Firm Spot for ’Flowers on S.W. North Dakota Farm
Wednesday, January 8, 2020
filed under: Rotation
Jacki Christman didn’t grow up farming. But here she is, farming alongside her husband, Jordan, and their three young children near Hettinger, in southwestern North Dakota.
“My three-year-old has spent more time in the tractor at his age already than I did by the time I was 23!” she jokes.
But rural life is nothing new to Jacki. She grew up on a ranch in Harding County, S.D. Her grandfather settled the land in the 1950s, and she grew up helping her parents with the cattle, sheep and horses on their ranch. There were no crops to plant, or even much hay to cut.
“This farming stuff was all new to me,” says Jacki. “I never expected I’d end up farming and ranching every day. I figured I’d leave college and get a job in town.”
She did that. It’s what led her to Hettinger. She graduated from Dickinson State University with a degree in natural resource management. She applied for one job with the NRCS office in Hettinger. She got the job, moved to Adams County, where she quickly realized she needed to know about more than just ranching.
“Adams County is half cattle, half farming. It blew my mind when I realized how much equipment, seed and chemicals farmers need. Those are expenses they have every single year. I really wished I had paid more attention to the farming stuff in college, but I learned pretty quickly once I met Jordan.”
Jordan grew up on this land, just north and east of Hettinger. “I’ve been here my whole life,”?he says. “I’ve been doing this since I was young. I remember being with my grandpa every day since I was three years old or maybe even younger. I never knew anything different and didn’t want to know anything different. Farming is what I always wanted to do.”
Jordan has perfected a five-crop rotation on his farm. That rotation includes sunflower, as well as corn, canola, wheat and soybeans. The couple also raises 300 head of cattle; they grow millet or oats each year to make into hay to feed those cattle.
Sunflower has been a regular part of their rotation for the past 15 years.
“There’s a spot for them in our rotation,” Jordan affirms.
“The crop rotation we do works really well for weed control and for next year’s crop. Having the right crop rotation has done wonders for us,” adds Jacki.
Jordan reserves 1,000 to 1,500 acres for high-oleic sunflower each year. He was already ordering seed for his 2020 crop before he even had the 2019 crop harvested. A cool and wet summer followed by an October snowstorm made for an unusually late harvest; the latest Jordan can ever remember.
“We like to plant sunflower during the first week of June, and this year we were right on time with planting and they came up nice. We sprayed them on time,” says Jordan. “Everything was on time, but the whole summer was cooler, and that put the ’flowers behind schedule. We usually start cutting sunflower in mid-October, but this year the ’flowers were still green in October. We knew then we wouldn’t be done by Halloween like we planned.”
In fact, the Christmans were rushing to finish sunflower harvest by Thanksgiving, and before two big winter storms hit the area. They were lucky, and got the crop harvested just in time. Since Thanksgiving, nearly 10 inches of snow had fallen in the Hettinger area as of the second week in December.
The Christmans haul most of their high-oleic sunflower straight to the ADM crush plant in Enderlin, N.D; a few loads will be stored at local elevators before eventually being sent east.
“That’s the end user, so we want to get them there as quickly and cost efficiently as we can,” explains Jordan. “We have been growing high oleic for about four years now. We started when they had a premium, and we’ve just stuck with them.”
They’ve stuck with sunflower for reasons Jordan says seem obvious.
“Sunflower is tough. We can have a drought, which is pretty common around here, and they still produce. We think of them as a ‘weed’ sometimes because they grow so easily. They’re a good fit for our climate and our soil. The deep root works well in our sandy soil.”
And even in a year when Mother Nature did not cooperate, Jordan says his sunflower yields were respectable, not as good as he had hoped for, but not terrible either.
“Our yields were a little disappointing, especially because the crop looked so good. Maybe we just had too much rain for the sunflower,” he says. “Some of our crops benefited from all the moisture, but our sunflower didn’t. We had a few disease problems this year, just because of too much moisture. It could have been the variety we used, too, but the growing season was just different than any we’ve ever had before. It was cool all year. Our oils weren’t as good as they have been in the past, which I blame on the slow, cool growing season. I just don’t think we had a long enough growing season to get the oil in the seeds.”
Now that the sunflower is all harvested, the Christmans will let their cattle graze on the sunflower stalks.
“Grazing sunflower is a good way to extend the grazing year and reduce feed cost,” Jacki explains. “The cattle can get seeds from the sunflower heads that went down prior to harvest. Those seeds are a good source of energy. We still supply them a protein supplement. Using the land for different purposes is also a good way to help us spread out the cost of land rent.”
Jacki has been documenting this field during each step of the growing season, from planting to spraying, harvesting and now grazing. She recently started a Facebook page, JC Farms, where she shares these photos and more from the day-to day-activities on the farm. It’s her way of educating the world about the work farmers and ranchers do each day.
“What we do every day isn’t glamorous or even exciting to some people, but it’s feeding the world. I feel like people don’t understand where their food comes from anymore. I want them to see how hard farmers work, and I hope it helps the ag industry as a whole,” Jacki relates.
“Agriculture is so important to North Dakota’s economy, too. Our ag industry is huge, and there are so many farmers out there that work hard all year long, in some really harsh weather conditions, to put food on your plate.
“I want to do what I can to get the conversation started.”
And Jacki is learning right along with her Facebook followers. She quit her job at NRCS in 2013 and now spends her days helping Jordan, who is happy to teach his rancher wife about farming.
“I planted all the sunflower last year and most of the corn,” says Jacki. “This year I learned to drive truck. But really, he’s the farmer and I’m the rancher.”
This young farmer-rancher couple is happy to be here, working the land and raising the next generation of farmers and ranchers. Though just ages 6, 5 and 3, their children have, with smiling faces, already stated their intent to take over the family operation when they grow up. — Jody Kerzman