New ideas emerge in region's farm fields with space-age data, fresh techniques

From a country road or highway, farming may appear to change little from year-to-year. The motoring passerby it's hard see a vast world of experimentation that goes on behind the scenes.

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Tylor Johnson, mechanic and agronomist at Johnson AirSpray, Inc., at Argyle, Minn., is helping farmers aerially plant barley to protect sugar beets from wind damage. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Courtesy Johnson AirSpray, Inc.)

From a country road or highway, farming may appear to change little from year-to-year. The motoring passerby it's hard see a vast world of experimentation that goes on behind the scenes.

But experimentation is there, driving forward a craft and science that puts food on the table and money into the region's economy.

Hiram Drache of Moorhead, Minn., who has has written nine books about agricultural technology and innovation since the 1960s, said the United States has the best agricultural education and best research complex in the world, but that a lot of the innovation starts on the farm.

Drache has been active in the Northwest Farm Managers in the Red River Valley, a farm group that shares innovations in farm business and techniques. He said farmers are "looking for ideas all of the time, anticipating the future," and that coming up with new ideas is an ongoing thing. Farmers across North Dakota and Minnesota have come up with major improvements.

For instance, the Steiger family at Thief River Falls, Minn., who came up with innovations in four-wheel-drive tractors.


That kind of innovation changes the face of agriculture and the world, Drache said.

"They say that if it's in somebody's mind, they're already going to be doing it," he said.

Here is a look at five farms or agribusinesses -near the Minnesota communities of Argyle, Crookston and Fergus Falls and the North Dakota communities of Maddock and Oriska-that are trying something new this year.

Flying cover

Tylor Johnson, a mechanic and agronomist for Johnson AirSpray, Inc., helped his third-generation crop-spraying business in Argyle, Minn., by aerially-seeding barley as a cover-crop for sugar beets this year.

At age 25, Johnson is following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Lyndley Johnson, who started the business about 40 years ago. Tylor's father, Lynn Johnson, owns a separate business with the same name in Grafton, N.D. The two enterprises work together.

Tylor graduated high school in 2008 from Stephen-Argyle Central High School and went to Madison, S.D., to attend crop dusting school at Riggin Flight Services. He is finishing up an agronomy degree at South Dakota State University at Brookings.

Planting cover crops by air for sugar beets is a more common practice in southern Minnesota, but recently has crept into the northern Red River Valley. "I would say we started a little of it in 2013," Johnson said. "I feel like it's moving its way north. I tell my growers it's becoming more popular every year." He thinks about 5 percent of customers were doing it in 2015.


Ryan Rivard, one of his customers at Argyle, said the early planting season in the Red River Valley meant sugar beets would have a longer growing season and a bigger potential yield to protect, so the aerial-applied cover crops makes sense.

"We're taking a precaution and applying cover crops," Rivard said.

Young sugar beet seedlings can twist in the wind "like little helicopters, and just fly out" of the ground when it's dry and windy, like it was this year, Johnson said. "Barley germinates faster, grows taller faster, and helps protect that from happening."

Johnson plants at a rate of one-third bushel of seed per acre, seeding at 120 mph, 50 feet off the ground, usually just before the farmer on the ground plants beets. "I can go out there and do a quarter in about 20 minutes," he said.

It costs about $10 an acre to plant barley as a cover crop. The same equipment is used for spreading urea, a dry nitrogen fertilizer that can top-dress corn before it tassels, or wheat at shin height.

Dishing data

Those two gleaming geodesic domes that have sprung up like mushrooms in Lanny Faleide's pasture near Maddock, N.D., are signs of an increasing connection between high-tech agriculture and the space industry.

Faleide is president of Satshot, Inc., in Fargo. This year he's leasing some of his farmstead pastureland to Planet Labs, Inc., for a set of dome satellite data receivers. The domes are North Dakota's first satellite receiving dishes in the state, designed to capture data that can be used in farming and other industries.


Satshot's predecessor company started in 1994 at Maddock, where Faleide was farming at the time. The company was known as Agri ImaGIS Technologies but reincorporated in 2014 as Satshot, the name by which its products and services are known. The company distributes and markets satellite imagery and value-added products for the precision agriculture market, delivering crop health maps for farmers' fields. The company also creates tools that allow farmers to use that data to allow variable-rate application of seed, fertilizer and chemicals. The company monitors 12 million acres, and provides active subscribers with automatic notification of new information covering 3.5 million acres.

Until now, Satshot has relied on satellite imagery acquired from many sources. "Now we want to start having our own satellites, our own access so we can control them and provide a higher-quality product for the agricultural industry," Faleide said.

In the wake of the NASA space shuttle program ending, the civilian pace industry has taken off. One of the companies in that industry is San Francisco-based Planet Labs, Inc., which delivers "the world's largest constellation of earth-imaging satellites," according to the company's website.

The "Doves," or CubeSats, are 4-inch cubes. Three are put together for a 12-inch-long satellite. Planet Labs expects to have about 200 of them airborne by next year.

Satshot, a distributor for Planet Labs' data in the agricultural market, is exploring owning a share of the constellation, with naming rights for one or more of the satellites. Each satellite costs $3.5 million, but Satshot would have $1 million share of it.

"It's like a timeshare," Faleide said.

This summer, Faleide rented part of his farmland for the satellite dishes and domes. North Dakota has some of the best fiber optics in the country, Faleide said, so it's perfect for transferring the data.

Bulk, not box


Community Supported Agriculture is a relatively new concept in the Red River Valley, with a handful of companies succeeding year in, year out.

Mark Boen and his wife, Diane, supply a range of vegetable crops to their Bluebird Gardens customers in the region-primarily in the Fargo-Moorhead and lakes areas.

The Boens, who live in Fergus Falls, Minn., made a big marketing move this year-shifting from pre-built boxes at a drop site to bulk and build-your-own boxes at four locations in the Fargo area, with a dozen sites throughout the lakes region.

Boen grew up on a dairy farm, taught third grade, and transitioned into vegetables starting in 1978. He sold vegetables through road stands for many years but shifted to a Community Supported Agriculture model about six years ago. Bluebird Gardens has about 1,800 clients-mostly within 80 miles of Fergus Falls-who get a weekly supply of vegetables at "build-your-own, box-at-the-truck locations." The farm includes 404 acres, of which 165 are vegetables and the rest are cover crops like vetch, rye, sudangrass, field peas, oats, buckwheat, wildflower and clover-all to build up the soil. They have a new apple orchard.

"We're wanting to give our members flexibility and choice, to be totally in charge of how they use their CSA," he said. "They get to come to the truck locations, especially when summer is really rolling, and put the quantity and variety of what they want in their box. If they want broccoli because company is coming, that's what they're going to be able to put in their box. We're giving them flexibility to skip weeks, double-up on other weeks and totally meet their needs."

Some people want kale every week; some don't want it at all.

"They're going to have the chance to have it their way," Boen said

The system works with punch cards. Clients purchase packages of boxes per year across a 20-week harvest season from mid-June to October. Initially, there will be limits because of this year's extreme weather and colder spring.


But Boen promises that by mid-July the trucks will be over-stuffed with the core vegetables-potatoes, beets, onions tomatoes, cucumbers and the new and "exciting things" like kale and bok choy. The new method will give more connection with the members, to encourage them to come back and be a part of the CSA.

"In the long run it's going to be win-win on all sides," he said.

Through the rye

Robin Brekken started shifting from conventional farming to organic in 1998 and was fully certified by 2001. Every year there's something new to learn, and this year it's another lesson in how to keep his soybeans and sunflowers coming through the rye-literally.

Near Crookston, the Robin and Karen Brekken Farm Partnership entity farms grain: barley, yellow field peas, spring wheat, soybeans, oil-type sunflowers and yellow corn. The Robin Brekken, Inc. entity raises the alfalfa and alfalfa grass forage crop, also for the organic market-mostly dairy cattle in Wisconsin, Indiana and Pennsylvania.

Markets and marketing opportunities are growing for more organic crops, Robin Brekken said.

One of the big challenges in organic farming is weed suppression. In 2014, he remembers there were five weeks that it was too wet to get into his fields, and there was no organic weed control product to apply by air. Organic farmers can't use synthetic herbicides.

This year, Brekken said he is expanding on a weed control technique of planting rye in the fall as a cover crop.


The process started last fall on what would be 250 acres of soybeans and 350 acres of sunflowers this spring. The fall rye grew a few inches in the fall, survived the winter and then grew to more than four feet in the spring.

Brekken planted the soybeans or sunflowers into standing rye, and then used a crimper to destroy the rye before it sets viable seed. The crimper lays down the rye to cover the row, laying down a mat of vegetation that prevents sunlight from hitting the soil and suppresses weeds. "If we can do the system right, and get adequate moisture, we have very good weed control in the system," Brekken said.

The 45-foot crimper looks like a rock-roller cylinder with paddlewheel-like blades that crimp the stalk every five to six inches. The effort must be timed right after pollination. "If you try to mow it, shred it, crimp it prior to pollination, it's just like mowing the grass. It just comes back," Brekken said.

Because of this year's wild weather, Brekken wasn't comfortable that the crimping had done the job. To make sure the rye wouldn't spring back and produce viable seed, he followed the crimping with a shredding. A stalk shredder is something like a large lawnmower, traveling down the 22-inch-rows, leaving about 10 inches of rye stubble for the soybeans to grow through.

Y-Drop kicker

Mark Winter and his brother, Steve, raise corn, soybeans, spring wheat, durum wheat and barley in near Oriska in Barnes County, N.D. This year they tried a new kind of fertilization technique-Y Dropping-for their corn.

Winter Farms Family Partnership applies anhydrous ammonia fertilizer in the prior fall with an average of 110 pounds of nitrogen per acre. They add another 40 pounds of nitrogen in the form of urea in the spring-varying the rate to shoot for a 150 bushel-per-acre corn yield.

In a project led by employee Chad Shape, they add an extra dose of nitrogen using Y Drop brand applicator for side-dressing nitrogen just before tasseling. The molded Y Drop apparatus has two hoses, dropped between each row. Each of the hoses touches a stalk and delivers nitrogen plant food as the tractor moves through the field.

Most farmers in the region "side dress" nitrogen using a knife applicator, putting it midway between the rows.

The Winters theorize that the Y Drop puts nitrogen more directly to the plant roots than putting the nitrogen in the center between the rows and waiting for the corn roots to grow to it, or waiting for rain to move the nitrogen to the roots.

"We're not doing it on every acre," Mark Winter said. "Maybe next year, or the year after, we'll find it feasible enough to go full bore."

Typically, the Winters test something for three years before they adopt it more widely on their farm.

Also, Shape instigated an experiment in soybean seed spacing.

Normally they plant soybeans at a rate of 180,000 plants per acre in 15-inch rows. In 2014 they tried crisscrossing two rows with 22-inch spacing, using a Case-IH 1260 planter. Each direction they planted 90,000 seeds per acre each -180,000 seeds total. The yield turned out somewhat better and very consistent across the field.

This year, the Winters decided to do a similar thing with an air seeder. They dropped down the ranks for a 7.5-inch spacing. This "double-chute" technique delivers heavier or lighter rates-all for a total planting rate of 170,000 seeds per acre.

The Winters look at university tests but like their on-farm tests, too.

"We're getting a true test across many types of soil, and different hybrids and seed companies," Mark Winter said. "And we're doing it on a bigger scale to see what works, using our own equipment and our own techniques."

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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