Ben Kuhn’s first major test as a young farmer has come in 2017.
The 33-year-old farms with his father Jeff south of Dickinson, putting in his own crop for the first time in 2010. Up until this year, yields have been plentiful.
“We’ve been getting decent yields, but I guess everyone gets good yields anymore,” Ben said.
That’s been mostly true, at least until this year.
The drought has impacted western North Dakota severely, and the Kuhns have been hit hard. Ben, a fifth-generation family farmer, hopes to one day take over the entire operation, which also consists of raising cattle. The Kuhns have been farming in the Dickinson area since around 1900.
The Kuhn family knows of good and bad years, and Ben sees 2017 as his first tough year. Not only is the drought hurting yields, but it happened on top of relatively low commodity prices.
“It’s a little disheartening to me, because this is probably the worst crop of my farming career,” Ben said.
Nonetheless, Ben feels his family farm is positioned to handle bad years. It’s not about excuses or dwelling on the negative aspects of 2017 — it’s about finding workable solutions.
For the Kuhns, that means continuing to diversify their crop rotation. They’re raising a dozen crops in 2017, and it keeps them busy from early March to December.
“It’s probably too many,” Ben joked. “It’s good and bad. Good because it spreads out the workload throughout the entire year, but bad because it spreads out the workload throughout the entire year. You’re working all the time.”
The list of crops raised by the Kuhns is long: wheat (spring, winter, durum), sunflowers (confectionery and oil), alfalfa, corn, canola, flax, lentils, peas and soybeans. Ben said the diversification has allowed them to find where each crop fits best.
“We’ve been able to build a decent (Actual Production History) on all these different crops, so we’re very flexible about what we can plant to certain fields,” Ben said.
With a drought, however, it’s been difficult all-around. The planting season started out well for the Kuhns as it was “probably the smoothest planting ever went.” But the rain never came, and Ben said they had to rely on sub-moisture.
“That held the crop for a long time — it’s actually amazing what the crop made considering we had very little rain, maybe an inch all year,” Ben said.
The wheat was in tough shape as it didn’t tiller out, a major factor in high-yield production. It was also pretty short, Ben said. Additionally, the peas, lentils and canola have been poor. Ben believes the canola to be the worst of the bunch and what hope they had for peas was hit by some bad luck.
“The peas hung in there and were doing better than expected, but the one time it rained, it hailed and shattered them out really bad,” Ben said. “Canola might be the worst because it hates hot and dry (weather), especially when flowering. The lentils are quite bad. They’re really short, maybe 8 inches tall. Right on top of the ground.”
If there’s any saving grace, it’s been a few August showers that could save the corn, soybeans and sunflowers.
“It won’t be a monster crop, but it’ll be OK,” Ben said. “The corn is very variable. A lot of it looks good from the road because it’s grown taller and is nice and green. But you go out there, and some of them don’t have an ear on them.”
The Kuhns may have to sell some of their cattle, but he’s not overly concerned with it as there are opportunities for fall grazing with corn stubble and others.
“Those guys struggling the most during this drought are the ones that don’t have anything to feed their cattle — then you’ve got to sell,” he said. “Those cattle are how you make money, so it’s a vicious cycle.”
The drought has cut down on purchases, and Ben said that may be a small silver lining. Farmers are maintaining strict controls over their cost of production.
“When times are good, farmers tend to pay the price and buy it,” Ben said. “When times are tough, they shop around a little more and put pressure on the retailers.”
Still, spending money on equipment seems to be a never-ending story, and Ben said whether buying new or fixing up older machinery, a farmer is still shelling out cash.
“We’ve tightened up with some equipment purchases, but that’s one industry that really has the farmers,” he said. “They either get your money if you buy something new or get your money on parts if you have to fix the old stuff. There’s not a lot you can do about it. Those costs have gotten out of control.”
With a dozen crops to choose from, Ben said they’ll be doing their homework over the winter to pencil out which crops have the best guarantee and what will bring the best yield with the right price. For this year, crop insurance will be as important as ever.
“One great thing about farming is crop insurance,” Ben said. “That really saves a lot of farmers.”
As with most farmers and ranchers, the Kuhns are optimists. They envision the perfect amount of sunshine and rain combining for a great crop in 2018.
In 2008, Jeff’s wheat was so bad, it was zeroed out and wasn’t combined. Then, 2009 brought a lot of rain and one of his best crops. And that’s why Ben sees better days ahead.
“Years like this happen, you get through them,” Ben said. “It doesn’t pay to be bitter about it. All you can control is what you can control. Knowing that my dad and his dad and his dad all got through these tough times, it goes to show you that it can be done. You’ve just got to figure out how to do it.”
— Chris Aarhus, NDFU