episode of "American Harvest" that captured his imagination and put him on a path to farming when was ...

MEKINOCK, N.D. - Though Brent Schmitz may be able to thank his family for helping him get started in farming at the age of 14, it was really an episode of "American Harvest" that captured his imagination and put him on a path to farming when was 5 years old.

"American Harvest' made up my mind," he says. "It's about a family that grew some crops and had a hailstorm. So then they had to go custom combining to save their farm."

He'd watch it over and over again, according to his mother, Judy. More than 50 times, in fact. Then he'd play with his own farm equipment, toys that he'd run across on the ground, tilling the soil and combining at harvest.

"The combining really was my favorite part, and it still is," Brent says.

"He was 5 and knew he wanted to farm," she says. "He's that fortunate. I think at 5 we really didn't pick up on it that much, thinking that well, he loves it, but is this going to be his occupation?"

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Keep in mind, this is not a boy following in his dad's footsteps. His father, Glenn, had left farming after some really tough years in the 1950s.

"Farming is high-risk," Glenn he says. "I was the first in the family to step off the fields."

For the past 30 years, he and three of his brothers have owned a successful excavation business, so there was little encouragement for young Brent to become farmer. His dad was hoping he would step in to his business, when he grew up.

Focused on his future

The boy wouldn't be swayed, though, and before long Glenn and Judy accepted it and then encouraged him to follow his dream.

In fact, the whole family stepped up, seeing to it that young Brent got all the farming he could handle.

"My Uncle Merle was a big influence," he says. "I was always talking to him about farming when I was real little. On holidays, like on Thanksgiving, we'd go up and visit them."

He'd walk in the yard with his uncle and talk about farming, looking out over the fields. Then they'd go into the Quonset, and Brent would get to climb up into the cabs of the tractor, the sprayer and, of course, the combine.

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Even the neighbors helped the Schmitz boy get the feel for farming. Brent recalls being 7 years old, "helping" his neighbor, Alfred Fiebiger, who lived a mile west of them, farm his crops.

"I used to ride with him in his combine," he says. "I always thought that was really neat. I was learning how things were done and watching stuff while he was harvesting wheat and sunflowers."

This kind of support continued as Brent entered his high school years. At school, he began to realize that he was the only one in his class who dreamt of farming.

"Not a single kid was interested in farming in high school, and there were lots of kids with dads that farmed and had huge operations," he says. "The kids couldn't care less about the operations."

For himself, he began to practice the farming work ethic, perhaps preparing for the day when he's walk out onto his own soil. Between ages 10 and 14, he went into business in nearby Mekinock.

"I had a four-wheeler and a little trailer," he says. "I'd load up my little mower in the trailer and haul it to Mekinock and mow people's yards. They'd pay me 10 or 20 bucks, and I did that for four years, until I started to farm at 14."

First field

Commodity prices were bottoming in the late 1990s and crops were drowning out under wet conditions. But while hundreds of farmers were quitting the business, 14-year-old Brent was pestering his father to let him break up the 25 acres of grassland out back so he could plant wheat. It wasn't easy, but persistence paid off, and Glenn finally gave in.

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Brett bought his first tractor, a John Deere 4430, with his dad's co-signature on the loan. His dad took him all around town to open charge accounts with merchants. When some said they didn't open accounts for farmers, Dad would threaten to pull his charge account. They all gave in.

"We put it in his and my name at first, then when he turned 18, he took my name off every one of them," Glenn says.

Meanwhile, Brent got right work.

"It was a wet year, that year, so he did a lot of custom cultivating for people," his father says. "He did over 4,000 acres."

That earned Brent his seed money, and helped to pay off the tractor.

"I made the money to buy other machinery from auctions and sales," Brent says. "By 2000, I definitely had everything I needed to farm. I had an 836 Versatile tractor, the Versatile combine that my Uncle had given me, and a John Deere 8820 combine. I also had the 4430 tractor."

He farmed 1,200 acres that year, and hasn't looked back since.

"The biggest thing I had to figure out for myself was setting the combine," he says. "I really learned that on my own, setting the sieves and the fan and the cylinder speed. You have to keep playing around with it to learn it. People can tell you that stuff, but you don't really understand it until you play around with it yourself.

Upgrading operations

"I've taken on a lot of land," he says. "In 2001 I bought 40 acres across the road. In 2002, I bought my first quarter of farmland, up west of Gilby, (N.D.). I have corn in, there. Then in '03, I bought another quarter, and then in '05 bought 80 acres. I bought a half-section at the end '06. I own 750 acres, roughly, and I still have the 25 acres that I broke up originally."

Today, he has a Case IH 9380 Quadtrac, a Cat Challenger, a Tyler-Patriot wide track self-propelled sprayer, a TerraGator fertilizer spreader and two John Deere 9600 combines. The old Versatile combine still gets used when his neighbors have real wet soil. It's light enough to stay on top, with the dual wheels he put on the back end.

He's also bought an 8,000- and a 10,000-bushel grain bin.

"You can make 30 to 50 cents a bushel if you store it from harvest until spring," he says.

He now farms about 3,000 acres in the Red River Valley, enough that he needs to hire in help."I try to have at least one or two hires," he says. "In '01 or '02, I started trying to find help."

That turned out to be a learning experience in itself.

"That was tough. Nobody wanted to listen to a kid. I was in my early 20s and they didn't think I knew anything."

His first employee was in his 40s.

"He'd always question me: 'Why are we doing this? Why don't we do it this way? Why are we disking this field when we should be chisel-plowing it?'"

His answer: "Because I wanted it disked. I mean, what else am I supposed to say?"

That first hire didn't make it past fall.

"I got one really good guy, right now. His name is Rani Carpenter," he says. "He's been with me almost two years, now. We just get along so good - he's a happy-go-lucky guy, and he's one of those guys that can weld and fix and run machinery. That's hard to find."

He'd gone through 10 employees to find this guy though.

"Everyone starts in the field, then learns to drive the truck, then don't want to go back into the fields!" he says, unable to fathom that kind of thinking. "And I wasn't hard on them - I'm easy to get along with."

Carpenter put an end to some of his woes.

"He's my main man," the 26-year-old boss says. "He can do anything. He's been driving a truck all his life, and I put him in a tractor this year, and he loves it."

He also tells of his grandfather helping a lot when he's short-handed.

"He's always dependable," Brent says. "He's retired, but he's always there when I need help."

Still, he needs more hands, especially at harvest time. He needs drivers to haul off his crops while he combines.

"That was Dad's big push," he says. "I was having trouble getting help, so I bought two semis and parked them in the fields and wouldn't have to worry about it. I could combine all day and drive it off the next morning."

The solution worked so well, he now has six semis.

"And I still don't have any help," he says laughing.

He also has survived his share of weather troubles.

"In 2001, we got 18 inches of rain and I got totally flooded out. I did harvest that year, but most of it was drowned out," he says. "Then in 2002, a huge hailstorm came through and totally wiped me out. The hail was pea-sized, but we had 100-mph winds, and it took corn and sunflowers 8 to10 feet tall and leveled it."

Luckily, he did carry insurance and went off to make money away from his own fields.

"I went and did custom combining, 20 miles south of here - where the hail didn't hit."

Just like the family in the "American Harvest" episode.

A farmer's future

His future looks pretty bright. He plans on starting a family with his girlfriend of six years, Tina Frisch.

"She's in RN nursing school at UND, and we've always talked about getting married after she graduated. She comes out and drives tractors for me sometimes. I've taught her how to drive them. She's driven a Cat Challenger with 50-foot cultivator, and then I pull a 50-foot soil packer behind that."

She took a picture on her cell phone and showed her friends at school what she does with her free time.

He's always looking for more land, not to increase his acreage, but to better it.

"That's my biggest obstacle, right now," he says. "I want to get good land that produces every year, whether it's dry or wet. Some land produces good when it wet and some is good when it's dry. It's hard to get that land that produces good when its either. Any new land that comes up, I look at the soils book. It helps a lot."

He won't be looking for any new equipment for the time being. What he has is handling all the acreage just fine.

"No, no more equipment for now. I had 1,000 acres of wheat, which I sold a little low. I have 650 acres of corn, 700 in sunflowers and the rest in navy beans."

Last December, the veteran farmer was elected to the board of directors of the Grand Forks County Agricultural Improvement Association, the youngest to hold the seat. It makes a lot of sense, though."I always knew I wanted to farm, and that I had to do the work to do it," he says. "That never bothered me though. I've always liked doing the work.

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