Million-dollar farming– will there be a payday?

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A $500,000 John Deere combine comes to the end of a 12 rows of sunflower.

They are million dollar crops in million dollar weather using million dollar machines.

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Taking advantage of the million-dollar weather, a half-million dollar combine opens a field of corn, making the first pass. The machine “combines” several processes, slicing the corn stalk, removing the ear from the stalk and the kernels from the cob, separating the chaff to blow out the back of the machine.

There’s a lot a farmer can do to produce a profitable crop…and a lot he can’t do — it’s out of his hands.  This fall, North Dakota farmers are reminded as they bring in their crops, they made some good choices on nutrients, timing, crop variety.   They know too, that this wonderful fall weather of no snow and warm temps is helping them get the job done.

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Farmers put in long days at harvest, taking advantage of every weather opening provided. If it’s raining or snowing the stalks are too tough and the crop has too much moisture to harvest.

It’s a very expensive job.  One combine, such as the first one above, working a sunflower field, is about a half-million dollars.  That’s just part of the investment.  14992051_10155638816387619_3125389476639882384_nThe immense fields, some a mile-long are too large for a combine to make it across the field and back without emptying. So, the combine operator will empty on the go, continuing to pluck the crop from the stalks while emptying in to a grain cart that carries the crop to a waiting semi truck.

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A tractor and grain cart roll along side of a working combine to receive what is in the combine’s hopper, then carry it back to a waiting truck. North Dakota supplies the world with food and fuel, as the wind turbines in the background create electricity for places such as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

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A four-wheel drive John Deere tractor with large dual wheels to prevent wheel depressions in the soft earth pulls a grain cart on tracs. It follows the combine to retrieve a load of corn when the combine’s hopper is full.

Even though the work is uplifting, gathering in the fruit of a year’s labor’s, it can be challenging when the weather does not cooperate. In those years, the harvest is completed in the snow — after the cold-blooded diesel engines on the large tractors get started, which is a huge and frustrating task on most mornings.  That’s another reason this year’s million-dollar weather has been helpful — the machinery is not having to work hard with sluggish oil and brittle components.

Not every harvest takes place in accommodating weather. Most years, this is the view from the tractor pulling a grain cart down the road.

Not every harvest takes place in accommodating weather. Most years, this is the view from the tractor pulling a grain cart down the road.

Despite their investment, it’s possible they will have nothing to show for it this year.  Northern plains farmers, such as these in North Dakota, have millions of dollars invested in their harvest equipment, and millions more in their planting equipment. The weather is only one of the factors outside of their control; prices are abysmal.  Crop prices, such as corn, are at or near the break-even point.

That means that for all the work, for all the investment, it’s likely that many farmers will not make a profit this year.  They will go unpaid for their labor, barely earning enough money to pay the bank for the loans they took out to buy their equipment. Hopefully  they will have enough money to plant next year’s crop.

A Depression-era song that Ry Cooder recorded sums it up:

We worked through spring and winter, through summer and through fall
But the mortgage worked the hardest and the steadiest of us all
It worked on nights and Sundays, it worked each holiday
Settled down among us and it never went (away

The farmer comes to town with his wagon broken down
The farmer is the man who feeds us all
If you only look and see I know you will agree
That the farmer is the man who feeds us all

 

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Reasons to see North Dakota in the fall, photo safari — Evening gold Pt 1.

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Domesticated sunflowers never rotate with the sun unlike their natural cousins that follow the sun. That’s why this mature field of sunflowers face east with the sun at their back. (One reason I like this photo, besides the leading lines is the hot/cold contrast of ground color and sky color.)

This fall, I’ve taken to exploring the last hour of the day with camera and dog.  That’s  easy to do because the golden hour is actually pretty early these autumn days; the colors are warm and the contrasting light is illuminating.  The golden hour, the golden sunset and the golden colors are striking.

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Gunnar the foster dog leaps through tall prairie grasses on our walks. The golden grass, yellow skies and his yellow fur compliment each other

About 4:00 or so, the dog gets pretty alert and by 5:00, he’s ready to go.   He’ll pace back and forth or stand by the back door until I am ready.  Then he gets to the truck to wait for me, and off we go to find an abandoned section line road to explore.

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Even just eight wind turbines disrupt the horizon. Imagine what 105 turbines do to the landscape.

Up until about 8 years ago, there were more opportunities, but more than 100 wind turbines were set up south and east of me.  There’s not much enjoyment in shooting miles and miles of wind turbines.  I find them to be intrusive. So to avoid the wind turbines, now I explore west and north of Wilton, mostly north.  There are not too many golden hour opportunities to the west. The Missouri River is about 8 miles from me, the hills and valleys separate section line roads. I stick to roads and section line paths, staying off private property, so there are not many chances to get out and photograph the area without trespassing on a farmer’s property.  I’ve been heading north of Wilton where there are more gravel roads and abandoned section line roads.golden-sunset-north-of-wilton-corn-and-gravel-road-sig-small

Our routine is similar each night. We drive until we find a good place to stop, then walk, looking for patterns, images to capture. Well, I look for them. The dog, he’s just off running.  It’s his free time.

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I couldn’t see any approach roads. It’s just a house in the middle of the stubble field.

Sometimes we come across a surprising revelation. In this case (photo below),  we parked the truck, hiked up over the hill and caught the lower valley beyond the hill. An abandoned house with no noticeable roads or lanes nearby, just sitting in the middle of a small grain stubble field.

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No longer yellow and green, but still attractive with the nubbly texture of a raw sunflower head.

Other times we walk along a yet-to-be harvested field. As I noted above, sunflowers are some of the last to come off, weeks after small grains and beans.

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Hauling roughly a half-semi trailer of grain, a powerful John Deere on tracks not wheels heads to the working combine to unload the combine hopper as it keeps moving down the rows.

Sometimes we’ll be headed down a trail, and can hear the sound of million-dollars of machinery working.  Fields are so large that farmers need a grain cart pulled by a high-powered tractor to collect the grain from the working combine out in the field, and then haul it to the end of the field and a waiting truck.

Drive or walk to the other end of the section and you’ll come up on the combine doing it’s season-ending work. .

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Sunset behind, the farmer keeps working to finish his cornfield.

It’s not too profound of a statement to say that this is an agricultural area, but that does not mean there are not opportunities to get in to wildlife regions.  I’ll see what I can do to show you that, next time.  Do you have fall hiking areas in North Dakota that you can recommend?  What are section line roads like in your area?

 

Between the rancher's fence lines is what used to be an active road, a section line road laid out on every section on one-mile grids. Most are no longer accessible or visible.

Between the rancher’s fence lines is what used to be an active road, a section line road laid out on every section on one-mile grids. Most are no longer accessible or visible.