Dispatch from the Winter Doldrums

February 7th, 2018 · No Comments


Staring out the window on this February day, I see several measly, mostly melted snow piles.  The sun is high in the sky, and burning brightly. The thermometer reads -3 degrees Fahrenheit.  A week ago, we had temperatures in the mid 50’s.

As we fluctuate between 50 and -10 on a near weekly basis, we see hints of impending spring followed by the quick reminder that it’s still winter.  People who don’t experience multiple seasons in a several day span don’t know what they’re missing, right?

Winter is a time of reflection and preparation at Pinicon.  We slow the pace down a little, letting most of the staff have Fridays off. A quiet uninterrupted Friday afternoon seems like a great time to update the Pinicon blog.

Here goes.

My main duties this time of year are split between regular monthly tasks and year end analysis.  At the moment I’m completing the “2017 Production Cost Analysis.” This is the fifth year compiling this report and we are gaining more confidence in its accuracy and usefulness. This exercise forces us to be objective about the decisions of the past year and shows us how we can do better. I find it one of my most rewarding projects throughout the course of the year.

The shop hums away with the rattle and clang necessary to keep the equipment repaired and ready to roll.  April is closer than we realize.  The front office has been busy lining up our South African work force for 2018, and ensuring our housing for those employees is up to snuff.  With every passing year, Danni and Lindsay continue to find ways to improve that process and make it more efficient.

Bert and Ben continue to maneuver the puzzle pieces that make up the 2018 crop plan. Due to unstable price relationships and a growing land base, our crop rotation is constantly changing. This requires adjustments to input levels, equipment capabilities, and personnel. Bert and Ben’s job is to ensure we have the right players with the right equipment and the right strategy at the right place and time.

Among the biggest luxuries this time of year provides is just that – time. In the absence of urgent, high priority field work deadlines, there is time to discuss goals, strategy, and options. Armed with knowledge of the past, and our vision for the future, we can establish direction and set achievable goals for the season.

The 2018 crop is still just an idea in our collective brains, but with every thaw, every melted snow pile, and every unseasonably warm day, we inch a little closer to breaking the ground and starting another year.

Stay comfortable out there


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Room for Better

January 3rd, 2018 · No Comments


Where has the last month gone?

As our self imposed “completion of Harvest by Thanksgiving” deadline approached, the urgency and intensity of our efforts increased. The essential lesson we have learned about crop production is that great yields begin the prior fall.

The more tillage, fertilizer application, tiling, waterway work, and other farm improvements that can be done in the space between harvest and winter freeze, the likely hood of good crops next season increases.

So instead of coasting into the finish, the last few laps of the season become a sprint as the number of remaining field work days gets into single digits.

Lesser obligations suffered. Wedding anniversaries, Sunday Mass, credit card bills, and yes even the monthly blog become casualties of this zeal.

Next thing you know its Christmas morning, the month of December is history, and the last blog was early November.

My apologies. In 2018 I will be (there is no try) more timely with these reports.

The good news is our emphasis on land preparation was rewarded. Pinicon will begin 2018 with a land base that has more productive potential than ever.

After working under the new ownership team for one season, I can confidently predict they will continue to improve the quality of our work and the care our farms receive.

It was my good fortune that so many hardworking, honest, and capable individuals decided to partner with Mark and I to build Pinicon Farm. Having won the talent lottery, all I had to do was give them room to grow and be generous in recognizing their contributions, like nurturing a plant with fertile soil, sufficient space, and nutrients.

Speaking of which, the economic environment for crop production is still very challenging. The typical farming operation is barely treading water. A substantial percentage are unable to recover operating expenses. There is little room for poor decisions or bad luck. So far, we have been able to avoid both.

Dad thinks I am gullibly idealistic and over confident. Guilty as charged.

One of my favorite stories from the New Testament is Mathew 25. It is about the master who entrusts talents to three of his servants while he is gone. Two of the servants invest the talents and increase their value. One buries them out of fear. If you don’t know the ending, google it.

My take away from this story is trust people, challenge yourself and leverage your gifts. The results will create new wealth and perpetuate the cycle of success.

That J.C. fella was on to something.


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Halftime Report

October 31st, 2017 · No Comments

The light snow last week brought back memories of the ’91 Halloween Blizzard. Halloween has typically been the halfway point for harvest on our farm. A “winter is coming notification” was not needed to keep us motivated, but the implications of this harbinger are not lost.

The weather this fall is reminiscent of the good old pre-global warming era, trending cooler, wetter and later than recent autumn seasons. Getting our work completed in the next 5 weeks is still possible, but there is no room for complacency.

A typical day starts with Teams being dispatched from the shop with instructions from Bert. Tillage operators tend to work solo. As many as four different operations are going on a given day. The fertilizer crew has 3-4 men depending on how far they are hauling. Combine crews require 4-7 men. Our longest hauls need 5 trucks to maintain uninterrupted harvesting. As all the truckers know, this is a cardinal rule at Pinicon.

Around mid morning, the lunch crew, Danni and Lindsay, assemble sack lunches for the evening shift. This task was moved “in house” a few years ago and the freshness and quality of lunch assembly greatly improved with that change. In addition to making lunches, Danni and Lindsay have extra responsibilities with bill pay, parts pickup, and special errands. No position escapes the extra effort expected this time of year.

As Calvin manages the driers, he is responsible 24/7 while we are drying. Due to his thorough preseason preparation, this operation has been relatively trouble free. This has allowed him to maintain a comfortable work schedule. Bert tries to give Calvin time off on Sundays for an afternoon run. Maybe someday if I work hard and demonstrate my value, I can negotiate that perk as well!

Andy, Peyton and Ben, the manure application team, arguably have the biggest challenge. Manure application stops when the ground freezes yet they are limited to working only when the soil is dry enough for tillage. In any given year, there is a significant possibility they will not reach the goal of emptying all the barns. This reality keeps them driven. All nighters are a common practice.

Beans were finished last week. Yields were down from the two previous years. Enough corn has been harvested to suggest this crop is very good, maybe our best.

With the aligned efforts of our organization and a healthy dose of God’s grace, Harvest 2017 will be completed by the end of November. Wish us luck!


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Harvest on the Brain

September 19th, 2017 · No Comments

Anticipation for harvest is building at Pinicon. Preparation for this event began late in the spring of 2016 when the first version of the 2017 crop plan spreadsheet was printed. By late summer the crop mix was finalized, fertilizer tests were evaluated to develop an application recipe, and our vendor network was engaged in a quest to get the absolute best price for inputs.

While the 2016 harvest was ramping up, 2017 fertilizer needs were purchased and delivered, variable rate maps downloaded, variety selection initiated, and sales were being consummated for a crop that was still 7 months from planting. By December of 2016 this endeavor had become our primary focus and has occupied that status ever since.

In other words, the 2017 harvest has been 16 months in the making. It reflects the current state of many years of trials, errors, and just enough success to keep us optimistic. Experiencing the results of our best efforts is always rewarding and insightful, regardless of the outcome.

Another facet of grain farming that adds to our preoccupation with harvest is the fact that in one’s career, you have roughly 35 to 45 production cycles to perfect your craft. Imagine if Peyton Manning only played 40 games in his lifetime or if Bob Dylan could write only one song per year? Add to that infrequency, a production environment which has extreme variability.

To gain advantage in this business, the old fashioned strategy of inheritance is tough to beat. However, for those of us not born into that club, being a quick study is the next best option. Harvest yield provides the definitive answer to the question of which genetics, nutrients, technologies and management will be most profitable. How well you navigate this plethora of choices literally determines your survival in agriculture.

So as mid-September arrives and our crops reach maturity, pregame butterflies invade our consciousness. Mentally, we are approaching that stage in the race where we find out if we have the strongest kick down the back stretch or we will stumble and bonk on the final lap? Experience says we will have both success and disappointment. Ironically, it is the failures which present the greatest opportunities for growth.

Hope you all enjoy the upcoming autumn season. We will be thinking of you as we discover new life lessons and hopefully some instances where we got it right.


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July 31st, 2017 · No Comments

I sit down to write this blog on the eve of riding four days of RAGBRAI – the annual bike ride across the great State of Iowa!  Months of preparation, be it long bike rides or meetings with the crew planning our vehicle shuttles and logistics have lead us to the big moment.  Now it’s time to jump on and pedal across half of the state.

Getting ready for this event serves as an analog for summer in the farming world.  The seed for this idea was planted earlier in the year, and the time between that planting and the big event has been one of preparation and anticipation.  Instead of harvesting corn and soybeans, we’ll be harvesting a good time (and sore legs).

Here on the farm, the preparation for the main event has been in full swing as well.  The corn has now matured to the point where any further chemical application will come from above, as the crew at Skyline Ag has begun its crop dusting season.  Normally that means a lot of activity in McIntire as the planes come and go, but the MIA (McIntire International Airport) is currently under construction so we haven’t had much plane activity yet.

Ground-level spraying has continued on the soybean crop, applying fungicide.  Last year, due to the excessively wet conditions, we struggled to fight white mold and sudden death syndrome in the soybean crop.  Thankfully that hasn’t been an issue this year, and we anticipate our largest soybean crop ever.

I’ve even been taking to the air, in the form of drone flying.  In order to free up Ben’s time for spraying, I learned how to run the drone this summer.  Every couple of weeks I make the rounds, scouting all of our fields, and taking a picture of them to document the progression of the crop.  These pictures will help comprise the Management Practices Summary that all of our landlords receive in August.  I’ve really enjoyed the process of learning this new skill, and I relish the opportunity it provides me to keep close tabs on every farm throughout the growing season.  Plus, who am I kidding – it’s fun to get out of the office and play with remote control stuff!

Like every summer, the grain hauling continues at a hectic pace.  The corn has been primarily heading to Valero in Floyd, or Homeland in Lawler, while the beans have been primarily headed to the Mississippi.  Last week’s tornado in McGregor has disrupted the bean flow a little, but we remain on pace to empty our grain storage before harvest.

The last big piece of excitement around Pinicon (which you’ve likely noticed if you’ve driven through McIntire lately) is the construction of a new 400,000 bushel bin in McIntire.  We’re excited about the opportunities and improved efficiencies that will come from consolidating our storage at this location.

While we reach the dog days of summer, it may seem like harvest is a ways off, but the days – like my bike – continue to roll on.  Before long, the dust will fly, the hours will get late, and the big moment we all live for will be here!  But for now, it’s time to ride.


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Summer Aficionado

June 23rd, 2017 · No Comments

The summer solstice occurs when a planets rotational axis in either the northern or southern hemisphere is most inclined toward the star it orbits. Earth has two summer solstices annually and last Thursday was the Northern Solstice.

OK.  Thanks for the climatology lesson, tell us something we don’t know.

Fair enough. It is hard to avoid mentioning this as there is so much about this season to appreciate.

Crop growth is at its peak.  Annual plants are entering their maximum growth phase. The vitality of our field crops and natural vegetation is exciting to observe. While on my bi weekly trail runs, I can almost feel the intensity of the surrounding forest.

Day length and daytime temps are at their peak. This is one of the reward’s for enduring the short days and cold nights of winter.  Out on the farm, our best time to improve our land and structures is between spring planting and fall harvest. The long days and warm temps are ideal conditions to support that effort.

Even though we think of Pinicon as a “grown up” company, opportunities for improvement are plentiful.

To handle the extra pigs coming from our Wisconsin sow unit, we are constructing a 5000 head nursery near LeRoy Mn. It will be one of the first filtered nurseries built in the area and it should result in fewer health challenges.

Thanks mostly to higher yields, there is a need for more storage. We will be building another bin in McIntire this year.

There will be several land improvement projects aimed at enhancing drainage, surface water management, and erosion control. There is a good chance we will be installing our first ever terraces this fall.

Smaller budget projects include upgrading the ventilation systems in the original finishing barns. The buildings will have more fan capacity to maintain temperature, more inlet capacity to improve air quality, and fully integrated controls.

Bluestem 2We refreshed the landscape in front of the office. Our in house horticulturalist Linda, recommended Little Bluestem, grass that will do well in wet conditions and add a little visual diversity.

If things go well, we may even have time to power wash the awning above the office entrance next week. It gets moldy and needs a good scrubbing every couple years.

From seven figure hog building projects to 45 minute housecleaning tasks, we are do our best to move forward while maintaining what is already in place.

Oh yeah, and lest I forget, it is mountain climbing season. Specific destinations are TBD, however the goal is four new summits in ’17 and completing all fifty six 14ers in ’18.


Here’s to summer and the possibilities unique to this season!


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Still Betting on the Odds

April 19th, 2017 · No Comments

I have been dragging my feet on this update. Easter was last weekend and I remember a couple blogs ago stating there was a 75% chance we would have seed in the ground by then.

Some day I will realize this life is out to embarrass and humiliate me when ever I give it the chance, or as Yogi Berra allegedly proclaimed, “Predictions are hard to make, especially about the future.”

In other words, it is April 20th and Pinicon does not have any seed in the ground. We are not alone in this cohort as the weekly crop progress report had Iowa and Minnesota at 1% and 2% respectively.

I am not personally feeling much anxiety over this but I can tell the new owners are eager to get started planting. Based on my thirty five plus seasons farming, my opinion is we are still 10 days from the optimum window for planting. However, as Bert would quickly point out, the yield cliff kicks in by mid May and these wet spring patterns tend to persist.

If this was too easy, any one could do it.

Keeping occupied has not been a problem. The rock crew is off to a good start. Lewis, Johan, and Deon have been out half a dozen days in the last two weeks. The tile repair list gets shorter every day as Donavan is making the rounds with his backhoe.

Mayer’s Digging and Beer Excavating have been cleaning ditches, moving driveways, making waterways and leveling spoils.

The “River” (Mississippi) is taking grain. Open navigation usually means a pop in basis which is our opportunity to deliver against prior sales. Three to five trucks are delivering every day with corn going to one of the three nearest ethanol plants and beans going to Prairie du Chien.

The annual “Spring planning meeting” was held the first week of April. This one was especially rewarding for me as I just had to show up. Bert and Ben planned the agenda and lead the meeting. Bert went over Team assignments, safety issues and essential procedures. Ben gave the Team a shop tour which covered tool location and use, consumable inventory location, and Shop procedures.

In true “Mother Hen” fashion, Danni made sure we had our monthly safety meeting. “Torch Safety” and “When a Crisis Strikes” were this months topics. Even though not all our workers have direct involvement with these topics, our consistent emphasis on training and best practices makes everyone more thoughtful.

Past history says there is a 90% chance that we will have seed in the ground by May first.

Some people never learn.

Till next month,


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March 30th, 2017 · No Comments

One of my biggest disappointments this winter has been the infrequency of hiking trips. In the spirit of purposeful redirection of my priorities as I transition from “workaholic , perfectionist, slave driver” to ” recovering, workaholic, perfectionist, slave driver” I decided that one hiking trip per month from December to March would be appropriate.

By the time March arrived, I had only one trip under my belt and the window was closing.

If I was going to score a uniquely meaningful adventure to remember the winter of ’16-’17, this last trip needed to be epic.
It began on a Thursday morning around 11:00 AM. Lance, a good friend who has sufficient fitness, curiosity, and moxie to join me for a short hiking expedition, arrived In McIntire from his home in Kalona Iowa a three hour drive to the south east. Our flight to Phoenix was leaving Minneapolis at 2:50 PM so we had plenty of time to stop in Rochester for my gear and have lunch on the way.

At 7:30 PM Arizona time, we were studying the menu at Charro Steakhouse in downtown Tucson and planning our desert itinerary.

Despite our enduring friendship, Lance and I are very different. He the prudent, tradition honoring, conservative voting, risk avoiding, nice guy. And then there was me.

Like I said, we are very different.

To avoid over exposing Lance to too much of a good thing and knowing his appetite for mileage was not as gluttonous as mine, it seemed safe to assume two days of hiking would be a sufficient introduction. He would hike with me Friday and Saturday, then take Sunday off so I could could hike at my own pace.

Both days went well and on the drive back to Phoenix Saturday afternoon, I could tell he genuinely enjoyed the experience.

I left Lance off at his cousins place in Queen Creek. I drove to my parents winter home, just 15 minutes away, which would be the launching pad for my Sunday hike.  Mom and Dad treated me to supper at a local bar and grill before we called it a night.

My alarm went off at 5:40 the next morning and I was out the door with a loaded Camelback  before six. Being a creature of habit, the nest two things on my list were a McDonalds oatmeal and a “Grande, dark roast, no room.” For some reason Siri was not very cooperative  and the GDRNR took a little longer to find than anticipated. I arrived at the Peralta Trailhead about 7;15, just missing sunrise.

I took a quick look at the trail map mounted near the parking lot and chose a 13 mile loop which I guessed would be relatively un-populated.

About thirty minutes into my hike, I met one hiker already returning to the parking lot. Obviously she did not have trouble finding her oatmeal and coffee.

I was slightly perturbed that I was not wearing my trusty Timex Iron Man watch. I was sure I left it in the car the night before but I was not able to find it this morning. This $25 watch has been my hiking companion for over ten years and we have been through a lot. I like to say I am not superstitious, but I have to admit the value of the watch is mostly psychological.

As the sun started to rise, it occurred to me the desert looked different. Along the trail there were bunches of sedge-like grass, dark green and lush. Glancing around, I realized the abundance of wild flowers, purple, yellow, and white, more numerous and vibrant than I had ever seen.

Poppy’s, Desert Dandelions, Verbena, and Brittlebrush occupied gaps between the yucca and saguaro with mathematical symmetry. Several varieties of shrubs, similar in appearance to thistle and milkweed, filled the remaining spaces.

While I was accustomed to the dull, waxey green reflection of saguaro offering a mild contrast to the brown desert canvas, this was an unexpected profusion of colors.

It was about 45 minutes before I met another hiker and learned this phenomenon was causing much excitement among the hiking community.

Due to the unusually heavy and persistent rainfall the desert received this winter, it was experiencing a rare “Superbloom.” Recent tendencies for journalists and politicians to exaggerate aside, “Superbloom” was not hyperbole.

For the next 3 hours, every group of hikers I met were quick to mention the “Bloom.” Many said they had heard about it and altered their plans to come to the desert.  I was wrong about choosing a path less traveled, but it was inspiring to encounter others who shared my appreciation for the beauty and miracle of nature. The  joy in the faces of passing hikers was unmistakable.

I ceased counting applicable axioms when I ran out of digits.  The virtue of persistence, inevitability of change, necessity for diversity, natures infinite adaptability, her unstoppable will to survive, adversity makes you resilient, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the future belongs to the efficient………

You get the point.

As I drove back to Mom and Dads place to clean up before meeting Lance with friends for a late afternoon celebration before catching a mid night red eye, I concluded I had just hiked the shortest 13 miles I ever covered.

And thanks to an unseasonably wet winter in Arizona, the 2017 hiking season would be one to remember.

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Spring in our sights!

March 6th, 2017 · No Comments

With only 27 days remaining until the first Monday in April, the pace of preparation is picking up. Easter occurs on the 16th of April this year. Past history says there is 75% chance seed will be in the ground by then.

So many tasks, so little time.

In an effort to improve our readiness, Bert intentionally put less focus on modifications and retrofit projects, concentrating instead on basic maintenance. I will admit my imagination often led us down dead ends which contributed little benefit. In my idealistic optimism, I can always find a life lesson in my most recent failure. Bert’s take away is “Quit wasting time experimenting!!”

As of this date, Pinicon is ahead of schedule for equipment maintenance. Most of the tractors, tillage machines, trucks, pickups and trailers are inspected and field ready. Ongoing projects include chemical application equipment, support vehicles and the truck we stole on auction that, to our surprise, needed a new engine.

Bert felt really bad when they got the truck home and discovered the cam was bad. The truck only had 260,000 miles. Normal engine life is three times that. Bert is quick to recognize his role in mistakes, take responsibility and make adjustments. This is one of the attributes that earned him first opportunity to be majority owner of Pinicon. However, regarding the $24,000 engine, his due diligence pre auction was more thorough than any inspection I ever had time for. It seems likely to me that the universe is evening up odds with Pinicon. All lucky streaks eventually run their course.

Danni and Lindsay have been busy in the front office with phone calls, data entry, HR duties and of course “Mother Hen” responsibilities that Linda delegated when she retired. Yes, there is a “Mother Hen” S.O.P.

Alex has gotten past the frantic end of the year bookkeeping period and settled into a more relaxed workload consisting of account reconciliations, expense analysis, FSA duties, legal counsel and special projects.

Ben splits duties as head agronomist and G.I.S. analyst while overseeing equipment repairs in the shop. He is also heading up assembly of a second chemical tender. We will use both sprayers this year for herbicide application. A change in philosophy with the new owners is a greater emphasis on timeliness versus utilization. Previous management was obsessed with utilizing every machine 110%.

Each sprayer will cover over one thousand acres daily so they will both need a dedicated tender. Having logged thousands of hours in the sprayer and mixed hundreds of chemical batches, Ben has a good idea how our ultimate spray tender should be equipped. I look forward to seeing his creation.

With so many machines moving through the shop, Calvin spends half his time on the phone ordering parts. Manure management plans, shop organization and weekly grain marketing discussions with Bert occupy the balance of his days.

I will be making my first hiking trip to Arizona in 2017 next week. That will be my final pre planting junket.

Be sure to check in next month as I expect to have actual field activities to report on. Till then, try to contain your excitement.



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January 23rd, 2017 · No Comments

No Tears for Yesteryear

I picture early settlers to North Iowa being grateful if their families and livestock endured winters of yore. Not only were the essential tasks of daily life less adapted to extreme conditions, the weather was more challenging. I will avoid making definitive proclamations regarding climatic conditions 20 years hence, however there is no question that recent winters have been milder.

The average temp for the month of January 1982, my first winter farming, was 5.7 degrees. Snow fall for the month was 25″. Every assignment required more effort.. From the extra ten minutes layering on clothes for warmth, to the 45 minutes spent torturing the skid loader with starting fluid and jumper cables, to thawing livestock waterers, hauling straw and pushing snow, daily planning was a triage of separating the urgent from the life threatening. Winter months were the most brutal, demanding and unpleasant season of the year.

With these vivid memories of the past, I marvel at how we have made “Cabernet from sour grapes.” Winters at Pinicon Farm have become productive and enjoyable.

Because our crew puts in so many hours during the growing season, most of the staff are reduced to a Monday-Thursday schedule from Thanksgiving to April. The casual pace and long weekends give the team a chance to recharge. The improvement in outlook as the winter progresses is noticeable. Even though there are projects that may go unfinished, this routine is very popular with the crew and has helped reduce turn over.

We expanded the shop area two years ago giving us around 20,000 square feet of climate controlled comfort for equipment repairs and short term storage. When the occasional “Polar Vortex” visits, we can bring in vehicles and equipment that would other wise resist attempts to start. There is ample space to manage multiple projects simultaneous, improving our ability to keep everyone productively occupied.

When we reentered livestock production ten years ago, the new confinement barns were designed and built to maintain consistent temperature and air quality under all weather conditions. It may be a foggy, damp January morning or it could be a 20 below evening with 40 mph winds. Our pigs will be enjoying an optimal 61 degree temperature with 60% humidity. It has never been a better time to be a farm animal or a livestock care giver.

I came back to farming with a running habit. Because of the short day length, icy roads and cold temperatures, winter work outs were not practical. There were not indoor exercise facilities in rural North Iowa and by the time I got done with chores, I lacked the time or energy.

These days, I usually arrive at the Rochester Athletic Club (RAC) by 5:00 pm. It offers a 25 meter lap pool, exercise bikes, running track, weights and treadmills. Because there are fewer surprise interruptions during the week, I am able to work out more consistently than I can during the growing season. Ironically, I maintain a higher fitness level during the winter months than I can during the outdoor recreation season.

My RAC buddies always ask how we stay busy on the farm all winter. It is hard to explain as their idea of what I do is based on the concept of the sole proprietor grain farmer who occupies his winter with seed meetings, market seminars and Arizona. Maybe in my next life I will be so lucky.

The last few weeks at Pinicon were representative of the new normal. A good share of the crew were on vacation. Progress was made on my new office. Bert should be able to move into his new command center before mid February. Ben and Dan are heading up an inventory reorg effort, streamlining, cataloging, and updating inventory. Half a dozen machines move through the shop each week, exiting with the ” Pinicon Certified Readiness” blessing.

The focus is preparing for the 2017 growing season. I would not call it a Trump influenced attitude ( Ben might ) but the new owners seem to be optimistic about their prospects. Reminds me of a younger me.

Our only limits to staying busy are imagination and motivation. Based on the daily activity around here, there appears to be no shortage of those.

Hope you are all well and finding opportunities for rejuvenation during this time between growing seasons.


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