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Jonathan Knutson, Forum Communications, Published August 13 2012

Wheat harvest in full swing

GRAND FORKS – On a recent hot, dry August morning, farmers in northeast North Dakota were in full harvest mode. Combines rumbled through amber fields of wheat. Chaff billowed out behind the machines and wheat dust hung heavy in the nearly still air.

A Forum Communications visit to Grand Forks, Walsh and Pembina counties found ideal weather to harvest wheat. Though harvest shut down briefly in some areas after about an inch of rain two days earlier, producers had returned to their fields during FCC’s visit and were roaring through what remained of their standing wheat.

If rains hold off, most producers expect to be finished with their wheat by the middle of August. That would be roughly two weeks earlier than normal, a direct result of the warm, dry spring that allowed wheat fields to be planted two to three weeks earlier than usual.

Wheat yields in the area varied, but on balance were good. Quality was outstanding, farmers and elevator managers in the area say.

Because it was planted early, wheat in the three counties matured sooner than usual and avoided the worst of the drought’s effects.

Other crops there are struggling, though some areas have benefitted from relatively plentiful moisture this growing season.

Much, though not all, of Grand Forks, Walsh and Pembina counties is in the fertile Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota. Farmers in the three counties grow many crops, including corn, potatoes, soybeans, dry edible beans and sugar beets.

But wheat remains an agricultural cornerstone. In 2010 statewide spring wheat production, Pembina ranked fourth, Walsh fifth and Grand Forks sixth, according to figures from the North Dakota field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Here’s a closer look at what Forum Communications found during its swing through these three counties.

Early planting helped

INKSTER, N.D. – Gary Gonitzke grew up on a farm and has been farming himself since the 1970s.

On this hot morning in early August, he’s combining one of his few remaining fields of standing wheat. He’ll finish his wheat in a few days if it doesn’t rain.

He thinks carefully when asked if this will be the earliest he’s finished wheat harvest.

“Well, it’s one of the earliest years, that’s for sure. I don’t remember finishing sooner,” he says.

He’s pleased with his wheat harvest; yields are good, and quality is excellent.

Like other area wheat farmers, Gonitzke says planting his wheat early this year was a huge advantage. In contrast, his 2011 wheat crop was planted unusually late because of the wet spring. At this time last year, many of his wheat fields were still green and weeks away from harvest.

Gonitzke, whose two sons help on the farm, remembers that they’d returned to school before the 2011 wheat harvest was finished.

Though Gonitzke is enjoying wheat harvest, he’s concerned about his corn, soybeans and navy beans, which have been stressed by the drought.

Rain would help all three crops, even the navy beans, which he expects to begin harvesting in mid- to late August.

“It would be great if we could finish the wheat and then get some rain to help the other crops,” Gonitzke says.

New facility

CRYSTAL. N.D. – Larry McCollum, a veteran of the grain elevator industry, knows what it was like to work in old-style wooden facilities.

For the past year and a half, he’s enjoyed working in a new, state-of-the-art facility.

McCollum is station manager of Columbia Grain International’s 1.3-million-bushel facility in Crystal, population about 150. The new elevator, which opened in the spring of 2011, replaced Columbia Grain’s 340,000-square-foot facility in Crystal.

“It’s been great,” McCollum says of the new facility.

The greater storage capacity has allowed his elevator to handle more bushels from its existing customers, as well as add a few new customers, he says.

The wheat harvest in the Crystal area has gone well. Yields generally have been good, and quality has been mostly excellent.

Because the wheat crop’s quality is so good, the Crystal elevator, like many elevators in the region, isn’t paying a premium for high-protein wheat. But the elevator is paying less for low-protein wheat.

“We’re seeing a little of that (low-protein wheat), but not much,” he says.

The Crystal area probably has received more rain this summer than much of the Upper Midwest, so other crops such as corn and soybeans have held up relatively well, McCollum says.

But more rain is need, he says.

Better off than many

CAVALIER, N.D. – The wheat harvest also has gone well in the Cavalier area, says Tom Bovee, CHS-Cavalier location manager.

Like other agriculturalists in northeast North Dakota, he’s pleased with the yields and quality of this year’s wheat crops.

Other crops in much of the Cavalier area have held up fairly well, thanks to relatively plentiful rainfall this summer, he and others say.

Some of the rain came too hard and too fast, including a 4.5-inch downpour over the Fourth of July.

“The rain hasn’t always come in the amounts and at the times that we’d like, but at least we’ve gotten it,” he says. “We know we’re fortunate compared to a lot of areas.”

Jonathan Knutson writes for Agweek