Dec 27, 2015 at 02:17 PM CST
By Jonathan Knutson / Agweek Staff Writer
FAIRDALE, N.D. — Yes, Dustin McGregor has heard the jokes and stories about farmers in winter: They goof off, they sleep late every day, they lounge on Mexican beaches.
“It’s hard to tell if people are just giving you grief or if they’re serious,” says the Fairdale, N.D., farmer.
But McGregor is sure of this: He stays busy even when he doesn’t have crops in the field.
“It’s true that I have more downtime in the winter,” he says. “I’m not working sunrise to sunset like I do during the growing season. But there’s still plenty to do. I still probably put in 40 to 50 hours a week.”
The long list of winter tasks includes working on machinery, hauling grain from on-farm bins into town and catching up on marketing, tax law changes, federal farm programs and new chemical and seed varieties.
Winter also allows him to spend more time with his wife, Sara, and their year-old-son, Ben.
“I don’t see as much of them as I’d like — as I should — the rest of the year,” Dustin says. “So it’s important to do it when I can. Now, when it’s dark out, I quit for the day and spend time with family.”
Sara agrees that Dustin stays busy in the winter.
“When I married a farmer, I knew he’d be busy in the summer,” says Sara, who wasn’t raised in a farm family. “And he is, even busier than I expected. But I thought he’d be home a lot in the winter — and that’s not the the case. He works Monday through Friday, even though it’s winter.”
Farmers in northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota sometimes refer to “crop season” and “meeting season.”
Crop season starts in the spring when farmers begin preparing to plant their fields. It ends in October, November or even December, if fall weather doesn’t cooperate. There’s fieldwork to be done even after crops are harvested; soil must be “worked” — farmer parlance for preparing it for the next year’s crop.
Meeting season starts in early winter and ends in early to mid spring. In those three or four months, farmers and ranchers attend meetings, farm shows and conferences organized by the extension service, commodity groups, financial institutions and seed and chemical companies.
Some events target a particular crop or issue. Other events offer a wide range of information.
McGregor attends at least a few events every meeting season.
This year he attended the annual Canola Expo in Langdon, N.D. He grows canola — a staple in northern North Dakota agriculture — and the Langdon event helped him learn more about new developments involving the crop.
He also plans to attend the annual North Dakota State University Extension Service Roundup Jan. 5-6 in Devils Lake. Roundup tackles a wide range of crops and issues.
“(2015) just got over, and we’re already planning for 16. You don’t get much of a break in there,” he says. “You get a little time to sigh and relax, but not much.”
Grain to haul
McGregor, like other area farmers, does more in winter than attend meetings.
Among other tasks, he’s already done year-end tax planning, worked on grain marketing, studied numbers from his combine’s yield monitors and examined results from area seed test centers.
“If you order by Dec. 15, you can get nice discounts on seed,” he says.
Cold weather also allows him to catch up on reading Agweek and other farm publications, a job that often gets put off during harvest.
Another winter task is preparing a newsletter about his farm for landowners from whom he rents land. Experts recommend doing so, especially for landowners who live outside the area and may not be familiar with agriculture.
There’s physical work, as well.
A recently built heated shop on his farm allows McGregor to work on machinery during the winter, rather than pay an equipment dealership to do it.
His biggest winter challenge is hauling grain from on-farm bins to town. Farmers store grain after harvest, rather than sell it, in hopes that prices will improve.
McGregor has 125,000 bushels of stored grain this year. Trucking it to town will require many days of work, especially if the weather is nasty.
“When it’s below zero and windy, getting things done is really hard,” he says.
Bad winter weather sometimes lead to power failures on his farmstead, an even bigger concern now that he and Sara have a baby son.
“When you’re out here (in the country) and the power goes off for a couple of days — well, you’ve got to be ready for that,” he says. “You need to be sure your generators are working.”
Livestock for some
Many area farmers operate diversified farms, which means they raise both crops and livestock. The latter keeps ag producers active year-round, and especially busy when their animals give birth in late winter or early spring.
It’s unclear how many diversified farms exist in North Dakota and Minnesota. Even the best available information — from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, which is conducted every 5 years — doesn’t provide a good answer.
North Dakota has about 31,000 farms, of which roughly a third have at least one kind of livestock, according to census numbers. But some farms have more than one kind of animal, so it’s difficult to determine the exact number with livestock. What’s more, it’s uncertain how many of the 31,000 have both crops and livestock.
The census says Minnesota has about 75,000 farms, of which a third have at least some kind of livestock. Again, it’s difficult to tell how many have livestock and how many have both crops and livestock.
McGregor says his land doesn’t offer the opportunities for hay and grazing that livestock require.
“But if my land were suited for livestock, I’d sure consider it,” he says.
It’s not unusual for farmers or their spouses to hold off-farm jobs during the winter or even year-round. But as is the case with diversified farms, good numbers are hard to come by.
Ninety-one percent of U.S. farm households have at least one member holding an off-farm job, a 2013 USDA survey found. Take that with a grain of salt, however. The survey included very small farms, often known as “hobby farms,” that aren’t their owners’ primary occupation or source of income.
McGregor is well acquainted with working off the farm, though the 30-year-old producer doesn’t do so now that his operation is established.
He earned a college degree in power plant technology, which helped him land a full-time job at an oilseed processing plant in Enderlin, N.D. He worked there for two years, farming and serving in the North Dakota National Guard at the same time.
Sara works full time as an administrative assistant at the North Dakota State University Extension Service Research Center in Langdon.
Her off-farm income and the health insurance it brings are a big help financially, the McGregors say say.
During their visit with Agweek, Dustin and Sara take turns holding Ben with abundant pride and affection. Ben was born prematurely, but has reached the normal weight for his age and is doing well.
“He’s exceeded all the doctor’s expectations. You wouldn’t even know now that he was born prematurely,” Sara says, who expects that Ben will begin walking soon.
Winter gives Sara and Dustin a chance for snowmobiling and ice fishing. They particularly enjoy fishing on Lake Winnipeg and sloughs in the Jamestown, N.D., area, where Sara’s family live.
They hunted deer this fall. Sara shot a good-sized buck. Dustin didn’t get a deer, passing up numerous opportunities at deer that were smaller than he wanted.
Dustin and Sara spend time in the winter with friends and Sara’s family, too.
Dustin, for his part, runs three times a week on a treadmill in the basement. “There’s physical work in the winter, but not as much,”he says. “So I want to stay in shape.”
Sarah smiles and says that winter allows Dustin to work on household jobs.
“She really likes this time of year because I can catch up on my ‘honey-do list’ that gets neglected all summer long,” he says with a chuckle.
“Isn’t that your most enjoyable thing?” Sara says with another smile.
Dustin, turning serious, says, “No, I don’t work as hard in the winter. But I’m not goofing off, either.”