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‘Living the Dream’

Tuesday, October 22, 2019
filed under: Rotation

Adam Bettenhausen, pictured here at age 5, always dreamed of being a farmer. Now, at age 30, he is living his dream, farming with his family near Wishek, N.D. (Photo courtesy Adam Bettenhausen)
       Adam Bettenhausen is living his dream. He grew up on a farm southwest of Wishek, N.D., playing with toy tractors and on real equipment parked in the yard, dreaming about the day he’d be working on his childhood farm.  He studied agriculture at North Dakota State University and, after graduating in 2012, quickly moved back to the farm. 
       “I’ve been here ever since,” he says.
       And at age 30, Bettenhausen has no intention of leaving this land.  The Bettenhausen farm is truly a family farm; Adam farms with his dad, Reggie, two uncles, Kerry and Cordell, his uncle’s son-in-law, Eric, and his younger brother, Nash, who has just finished college and returned to the farm.  On top of those six full-time farmers, Adam says another cousin in high school, Seth, helps in the summer.
       There is plenty of work to go around. The Bettenhausens grow wheat, sunflower, corn, soybeans and canola on their south central North Dakota farm. They have occasionally added winter wheat and peas into their rotation and run a cow calf operation with commercial red angus cattle.
        While Adam’s love of this land has stayed constant since he was a kid, the family’s dedication to growing sunflower has remained just as steady. 
       “We’ve been growing them as long as I can remember,” he says. “I remember when I was little we had an old Case row planter just for sunflower.  I remember helping dad combine sunflower when I was a kid. My grandpa started growing them when they first became popular in the 1970s. They were part of that big movement to plant sunflower. While they’ve lost popularity on a lot of farms around here, we’ve stuck with them. They work really well in dry years, and they’re good in a rotation with wheat.”
Adam Bettenhausen in one of his 2019 sunflower fields (Photo courtesy Adam Bettenhausen)
      The family plants anywhere from 1,400 to 1,900 acres of high-oleic sunflower every year. 
       “We plant sunflower on 20-25% of our cropland,” Bettenhausen says. “We’ve done high oleic the past few years, but we’ve grown NuSuns, confections and dehullers. We have been doing oils because the market has been consistent, and quality is easier to maintain.” 
       Bettenhausen says this year, sunflower acres are up in south central North Dakota. He credits that to a good crop in 2018.
       “I think when guys were making their decisions about what to plant this year, sunflower looked like a safe crop to plant, especially compared to what soybean and wheat budgets were projecting. Sunflower is a crop that can still pencil a profit through a year of tough markets and uncertain growing conditions. Neighbors see guys growing sunflower and doing well, and suddenly they want to implement that.”
       But not all of the Bettenhausens’ neighbors jumped on the sunflower wagon this year.  Too many remember their battles with blackbirds in previous years.   Those blackbirds were the reason many quit planting sunflower — and the reason Bettenhausen says some are hesitant to plant them again. 
       “It can be frustrating to grow this big beautiful field of sunflower only to have it decimated by the birds. There are tools that can help; but you have to be willing to put in the time and effort for those to be effective bird deterrents, and usually guys don’t have that kind of time.”
       The Bettenhausens take advantage of the USDA/APHIS/Wildlife Services program that loans out cannons and other tools to producers.  And Adam makes it a point to always be ready to battle the birds. 
       “This time of year (during early to mid-autumn), I carry the shotgun around, siren screamers and my drone in my pickup at all times.  Nothing works perfect; but if you’re willing to spend a lot of time you can keep the birds from doing a ton of damage.  It takes time and takes effort.”
       Harvesting early is another way the Bettenhausens have beaten the birds. Last year, the family desiccated a few fields and were able to get the sunflower harvested before the birds moved in. Those harvested fields also gave them a place to chase the birds to while they waited for the rest of the crop to ripen.
       This year, however, neither harvesting early nor desiccating the crop has been an option for the Bettenhausens.  It’s been a wet and rainy fall, and Adam says sunflower diseases were starting to be a problem for many growers in south central North Dakota.  (Note: This was written prior to the October snowstorm that hit the Dakotas.)
       “We have seen more disease this year than normal, and I know at least a few growers in my area that are talking about not growing sunflower again because of the disease issues they’re having,” Adam says. “But we’ll keep planting them and we’ll harvest this year’s crop. We had a really good-looking crop coming; but even if we lose up to 50% of the crop at the worst, we could still have a decent crop.”
       A decent crop that Adam is already working to make even better next year. When it comes to new ideas on the farm, that’s his department.
       “My dad and my uncles have years of experience, and they tend to make decisions based on their gut feelings,” explains Bettenhausen.  “I am very data driven, and I like to make decisions based off of that data.  I like technology — but I don’t want to use that technology just for the sake of using it. I want to use it to help us make the best decisions we can about our farm.  The data we are collecting help us choose the best varieties to plant, the best crop protection products, herbicides, fungicides, and lets us analyze different practices and timings.”
       Adam, who just turned 30, says his elders are supportive of his desire to use more technology as long as he puts in the work.  They might not check the iPad while harvesting, but they keep the iPad in the cab, so it’s recording the data Adam needs for his research. 
       And Bettenhausen is always watching what others are doing.  An example: in the heart of no-till country, a neighbor purchased a ripper. Bettenhausen is watching closely to see how that works.
       “I don’t know of anyone else who owns a ripper within 30 miles of us.  I’m interested to see if the benefits actually translate to better yields in our area. When you farm the same ground for 50-plus years, it can be easy to become complacent.  I don’t want that to happen to us.”
       One change Bettenhausen is already implementing is adding cover crops to their rotation.
       “I’ve got a CSP contract with the NRCS to do some cover cropping,” he notes.  “I’m excited to figure out how we can use them to improve our ground in the long term.  It will be a balancing act of keeping the seed costs low versus achieving the most beneficial soil health improvements.  But it’s something I wanted to try.  I am always looking for ways to be more efficient.”
       Because, Bettenhausen says, working the land he loves more efficiently will allow him to stay here and continue living his dream. 
— Jody Kerzman         
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