Author Archive

Risky Business

May 9th, 2010

The Economist, a British newsmagazine, recently asked the question: “What does [the Icelandic Volcano’s disruption of global air travel] say about man’s apparent inability to control nature?

Their answer was, in short, not much. Man’s apparent inability to control nature is just that — mostly apparent. The disruption caused by the volcano was largely a result of human over-reaction to an otherwise benign spectacle. The author argues that this submission to “the charms of powerlessness in the face of nature” is merely a way of saying we “don’t want to be bothered with facing up to what humans can do.”

Farming presents a unique vantage point from which to ask the same basic question posed by The Economist, because, in a sense, farmers work out the answers every growing season.

The history of farming over the past 60 years in North America is complex, but in some ways it has given farmers a degree of control over nature (though this may, in the end, turn out to be merely apparent). Just to name a few things: farmers now have control over encroaching weeds through the use of herbicide, they have more control over drought through the use of drought resistant plants, and they have some control over unfertile soil by using synthetic fertilizer. Now some of the companies who produce and sell the products I’ve listed would love for farmers to believe that they can, in fact, have total control over all the variables that combine to make farming such a risky venture. If farmers just apply this herbicide, or buy this seed, or use this method, then all is well and farmers can sit back and swim in their profits.

All that said, no one has yet stopped a hailstorm in its tracks, or rung water out of the hot, dry blue sky in late July, or turned off the flood that prevents their planting. As much control as farmers might appear to have, any farmer would admit that he or she in fact feels quite humbled by the vagaries of life on the plains.

North Dakota boasts some of the most extreme weather in our country. Representing the “geographical center of North America,” North Dakota is far removed from the meteorological calming and moderating effect of large bodies of water. Some of the highest and lowest temperatures ever recorded in the United States came from North Dakota — 121 degrees in Steele, ND, and -60 degrees in Parshall, ND. This extreme weather can, and often does wreak havoc for ND farmers.

From my vantage point, our powerlessness in the face of nature is neither apparent nor charming. Record warmth and hardly a drop of precipitation (rain or snow) this April allowed us to plant wheat earlier than we have in two decades. May is now on course to be one of the coldest on record, and this morning the early-planted wheat, now 3 inches tall is covered in snow!

When planting good seed, applying an adequate amount of fertilizer, and protecting the crops from weeds, farmers indeed may feel the outcome relies on them, but at other times, they sense that the growth and completion of a crop is mostly out of their control. Do farmers have control? Yes. Are farmers powerless at times? Yes. Is this charming? No, but probably healthy, healthy to remain ‘grounded’ in our role in and relationship with nature.

*The article, entitled “Earthly Powers: Disasters are about people and planning, not nature’s pomp,” appeared in the April 27, 2010 edition of the weekly magazine. To read the entire article, go to


Introducing Jordan Gackle, Another Contributor

April 2nd, 2010


I grew up on a farm near Kulm, ND, just down the road from Schott’s. Our farm sits on the edge of the Coteau Hills, a geological formation marked by rolling hills and innumerable prairie potholes. This land also marks an entry into the North American Great Plains, a vast, often harsh ocean of grass stretching west to the Rocky Mountains. To the east one descends over five hundred feet in just ten miles into the “flats” — rich farmland that only grows more fertile along an eastward path until finally one reaches the Red River Valley of the North, some of the most fertile land in the world, comparable to the Nile River Valley in Egypt. Ours is a land in between.

I never understood why my ancestors kept moving west until finally ending up in the potholes. Why not set up camp in “the flats”? The land was more fertile and better drained — all around good farmland. From what I can tell they went the extra miles precisely because of the potholes, which they felt offered an excellent water resource for raising livestock. I guess I can see their perspective, but sometimes it would be nice to plow straight for more than fifty feet without having to drive around a small lake!

The farm I grew up on has been in our family for three generations. My Grandfather established the farmstead in the middle of twentieth century. My Dad has been farming the land since the late 70s, and now I…

After high school I, like most farm kids, left. I headed toward a place filled with promise and potential. I sought a future filled with possibility. I went to the city.

In college I studied history and philosophy (So much for a promising future filled with possibility!). Through college I periodically felt a pull to come back and try my hand at farming. It never happened. Then I got married and moved to Vancouver, BC to begin another degree. All the while, the farm maintained its periodical pull on my life. Now, five years later, when I probably should be putting my degrees to work out in the world, I think its finally time to heed that pull to the farm, at least a little.

Though our life at present is somewhat nomadic, my wife, daughter and I will remain long enough on the edge of the Great Plains to put in our first crop.

And I look forward to keeping you posted.