A Day in the Life of a North Dakota Farmer

In North Dakota, farming is a way of life. Agriculture makes up 25% of North Dakota’s economic base, and nearly 24% of the workforce in the agricultural sector. At the same time, the risks in agriculture have never been higher. Factors beyond a farmer’s control—disastrous weather, drought, infestations, price collapse, and adverse trade policies—can put entire family farms on the line, and our rural way of life at risk.

North Dakota farmers are some of the most hardworking people you’ll ever meet, but the administration’s trade war is treating them like collateral damage. With China — which is typically the largest buyer of North Dakota soybeans — drastically reducing orders for U.S. soybeans, and a surplus of last year’s crop still occupying grain bins and elevators, this year’s crop literally has nowhere to go.

In this article, North Dakota farmer Jon Casavant from Rugby shared a window into the day in a life of a farmer and how concerns over trade, the weather, and the day-to-day challenges of farm life impact North Dakotan farmers, their families and their communities.

In the U.S. Senate, I’ve been introducing legislation to help our farmers, meeting with top administration officials, pressing our trading partners, and hearing from North Dakotans who are impacted by the administration’s trade war.

— U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp

Rugby, North Dakota soybean farmer Jon Casavant

I’m Jon Casavant from Rugby, North Dakota. It’s a busy time in my neck of the woods, with farmers like me contending with changing weather and fields full of crops that need to be harvested.

Here’s a taste of what life is like in farm country this time of year. Like many farm families, it’s a challenge to balance the demands of the job with raising a family. I like to get up around 6:30 am, make breakfast, and help the kids get ready for school.

When things get busy during harvest, I’m fortunate to have a family that enjoys pitching in.

When they’re out of the door around 8:30 am, I drive 36 miles north to my 2,800 acres of land located near Dunseith. It’s only a handful of miles away from the Canadian border, and mornings can be quite cold in October. While I’m bundled up waiting for mist to clear and dew to dry, it’s a rat race to get equipment ready and repair anything that broke the day before. There’s always something to do — routine maintenance, applying grease, fixing leaks.
When things get busy during harvest, I’m fortunate to have a family that enjoys pitching in. My parents, who are retired, lend a hand, as do two of my brothers. My dad’s first cousin, a retired veteran, also makes time to run one of the combines. Even my 9-year-old nephew helps out during harvest. Outside the farm they have lives, careers, and families of their own, but they sacrifice their time to help this family operation be as productive and successful as possible.

My brother runs the grain cart, which hauls soybeans from the combine to the truck.

My kids also show some interest in the farm, but at 15, 12, and 10 years old, they also have busy schedules with school and sports. Their activities are located in Rugby, which makes it hard for them to help out in our fields in Dunseith and still make it to weekend volleyball games. Thankfully my wife, who works as an occupational therapist in Rubgy, can take them to their games during busy times so I can stay in the field.

But this is not a normal year. I have 800 acres of soybeans, and because of the administration’s trade war, I’m not running them to town.

On days we’re harvesting, there’s normally not much day-to-day variation– morning repairs, combining, moving equipment from field to field, and in normal years, running trucks to town to market our crop at the local grain elevator.

But this is not a normal year. I have 800 acres of soybeans, and because of the administration’s trade war, I’m not running them to town. Instead, I’ll have to store them in the hope that I can sell at a later date at a price that won’t put me in the red. The challenge is, like many farmers in North Dakota, I’ve never had to store soybeans — you can usually sell them right off the field.

In other states, I’m hearing farmers will still be able to still sell their soybeans, albeit at a loss. But in North Dakota, we sell most of our soybeans to China, which ship out of the Pacific Northwest. Orders are being cancelled and trains just aren’t heading in that direction. So we’ve got to find space to store whatever we’re not already contracted to sell, which is a huge amount of soybeans.

I’ve been doing my research and using information published by NDSU to learn how to store this year’s soybean crop. Because they’re harder to preserve in storage, it’s best to keep soybeans in grain bins with big fans that circulate the air. But I was still storing durum from 2017 in my circulated bins, so I recently had to spend several days transferring the durum out to make room for the soybeans. It might not sound like a big deal, but it’s time consuming and something that we’ve never faced before.

It’s just one way the uncertainty of the trade war has thrown a wrench in our plans this year. I looked into buying more bins for storage, but the dealers are being affected by the administration’s steel and aluminum tariffs and are having trouble giving quotes when they don’t even know what their costs are going to be. It’s an example of how the tentacles of this trade war are long. When my bottom line is in question, it affects the whole supply chain, and businesses that are important to our community, like the seed guys and farm equipment dealers, also get hurt.

After a field is harvested there’s still work to be done before winter arrives, harrowing and preparing the soil for next spring’s planting.

Soybeans aside, this has been a good year for my other crops. I have 1,400 acres of spring wheat and 600 acres of canola. While some areas near Dunseith were too dry, my land was in a sweet spot and caught some good rains, and things are looking good for a successful harvest.

Things like the weather you can’t control, but this administration’s trade war is a reminder that political and market uncertainty can be just as damaging as the weather.

Weather is a constant challenge. I ditch the winter hat after the sun works its magic on the morning chill, and I’m often combining in a t-shirt. But moisture is a constant worry — the fields need to be uniformly dry to get a good harvest. Wet or snowy days can set us back, and even do damage to an otherwise promising crop if it doesn’t dry quickly enough.

Farmers are always thinking three days ahead, trying to plan to make everything run smoothly. Things like the weather you can’t control, but this trade war is a reminder that political and market uncertainty can be just as damaging as the weather. Hopefully the politicians can fix this soon. There’s a number of things we think about on a daily basis, but this is the top concern right now. It definitely weighs on a person’s mind, not knowing if this is a temporary or long-term disruption.

After a long day on the combine, I get on Highway 3 and head back to Rugby around 10 or 11 pm, usually too late to say goodnight to my kids during harvest. During quieter times, I always try to make it home for supper. Having children, I don’t want to wake up one day when they’re grown and gone, and feel like I’ve done nothing but work. Life on the farm is demanding, but there’s nothing more rewarding than raising a family with the North Dakota values that get us back in the field, year after year, despite whatever challenges are thrown our way.

Published with permission from Jon Casavant (Rugby, North Dakota)