ANETA, N.D. – On an early March day, the last of Fred Lukens’ 2020 malting barley, stored in a steel bin on his farm, sprayed from a grain evacuator and into a waiting semi truck.
Despite the icy wind, single-digit temperatures and snow-covered fields that made the day feel and look like mid-winter, Lukens' 2021 spring planting preparation already was well underway. Besides hauling out the remainder of last year’s crop and delivering it to the elevator, the Aneta farmer had performed maintenance on his tractors, planters and tillage equipment, planned out what he will grow this year and purchased seed and fertilizer.
Lukens will seed malting barley, corn and soybeans on 2,600 acres this farming season – his 25th. The acreage is in four counties – Grand Forks, Nelson, Steele and Griggs – but within 15 miles of the farmstead he and his wife, Jane Huso Lukens, run.
The couple met at UND, where Lukens played basketball from 1972 to 1977. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in speech, radio and television in 1976, Lukens earned a master's degree in communications, with minors in marketing and management in 1977.
Lukens went to work full-time for Simmons Advertising, where he had done an internship during college after getting his master’s degree. By 1984, he was the agency’s owner.
In 1997 Lukens sold the advertising agency, and he and Jane moved from Grand Forks to a farm near Aneta to work in her family’s grain operation. While he was farming, Lukens continued to work-part time for the advertising company, now called Flint Communications, until 2019, when he retired from the advertising business.
Lukens, 66, has no plans yet to retire from farming. This farming season, like others, he is basing his crops rotation on a variety of factors, including moisture conditions and markets.
Last year, for example, when fields were extremely wet, he didn’t plant corn because he wouldn’t have been able to seed it by May 20, the date it needed to go into the ground so it would mature before freezing temperatures.
Lukens' philosophy is “let’s try to work with Mother Nature,” he said.
This year, with moisture conditions so far signaling a much earlier start to the growing season, Lukens will include corn in his crops rotation.
Besides typically raising two row crops annually, Lukens long has grown malting barley for the Anheuser-Busch company.
“In general, I prefer harvesting in August to harvesting in December. That’s why we tilted to the barley side,” Lukens said.
Raising malting barley is challenging, requiring careful management of nitrogen fertilizer. If too much is applied, the barley will “lodge,” or fall over, making it difficult to harvest. Meanwhile, too much nitrogen will result in protein higher than the 13.5% required by the malting industry, Lukens said. On the flip side, if too little of the fertilizer is applied, barley yields will be reduced.
The challenges involved in raising barley and other crops is one of the reasons Lukens enjoys farming.
“Being from a sports background, I like the competitiveness of it,” he said. “(Former Green Bay Packers coach) Vince Lombardi had a quote: ‘The pros do basics right every day.’”
The basics of farming frequently change, so continuously making knowledge-based decisions to tweak them is mandatory, Lukens said.
“There are so many things we know a little about," Lukens said. “You have to be careful you don’t make a wild move on a little knowledge.”
Besides ongoing learning, Lukens enjoys the opportunity farming offers to work outside, doing a variety of tasks.
"What you do in the spring is different than in the fall,” he said.
As another spring rapidly approaches, Lukens looks forward to what this growing season will bring. Though the fall was dry and not much snow fell this winter, Lukens isn't too concerned about the lack of moisture.
“What we have now is no predictor of what crop we’ll have in the fall. None of us knows exactly what the growing season will be like.
“Farmers are eternal optimists. You want to plant another crop to see if it will work,” Lukens said.