NORTHWOOD, N.D. – Ice-encrusted soybeans fly over the combine hopper and skitter across the frozen ground as Peter Welte readies the combine to harvest his crop.
Chopping iced-in soybeans off the machine’s sensor plate, along with fueling up the combine with cold-thickened diesel fuel that flows into the combine at a snail’s pace, are irritations that have come with the 2019 harvest season. Welte’s soybean harvest, like that of other farmers across eastern North Dakota, was delayed by more than a month because rain and snow made fields too muddy to support equipment.
Welte seems to take it all in stride, though, chatting with visitors while squeezing hard on the grease gun trigger to get the nearly solid lubricant out of it and onto the combine zerks. A farmer since he was a teenager, Welte has been through challenging harvest seasons before , and knows he probably will again.
While he has been farming for most of his life, this fall Welte, 54, made a second lifetime commitment: He was confirmed as a federal judge. The U.S. Senate confirmed Welte as chief United States district judge of the United States District Court on July 30, six months after he was nominated by President Donald Trump.
Welte has been an attorney since 1997, when he graduated from UND Law School. After law school he worked in private practice and in the public sector before his nomination to the federal judgeship.
Throughout the past 22 years since his graduation from law school, and during the 13 post-high school years before that, Welte also has farmed, growing grain and row crops on family land near Northwood, N.D. He made clear when he was nominated that he would be committed to being a federal judge, but that agriculture would remain an important part of his life, Welte said.
“I told them I planned on continuing to farm,” he said.
One way he’s able to balance farming and federal judgeship duties is using vacation time for farm work. So during a five-day stretch in November, Welte and a harvest crew – made up of his father, H.D. “Bud” Welte, son Cole and nephew Wyatt Morten – worked to take off the soybean crop. The eldest Welte ferried trucks back and forth from farm to field while the two young men drove and emptied the grain cart.
Once his combine was fueled and greased, North Dakota’s newest chief United States district judge headed into the field, guiding the machine around ponds of water in the still-wet soybean acres.
“There’s a natural allure to the idea that farming is something that begins in the spring and ends in the fall,” Welte said. “There’s a tangible beginning and end.”
Planting the crop in the spring and watching the combine header eat up the soybeans in the fall also provides Welte a respite. He uses the time to meditate and pray, he said
Meanwhile, he likes being part of the farming history in his family. He recalls as a small boy sitting on the fender of an open-air tractor and talking to his grandfather, Peter Peterson, while he drove up and down the field. By age 11, Welte was in the field on his own, using an old narrow front-end Allis Chalmers tractor to pick rocks.
“If you were good at picking rocks, you would graduate to cultivating summer fallow,” Welte recalled with a laugh.
“It never seemed like it was work when you were out there. ... It still doesn’t,” he said.
Though they seem like diverse careers, farming and a federal judgeship have similarities, Welte said.
“A case has a lifespan. I think that’s the parallel – farming has a set beginning and end,” he said.
Welte takes satisfaction in doing both farm and judge work to the best of his ability.
“I take great pride in doing this job and applying the law the way it’s supposed to be applied,” he said. “The law is a blunt instrument, so it’s important to remember that when you apply it and are sentencing someone.”