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Plumbing to Farming

Friday, January 1, 2021
filed under: Rotation

Josh Greff
Photo credit: Jody Kerzman
        November temperatures in the mid-70s aren’t very common in southwestern North Dakota, but when the thermometer gets that high, producers like Regent-area grower Josh Greff get anxious to finish their harvest.  He knows the weather can change quickly, and he could go from harvesting in 70-degree weather to harvesting in snow, or not at all.
        “This is much nicer harvest weather,” Greff confirmed on an early November day.  Temperatures topped out at 74 degrees; normal highs in the Mott area in early November are closer to 45, setting 2020’s harvest dramatically apart from conditions a year ago.
        “We are a little ahead of schedule, especially when compared to last year.  Last year at this time, we hadn’t even started combining sunflower,” Greff noted on that early November day.
        According to the USDA, Greff wasn’t the only North Dakotan whose sunflower harvest was running ahead of schedule.  As of November 2, 69% of the state’s sunflower crop was reported harvested.  That compared to just 21% a year ago, and an average of 54%.  By month’s end, 98% of North Dakota’s sunflower had been harvested. ?That compared with just 48% in 2019 and 85% for the five-year average.
        Greff’s sunflower was shaping up to be his best crop of 2020.
        “Our corn originally looked pretty good, but it ended up not being great,” Greff observed.  “In our sunflower, we are seeing some of the best yields we’ve ever had.  We’ll make decent money on them.”
        Greff farms with his father-in-law and brother-in-law, James?and Nathan Thomas. This year, they planted about 1,000 acres of oil sunflower: 400 acres of high oleic and 600 of NuSun.  Yields on both types had the men smiling.
        “Our yields on the high oleic were about 1,600 pounds.  Our NuSuns were higher, at about 1,900 pounds,” Greff stated.  “Oils and test weights are good, too.  This crop is looking to be above average for us.”
        What makes those numbers even more impressive to Greff is the fact that his farmland suffered a pretty severe drought this year.  He says they received about eight inches of moisture in 2020; in a normal year, that number should be closer to 15 inches.  As he expected, his sunflower did well, despite the dry conditions.
        “They’re good money makers for us every year,” he says.  “This year again, they’ll be one of our top money makers.”
        Greff and his in-laws rotate their fields between five crops: sunflower, wheat, corn, soybeans and canola.  In an area where wheat has traditionally taken up most of the acres, Greff is slowly reducing his wheat acres.
        “We are slowly pushing up our sunflower acres and dropping our wheat acres,” he reports.  “We can’t make any money in wheat anymore.  I think this is the least amount of wheat acres we’ve ever put in; about a quarter of our operation is wheat this year.  Soybeans have been good for us too, so we’re starting to grow more soybean acres.”
        Greff added sunflower into his crop rotation about six years ago.  They were getting out of safflower and were looking for a replacement.  Greff’s father-in-law wasn’t so sure about raising sunflower. 
        “He used to raise them years ago and swore he never would again,” Greff recalls.  “That was back when combines didn’t have cabs.  I think for a lot of people, when you think of sunflower, you think of the bad years, the years when you’re combining late and yields are low. We haven’t seen that.  We’ve had really good luck with them.”
        Instead, Greff says, he’s seen positive changes since he started growing sunflower.  Soil health, for one.
        “Our soil health has improved immensely,” he states.  “We are all no-till, and we like to follow corn with ’flowers.  That seems to work really well for us.  We’d like to plant even more sunflower, but you have to wait two years before you plant them on a field again; so if we plant too many one year, our acres will be down for a few years.”
        Shortly after Greff discovered sunflower, he also discovered the National Sunflower Association.  And before long, he found himself a member of the NSA Board of Directors.  Greff was elected as District 7 representative to the North Dakota Oilseed Council  in 2019 and, concurrently, to the NSA board.  District 7 encompasses the western North Dakota counties of Adams, Billings, Bowman, Dunn, Golden Valley, Grant, Hettinger McKenzie, Mercer, Morton, Oliver, Sioux, Slope and Stark.
        “I didn’t know a lot about the NSA to start off with, but I’ve learned a lot from being on the board,” Greff says.  “It’s a great board to be on.  I’ve learned not just about sunflower, but about how organizations work.  It’s been really interesting in all aspects.”
        Greff has been on boards before, including the Mott Equity Exchange, township board, Slope Electric and the Farm Credit nominating committee.  He says he feels it’s his responsibility to be involved where he can.
        “I enjoy learning.  I feel like everyone should be on a board at some point.  People complain, but I think until you’re on the boards and see the inner workings you shouldn’t complain.  There’s a lot more behind the scenes that goes on than anyone knows.  You don’t realize how much your voice counts.
        “There are programs we have pushed for with the NSA, and we’ve gotten them through,” he adds.  “The NSA board members really push to get relief programs and other things for growers.” 
        There’s room for more sunflower acres in his corner of the state, Greff emphasizes.
        “We don’t have the blackbird problems they do a little further south.  Many people have quit growing them because of bird issues, but we don’t have any problems.  I think there will be more acres as growers get away from wheat and are searching for a different crop.”
        Being a farmer and board member of organizations such as the National Sunflower Association is a life Josh Greff never envisioned in his younger years.
        “I grew up on a farm just a few miles from where I farm now,” he says. “We farmed and milked cows; but when I was a teenager my dad started a plumbing business.  I never thought I’d be farming.”
        Greff followed in his father’s footsteps and became a plumber.  He married his high school sweetheart, Bridget, and they moved back home.  He continued working as a plumber for a few more years and spent his evenings and weekends helping his father-in-law farm.  He soon realized it was what he wanted to do full-time.
        “I like being my own boss,” he says. “You probably work more hours, but they’re your hours. You don’t have to punch a time clock.”
— Jody Kerzman
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