By Mike Spieker In 1889, North Dakota became the 39th state in the union when President Benjamin Harrison signed the bill that brought the upper half of the Dakota Territory into statehood. Eight years before that, Schatzke Farms was founded when Johan (pronounced John) Schatzke packed up and set sail across the Atlantic Ocean from his native Germany. He trekked across the east coast and the great plains before settling south of the brand new town of Wheatland, which lies on the western edge of the Red River Valley of North Dakota – about 30 miles west of Fargo.
A RICH HISTORY When Johan arrived at his new homestead, a church and post office were the only amenities available. That first year, not only did he have to break ground on North Dakota’s virgin prairie, he had to find the necessary equipment and resources to do so. Furthermore, he had to gather materials to build a house that would be able to withstand the brutal winters and harsh northern winds. Schatzke Farms began with a single quarter-section of land that Johan broke ground on and farmed for several years. Today, Jason and his wife, Tanya, not only farm that quarter section Johan made his living on for so many years, but they have expanded Schatzke Farms immeasurably. "The farm today is structured much different than it was in those days," said Jason, who is the fifth generation on the Schatzke Farm. "Back then, they farmed this quarter section and that’s all they ever had until my great grandfather, Herman, acquired a quarter to the north. So they had two quarters that they farmed at that point. Obviously, Tanya and I wouldn’t be able to make it too well on just two quarters today." Herman, who was born in 1883, took over the farm after Johan passed away. From there Jason’s grandfather, Harold, who was born in 1917, followed Herman in running the farm in what was possibly the most crucial time period the farm had to endure. "When you think about what that man went through; to witness the roaring ‘20s, maybe not so much here in the prairie, but I have to believe he had some aspect as to what was going on at the point. Then to live through the depression of the ‘30s – that left a huge impression on him. As a kid, I remember when a bearing was about to go out we would drill a little hole and put a little bit of grease in a three dollar bearing and do whatever we could to help it last another week," Jason recalled. "I’m sure that mindset came from growing up in the ‘30s." When Harold retired fully in 1981, Jason’s parents, Keith and Joan, took the reigns of the operation. Joan also came from an extensive farming background. Her grandparents established their farm, which lies just four miles south of the Schatzkes farmstead, in the early 1900’s. The Schatzke farm lived off a half section of land from the time of its inception, with the exception of some cattle and hogs that were raised for a time, until Keith and Joan became the first ones to expand it a bit after 1981. "There was about 100 years that went by where the thing didn’t grow," Jason said. "There aren’t a whole lot of businesses that can stay somewhat stagnant and sustain. To go 100 years without doing that is pretty remarkable that it actually stayed in business." In 1998, Jason and Tanya began operating the farm. "My folks were extremely generous with us," said Jason. "They gave Tanya and I their blessing with the half section of land and supported us in trying to expand. Without them we would not be here today."
FIRST GENERATION SUGARBEET GROWERS In 1996 and 1997, Jason assisted a neighbor with their sugarbeet harvest. That was his introduction to the crop. "I still think I have some of that dirt under my fingers," Jason joked. "It was ugly and muddy. But for whatever reason, I just liked it. Part of it too, is that it’s a culture that once you enter that arena, it’s hard to leave it." Following the 1997 harvest, Jason and Tanya, together with Keith and Joan, decided to gear up and take on sugarbeets the following season. "We are first generation sugarbeet growers here and that alone is the reason we are still farming today," said Jason. "Without sugar on our farm, we wouldn’t make it." "Sugarbeets have allowed us to expand the farm to what is it today," echoed Tanya. Jason says growing sugarbeets is a balance between risk and reward. A lot of investment, time, and effort goes into raising sugarbeets. Year in and year out for the Schatzke’s, sugarbeets are the backbone of their operation which allows them to reinvest and build the operation. When Jason and Tanya began farming in the late 90’s, corn was under two dollars and soybeans were under six. Sugarbeets were a more lucrative crop in a time when it was difficult to turn a profit. "We were young enough to take a big risk," Tanya said of the jump into the sugarbeet realm. "We did take a big risk and thankfully it worked out," followed Jason. Saying you are going to plant and raise sugarbeets is one thing, but to do it is another. Jason and Tanya had to assemble a complete line of new equipment for sugarbeets before the 1998 growing season. "We started with junk," Jason laughed. "For $68,000 we picked up a planter, a band sprayer, a cultivator, a beet lifter, a beet topper, and two trucks. I’m telling you… we didn’t get much quality." Their first year, they raised 125 acres of beets. Following that, their goal was to double their sugarbeet acreage every year. "Once we got to about 1,000 acres I thought we better slow down a little bit. Now we are right around 1,800," Jason said. 2017 GROWING SEASON It was an extremely dry year across the state of North Dakota in 2017. While the northeast corner of the state received moisture levels closer to normal, the rest of the state endured a fairly substantial drought. Wheatland only received around four and a half inches of rain up to mid-September. On September 19th, the Schatzke’s received more rain on that day than they did the entire growing season. Regardless, their non-irrigated sugarbeets still achieved average yields, with good sugar content. Cercospora, North Dakota and Minnesota’s number one sugarbeet pest, was much less severe this year compared to 2016 due to the dry conditions. Jason only had to spray a few fields for Cercospora one time this year, while some growers in southern Minnesota were forced to put down as many as six applications to maintain control. "We did not have to worry about Cercospora, which was nice." Jason said. "There was no root rot to speak of either, which was odd. We’ve been in it long enough now to know that it’s a real big concern – Rhizoctonia and Aphanomyces." TODAY’S SCHATZKE FARMS The Schatzke’s farmed two quarter sections for nearly a century, but since 1981 the farm has seen nothing but growth and prosperity. Today, Schatzke Farms cultivate around 11,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, sugarbeets, barley, sunflowers, and dry edible beans. The farm covers a diameter about 50 miles long, extending about 30 miles to the northwest and 20 miles to the southeast. "We run two 12-row harvesters, two 12-row rotobeaters, and about 10 or 11 trucks," Jason said. "In peak season when we are harvesting, it takes 40 people to make this thing run. We are always doing beans or corn or sugarbeets at the same time." There are two full-time workers who have been with Schatzke Farms for over a decade. Michael Schmidt has been on the farm for 15 years, while Ryan Puhr has been there for 13. "We’ve got a big benefit that many other farms don’t have in two full-time guys that treat this as their own. That makes a big difference," said Jason. LOOKING AHEAD While they still have several years before they take the reigns, the Schatzkes sixth generation of farmers is already in the works. Jason and Tanya have three kids and all of them are currently pursuing a career in agriculture. Leah, who is the oldest of the three, is attending North Dakota State University majoring in AgriBusiness. Grant (age 16) and Jace (age 12) both play an active role on the farm. "One of the things I’m most proud of is how we’ve grown together as a family," Tanya said. "The farm has taught all of our kids good life lessons that a lot of kids don’t get to learn these days." "There is nothing better than a Sunday afternoon when it’s me, Jace, Grant, Leah and Tanya out in the field working," Jason reiterated. "We were harvesting wheat on the home half this summer, which has been tilled by our family since the late 1880s. Jace and Leah were driving the combines, Grant was driving the grain cart and I was driving the truck. There is nothing more rooted than that. I came in and I was just elated. That was the best day of my summer." Schatzke Farms was founded in the middle of the North Dakota prairie by a man with a dream 136 years ago on a hope and a prayer. Over the years, the land, equipment and crops all have changed, but one thing hasn’t; family. It’s that family bond that will carry the farm to its sixth generation and many, many more generations to come.