Grain in the time of oil Moving grain to market has never been more difficult. But the North Dakota Spirit has never been more alive.

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Western North Dakota’s grain industry has been affected by oil production throughout all stages of crop development.  Fertilizer delivery, photosynthesis during growth and grain transportation all battle new-found obstacles.  In the wake of World Food Day on October 16, 2014, Intersection Journal shares a glimpse of how farmers, agricultural service providers and a local grain elevator are handling the reality of producing food in North Dakota’s oil boom.  In spite of the growing pains, not one of these folks have lost their resilience or motivation to make the most of every opportunity.  The herbicide must be sprayed, the crop must be harvested and the job must be done.


Bob Wisness, farmer and President of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, inspects his pile of wheat on October 14, 2014. Piling grain like this is a necessity because the grain bins behind him are full. He estimates that he still has 80,000-90,000 bushels of grain in storage from the 2013 harvest because the railroads have been so clogged with oil shipments. Farmers all over the region are forced to pile grain on the ground for longer durations because of the oil boom. The grass growing along the edge of this pile is sprouted wheat because of recent precipitation, making that grain un-sellable. The longer a pile sits, the higher the percentage of discarded grain, which negatively affects their income. "It's really an emergency situation [in North Dakota]. What do you do when you're backed into a corner? It's not a time for patience, it's a time for action." Bob told us. "We used to haul 80-90% of our grain to our local grain elevator 7 miles away. Now they're plugged so often we have to haul to Gladstone, Richardton, Dickinson, Belfield, Beach, Glendive, Fairview, Williston and New Town. We're not a trucking company, but with 300,000 bushels of grain to move, we have to haul just about everyday, which is impossible, hence the piles and full bins before harvest." Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Bob Wisness, farmer and President of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, inspects his pile of wheat on October 14, 2014. Piling grain like this is a necessity because the grain bins behind him are full. He estimates that he still has 80,000-90,000 bushels of grain in storage from the 2013 harvest because the railroads have been so clogged with oil shipments. Farmers all over the region are forced to pile grain on the ground for longer durations because of the oil boom. The grass growing along the edge of this pile is sprouted wheat because of recent precipitation, making that grain un-sellable. The longer a pile sits, the higher the percentage of discarded grain, which negatively affects their income. “It’s really an emergency situation [in North Dakota]. What do you do when you’re backed into a corner? It’s not a time for patience, it’s a time for action.” Bob told us. “We used to haul 80-90% of our grain to our local grain elevator 7 miles away. Now they’re plugged so often we have to haul to Gladstone, Richardton, Dickinson, Belfield, Beach, Glendive, Fairview, Williston and New Town. We’re not a trucking company, but with 300,000 bushels of grain to move, we have to haul just about everyday, which is impossible, hence the piles and full bins before harvest.” Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Wheat like this degrades in quality the longer it sits on the ground and could be sold as feed (instead of choice grain for pasta, bread, etc.) if too much time goes by. Instead of fetching more than $5.00 per bushel in its prime, it will only be worth approximately $2.50 per bushel as feed grain. Getting the grain off the ground and shipped in a timely manner is crucial to the livelihoods of farmers. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Wheat like this degrades in quality the longer it sits on the ground and could be sold as feed (instead of choice grain for pasta, bread, etc.) if too much time goes by. Instead of fetching more than $5.00 per bushel in its prime, it will only be worth approximately $2.50 per bushel as feed grain. Getting the grain off the ground and shipped in a timely manner is crucial to the livelihoods of farmers. Image © Chad Ziemendorf

Howdy Lawlar quote Image © Chad Ziemendorf

 

Kent Taylor of Talylor Ag Services readies his plane prior to a late summer aerial application of fungicide north of Watford City, N.D. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Kent Taylor of Talylor Ag Services readies his plane prior to a late summer aerial application of fungicide north of Watford City, N.D. Image © Chad Ziemendorf

Getting fertilizer in a timely fashion has been extremely difficult in the last three years due to increased oil production and shipping. "If we didn't' have enough storage [at Taylor Ag] we would have run out," Kent Taylor of Taylor Ag Services commented. Their new storage facility in Watford City, N.D., allows for 6,500 tons of storage giving them flexibility for servicing the Western North Dakota region. Thanks to a decision by the Surface Transportation Board in April of 2014 that ensured delivery of fertilizer by BNSF and Canadian Pacific Railways throughout the US, the agricultural community was able to meet planting deadlines and avoid catastrophic, widespread effects. However, storage is the key because "There just aren't enough trucks and trains to go around to meet springtime demand," Kent said. The fertilizer that gets delivered at that beginning of the season may be the only fertilizer that gets shipped for the duration of the year. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Getting fertilizer in a timely fashion has been extremely difficult in the last three years due to increased oil production and shipping. “If we didn’t’ have enough storage [at Taylor Ag] we would have run out,” Kent Taylor of Taylor Ag Services commented. Their new storage facility in Watford City, N.D., allows for 6,500 tons of storage giving them flexibility for servicing the Western North Dakota region. Thanks to a decision by the Surface Transportation Board in April of 2014 that ensured delivery of fertilizer by BNSF and Canadian Pacific Railways throughout the US, the agricultural community was able to meet planting deadlines and avoid catastrophic, widespread effects.  However, storage is the key because “There just aren’t enough trucks and trains to go around to meet springtime demand,” Kent said.  The fertilizer that gets delivered at that beginning of the season may be the only fertilizer that gets shipped for the duration of the year. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Kent Taylor makes a pass over a field north of Watford City, N.D., with his Ayers Thrush aircraft. “The drilling rigs of course [are obstructions], but you used to make a nice clean sweep through a field and now you have an oil well site which has a pumper, tanks, wires and poles coming into that field. So, really, the obstructions were always there but now there’s just more of them.” Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Kent Taylor makes a pass over a field north of Watford City, N.D., near an oil pumping unit with his Ayers Thrush aircraft. “The drilling rigs of course [are obstructions], but you used to make a nice clean sweep through a field and now you have an oil well site which has a pumper, tanks, wires and poles coming into that field. So, really, the obstructions were always there but now there’s just more of them.” Image © Chad Ziemendorf

Rick Lawlar of Watford City, N.D. is a 3rd generation farmer who still works the land that his grandmother homesteaded in the early 1900's. "The biggest effect that the oil industry has had on grain is getting it to market." But he was also quick to comment that the blessings of this boom have been great and that he is as proud as ever to call Watford City home. "This place is a great place, it really is." Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Rick Lawlar of Watford City, N.D. is a 3rd generation farmer who still works the land that his grandmother homesteaded in the early 1900’s. “The biggest effect that the oil industry has had on grain is getting it to market.” But he was also quick to comment that the blessings of this boom have been great and that he is as proud as ever to call Watford City home. “This place is a great place, it really is.” Image © Chad Ziemendorf
McCoy Lawlar (left) loves doing chores on the farm with his dad, Howdy (right). Ricky (pictured in previous image) is McCoy's grandfather; McCoy is the 5th generation to be a part of Lawlar Farms and looks for every opportunity to ride in the tractor with his dad and grandpa Ricky. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
McCoy Lawlar (left) loves doing chores on the farm with his dad, Howdy (right). Ricky (pictured in previous image) is McCoy’s grandfather; McCoy is the 5th generation to be a part of Lawlar Farms and looks for every opportunity to ride in the tractor with his dad and grandpa Ricky. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
 Howdy Lawlar loads grain from one of his storage bins into his trailer to transport the grain to the Watford City grain elevator. Because the elevator wasn't plugged on this day Howdy took advantage of the opening and hauled multiple truckloads to make room for the 2014 harvest. "Put up more storage, that's what we've had to do," Howdy said about adjustments he and his dad have made on the farm. "When it's harvest time you don't have time to sit for two days because you can't move grain. We've spent more money than a guy probably wants to on storage, but you do what you've got to do." Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Howdy Lawlar loads grain from one of his storage bins into his trailer to transport the grain to the Watford City grain elevator. Because the elevator wasn’t plugged on this day Howdy took advantage of the opening and hauled multiple truckloads to make room for the 2014 harvest. “Put up more storage, that’s what we’ve had to do,” Howdy said about adjustments he and his dad have made on the farm. “When it’s harvest time you don’t have time to sit for two days because you can’t move grain. We’ve spent more money than a guy probably wants to on storage, but you do what you’ve got to do.” Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Howdy Lawlar opens the side panels of the combine so that the evening wind can blow away the dust and debris that collected throughout the day. "I still think of it as God's country regardless of what's happened in the oil industry," Howdy commented about North Dakota. "It has definitely changed since I was in high school, but it is still a tremendous place to raise a family. Its a blessing to live here." Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Howdy Lawlar opens the side panels of the combine so that the evening wind can blow away the dust and debris that collected throughout the day. “I still think of it as God’s country regardless of what’s happened in the oil industry,” Howdy commented about North Dakota. “It has definitely changed since I was in high school, but it is still a tremendous place to raise a family. Its a blessing to live here.” Image © Chad Ziemendorf

Late night harvesting North Dakota Image © Chad Ziemendorf

“The further away from the road you get, the better the crop gets.” – Bob Wisness

Oil field traffic does more than just cause congestion on roadways, it creates dust. Bob Wisness (pictured at the beginning of this story) told us that near the road, dust settles so thick on the wheat that it blocks the sun and hinders photosynthesis, reducing the yield for at least 100 feet into the crop. "The further away from the road you get, the better the crop gets," he said. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Oil field traffic does more than just cause congestion on roadways, it creates dust. Bob Wisness (pictured at the beginning of this story) told us that near the road, dust settles so thick on the wheat that it blocks the sun and hinders photosynthesis, reducing the yield for at least 100 feet into the crop. “The further away from the road you get, the better the crop gets,” he said. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Howdy carries an air filter back to his combine after cleaning it out with compressed air. He had to clean it 3-4 times throughout the harvest, more than usual, to make sure the equipment ran well. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Howdy Lawlar carries an air filter back to his combine after cleaning it out with compressed air. He had to clean it 3-4 times throughout the harvest, more than usual, to make sure the equipment ran well. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Combines hustle across the highway after semi trucks pass on both sides. "The traffic is definitely the biggest obstacle we face these days," Howdy Lawlar said. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Combines hustle across the highway after semi trucks pass on both sides. “The traffic is definitely the biggest obstacle we face these days,” Howdy Lawlar said. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Del Lambley of Hooker, Okla., laughs as he jokes with Howdy and his son, John, on the CB radio while harvesting near Watford City, N.D. Del is a custom combiner and is contracted by farmers nationwide to aid with harvesting efforts. "The oil industry is definitely felt in other areas we go, but not nearly with as much concentration or velocity as in North Dakota. It's incredible." Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Del Lambley of Hooker, Okla., laughs as he jokes with Howdy and his son, John, on the CB radio while harvesting near Watford City, N.D. Del is a custom combiner and is contracted by farmers nationwide to aid with harvesting efforts. “The oil industry is definitely felt in other areas we go, but not nearly with as much concentration or velocity as in North Dakota. It’s incredible.” Image © Chad Ziemendorf

Three combines in North Dakota Image © Chad Ziemendorf

"You have to call now," Howdy Lawlar said with a laugh. "You don't have the luxury of just going to the elevator on any particular day, you have to plan it. Then you haul until they plug up. You might haul for 4 or 5 days and then take a month off. It's challenging, you have to be more on top of it." Image © Chad Ziemendorf
“You have to call now,” Howdy Lawlar said with a laugh. “You don’t have the luxury of just going to the elevator on any particular day, you have to plan it. Then you haul until they plug up. You might haul for 4 or 5 days and then take a month off. It’s challenging, you have to be more on top of it.” Image © Chad Ziemendorf

“My favorite part of this job is the customers. I like being with them, saying hi to them, visiting with them and listening to farm stories. There’s a lot of good people here in Watford.” – Steve Wentz

Steve Wentz has been working at the Watford City grain elevator since September of 1992 and fondly remembers the days before the boom. "I wish it could go back to normal, I like the old Watford City better." Because of the congested rail lines, the elevator gets plugged regularly and is unable to accept new truckloads. "I can't keep up with it," he said. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Steve Wentz has been working at the Watford City grain elevator since September of 1992 and fondly remembers the days before the boom. “I wish it could go back to normal, I like the old Watford City better.” Because of the congested rail lines, the elevator gets plugged regularly and is unable to accept new truckloads. “I can’t keep up with it,” he said. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Grain is loaded into the back of a semi trailer to be transported to Williston, N.D. Each load can usually carry about 1,200 bushels of wheat. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Grain is loaded into the back of a semi trailer to be transported to Williston, N.D. Each load can usually carry about 1,200 bushels of wheat. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Dan Rogers, 62, of Alexander, N.D. looks in the passenger side rear-view mirror to check the progress of the grain being loaded in the back of his trailer. He hauls grain as a contractor for Horizon Resources in the western part of the state in his Freightliner Cascadia truck and hopes to transfer approximately 5,000 bushels, or 4 loads, per day to Williston from Watford City. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Dan Rogers, 62, of Alexander, N.D. looks in the passenger side rear-view mirror to check the progress of the grain being loaded in the back of his trailer. He hauls grain as a contractor for Horizon Resources in the western part of the state in his Freightliner Cascadia truck and hopes to transfer approximately 5,000 bushels, or 4 loads, per day to Williston from Watford City. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Dan waits for an opportunity to make the left turn across Highway 85 to start his trip to Williston from Watford City. "I can usually make 4 trips per day, but with all the construction and traffic I'm only able to make 3. But, it's all worth it. It will be great when everything is done, I can deal with it for the time being because I know how much it will help this area to have better highways and the danger of driving will be cut way down." Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Dan Rogers waits for an opportunity to make the left turn across Highway 85 to start his trip to Williston from Watford City. “I can usually make 4 trips per day, but with all the construction and traffic I’m only able to make 3. But, it’s all worth it. It will be great when everything is done, I can deal with it for the time being because I know how much it will help this area to have better highways and the danger of driving will be cut way down.” Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Dan and his wife Kris share a laugh in the office of Horizon Resources Watford City location where Kris works as an office manager. In between trips from Watford City to Williston Dan takes the opportunity to stop in and say hi to his wife. They moved to Alexander, N.D. in 2011 and commented recently that they "like North Dakota more and more every year." Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Dan Rogers and his wife Kris share a laugh in the office of Horizon Resources Watford City location where Kris works as an office manager. In between trips from Watford City to Williston Dan takes the opportunity to stop in and say hi to his wife. They moved to Alexander, N.D. in 2011 and commented recently that they “like North Dakota more and more every year.” Image © Chad Ziemendorf

Grain elevator brooms and shovels hang neatly Image © Chad Ziemendorf

 

"You don't need oil, you do need grain. Grain makes food, oil doesn't," Steve Wentz, Watford City grain elevator manager told us. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
“You don’t need oil, you do need grain. Grain makes food, oil doesn’t,” Steve Wentz, Watford City grain elevator manager said recently. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Steve Wentz (center) shakes the hand of Lonnie McDermott 64, of Big Timber, Mont., with great appreciation while Josh Tostenson, 33, of Williston, N.D. looks on. Lonnie and Josh just finished wiring a new seed cleaner in the Watford City Grain elevator and spent long hours getting it working. Having the new seed cleaner on location helps the grain elevator streamline the process of hauling grain and help things move efficiently down the line. Instead of storing and hauling "dirty" seed with its chaff and plant material still attached, the cleaned seed is easier to check for quality and contains less bulk ensuring that space is maximized. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Steve Wentz (center) shakes the hand of Lonnie McDermott 64, of Big Timber, Mont., with great appreciation while Josh Tostenson, 33, of Williston, N.D. looks on. Lonnie and Josh just finished wiring a new seed cleaner in the Watford City Grain elevator and spent long hours getting it working. Having the new seed cleaner on location helps the grain elevator streamline the process of hauling grain and help things move efficiently down the line. Instead of storing and hauling “dirty” seed with its chaff and plant material still attached, the cleaned seed is easier to check for quality and contains less bulk ensuring that space is maximized. Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Steve closes the back door of the elevator and shuts down for the evening. While the oil boom has created new challenges for Steve, he still looks forward to seeing the people he's built relationships with over more than 20 years. "My favorite part of this job is the customers. I like being with them, saying hi to them, visiting with them and listening to farm stories. There's a lot of good people here in Watford." Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Steve closes the back door of the elevator and shuts down for the evening. While the oil boom has created new challenges for Steve, he still looks forward to seeing the people he’s built relationships with over more than 20 years. “My favorite part of this job is the customers. I like being with them, saying hi to them, visiting with them and listening to farm stories. There’s a lot of good people here in Watford.” Image © Chad Ziemendorf
Grain dust is like explosives Image © Chad Ziemendorf

How has the grain industry changed for you or people you know?  Are you optimistic for the future of Western North Dakota and the agricultural industry?  What needs to change?  Tell us your thoughts in the comments below and keep the conversation going! Intersection Journal, North Dakota