How We Got Here

September 17th, 2018 · No Comments

Pinicon had the 2018 Pre Harvest planning meeting last week. As you can imagine, the format has evolved over the last twenty years.

The first gathering had eight in attendance, all white, male and born within 50 miles of McIntire. I would have scribbled a page or two on my yellow legal paper, listing goals and broad strategies. Get the crop harvested before the snow flies. Don’t fall asleep on your 36 hour shift and run the combine through the fence. Odds favor a bad ending if you loose control of a 500 bushel wagon at 25 mph because the hitch pin bounced out. Basic, common sense stuff that get’s fuzzy under extreme duress.

The 2018 version was presented in Power Point on a 50″ flat screen to a diverse, multi national group of attendees. Danni, our “Senior Content Producer” built the presentation from the final 23 page document Bert dictated to Lindsay. With Bert’s direction, Lindsay assembled the Harvest Plan booklet which is distributed to leadership..

From the table of contents to the Fall Farm Improvement list, it is a comprehensive over view of fields, expected production, logistics, storage locations, Team assignments, fertilizer application, tillage operations, and strategy.

The “Harvest Plan” has become embraced as the blueprint for a safe, coordinated, efficient and profitable last chapter in our production cycle.

If only I could find a way to institutionalize environmentally considerate office thermostat set points and incinerator trash separation, I could die a happy man.

As always, excitement for harvest is high. It will be the second crop for the new ownership Team. Even though there are numerous short term threats which will make achieving profitability difficult (rising interest rates, tariffs, chronic over supply, prices below the cost of production), Bert, Ben, and Alex are gaining confidence in our model.

Past emphasis on land improvements, judicious growth, lean methods, diversification, and building trust with our partners taken together provide that incremental boost that allows us to keep our heads above water.

The next few months will pass in a blink. I will do my best to keep you informed of our progress.

With steady leadership and friendly karma on our side, I expect to be able to report completion of an accident free and abundant harvest by Thanksgiving Day.

Seriously, your interest and support make a difference. We appreciate it!

 

Jim

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Midsummer Project Update

August 2nd, 2018 · No Comments

Despite a modest acreage increase this year, we were determined to avoid adding staff and equipment. Timely execution of crop operations would be accomplished by working smarter. Better planning and training of personnel would result in the needed productivity gains. Improvement projects and machinery upgrades would have a lower priority.

Sustainable growth requires an occasional plateau year to allow for refinement of practices and restocking the “cookie jar.”

We may have succeeded in getting the work done on time, but our downsized project list looks suspiciously ambitious. Is there a twelve step program for “Build-aholics?”

The Felper Farm bin site was deconstructed and cleared, adding 4 acres of cropland and eliminating an inconvenient lot on an otherwise unobstructed half section.

The two biggest bins were moved to the Meyer Bin site, erected on new concrete pads, raised to add capacity, and tied into the existing system with new unloading equipment. For a relatively low budget project, operating cost savings and grain condition benefits were huge.

Excavation for the second LeRoy hog site finisher began early June. This new double wide, power ventilation barn has all the features and innovations we wish were available when we built our first barns 13 years ago. Am I the only one who wishes the rate of change would slow down?

EPO Energy is  wrapping up installation of the 250KW solar system at McIntire. From there they are moving on to install five more systems at selected hog sites. We are limiting this initiative to locations serviced by utilities that give retail value for 100% of production. Hopefully, we will follow up with more systems if system output matches advertised claims.

The concrete bunker walls were sold allowing us to create more parking where the old hoop building was. Our goal is to clean up and rearrange the space east of the bins, develop a comprehensive parking plan, improve compliance with parking assignments, and save time looking for vehicles. I believe we can reduce the frequency with which vehicles mysteriously disappear, only to be discovered a week later in the wrong place.

We upgraded from 6″ to 8″ hose for manure application. Bigger hose carries more volume at lower pressure, increasing acres per day while lowering pump fuel usage. This investment is easily the best opportunity to improve manure application efficiency.

Other noteworthy upgrades include combine replacement, grain cart trade, field driveway installations, ditch crossings, and a variety of precision tech trinkets.

Anyone who’s visited my office lately knows it lacks air conditioning. The personal satisfaction of elevating my tolerance for extreme temperature is giving in to guilt for not prioritizing my guest’s comfort. Spoiler alert: the 2019 project list might include A/C in Jim’s office.

Our desire to be cautious as we considered investments that improve operations is a response to low margins and rising borrowing costs. Balancing the competing goals of debt reduction while investing in future competitiveness requires discretion.

There is a consensus at Pinicon that all mentioned projects pass the test, however cookie jar replenishment may have suffered. Our default has always been to bet on tomorrow. So, as Shania Twain say’s, “Dance with the one that brung ya.”

Weather lately has been very pleasant, good for crops, livestock, and humans. Could we possibly have four awesome crops in a row?

Stay tuned.

 

Jim

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Cold, Wet, and Happy

July 23rd, 2018 · No Comments

Today was a good day as I was able to start running again. Six weeks ago I strained my Achilles, limiting my activities to swimming, biking and hiking.

Are you appreciating my distress?

My Achilles has been “my Achilles.” Pun intended. The first time it happened was about fifteen years ago training for the Rome Marathon. Yes, that Rome. I did not realize the damage  being inflicted as I continued to run in pain, nor the length of time it would take to heal, six months.

The second time it happened I showed a little more respect for the situation, reducing my activity level in the hopes of a faster return to normal work outs. I was back to running after two months which I considered a moral victory.

Early in June, my sights were set on tying last years best time on the Sunset Ridge trail at Forestville. It was a Thursday night warm up for the Sunday morning criterion. Ascending the hill at a pace just below race speed, a sudden sting on the back of my right leg, half way between calf muscle and heal, notified me an unplanned change in exercise routine seemed likely.

As is my default I initially resisted. However as the memory of earlier Achilles episodes emerged through the fog of my nonspecific recall, I relented to the fault code coming from my internal CPU, derated the motor, and finished the course at a brisk walk.

Since then I had avoided the temptation to exert or move too fast. I biked or swam every day. Even climbed a couple Fourteeners in early July. But these activities do not rely on that natural bungee chord in the back of your leg to store energy with every step and snap back to neutral, propelling your hips upward and forward as you become temporarily air born between strides, aka running.

Nothing like a little injury to remind one of the elegant perfection of our bodies.

On Monday of this week I decided that by Thursday it would be safe to try a short run. It would only be six weeks of rest but there was no pain and I had been careful not to strain the tendon.

Forecast was for a rainy, cool day. As I drove to the park at 5:00 PM after working in the nursery calibrating inlets for two hours, it was hard to be confident. Heavy rain and strong winds tested the Edge’s new tires and wipers. I was developing alternate plans just in case the parking lot by the park shelter was submerged in a torrent of churning dead fall, floundering livestock, and inundated campers.

No such luck. The rain eased up as I entered the park and it looked like the most severe storms had stayed south. I was committed.

The dash thermometer said 62 degrees and the light drizzle was intensifying. I parked by the dumpster and went through the usual pre run calisthenics.

Even my Ironman watch was out of sorts. As I set the mode to chronometer, I noticed the time was off by eight hours instead of the usual two, Mountain Standard Time. Not a good omen.

Heading down the trail towards the first climb, there was some stiffness but not the stabbing jolt of a provoked hornet. Even as the rain became heavier, I was feeling lighter.

By the time I reached the horse camp at the top of the ridge, I was thoroughly soaked, muddy, chilled, and thrilled. Despite the adverse conditions, muscle discomfort was minimal, effort was sustainable, the park was predictably unpopulated, and the clouds were breaking.

By now I should recognize the inverse correlation between observable indications of positive outcomes and the probability of improving atmospheric conditions. Simply put, it is darkest before the dawn.

Noted.

As I laid a work shirt on the seat of my car to avoid saturating it with mud, sweat and rain, (sorry no tears), I considered this experience an example of how despite the inevitable decline in physical capabilities as we age, maturity can have its rewards. Viewing setbacks as gifts of insight is one.

 

Jim

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Opportunity in Adversity

June 7th, 2018 · No Comments

 

(Inhale deeply)

PHHHEEWWW

 

Well, it’s June 5th, and all the corn and beans are in the ground.  Most years, this is not something to celebrate.  This is a “bare minimum” type of expectation.  Then again, we aren’t snowbound for 75% of April most years.

 

As many of you realize, Mother Nature was a bit hostile to farmers across the northern plains this spring.  Unseasonably late blizzards were followed by heavy rains, and our entry into the field seemed at times like nothing more than the blindest hope.

 

But sure enough, the opportunities to work the ground began to show themselves.  This is the part where you quit bitching about what you can’t control, and grab that which you can by the throat.

 

Not a fit moment was wasted this spring.  The moment the rain stopped, Bert and Jim were vigilantly searching for fit ground.  As soon as it was found, the rock picking crew mobilized.  Within several hours the tillage team was lapping us, and a couple hours behind them, the planters were rolling.  The close of each window found every crew regrouping, maintaining their equipment, and positioning themselves to move the moment the next window opened. At the risk of being insensitive in this current climate, I’d like to think that the architects of the Blitzkrieg would take some pride in knowing that their ruthless efficiency in the name of conquest was still being practiced by ethnic Germans in a much more socially productive capacity.

 

At every turn this spring brought, we were ready.  It was no accident.  The entire winter is devoted to creating the crop plan, assigning team members to the tasks for which they are best suited, and training the team in what we believe are the best practices to implement the plan.  Our support staff was as sharp as ever, making sure seed, parts, and lunches were always ready, and always on time.

 

There is little doubt in our minds that we put more acres in the ground per day of work than ever before.  In a “normal” year, we would have never felt the pressure to find those limits.  That’s the beauty of hardship. It forces you to get out of your comfort zone and truly test your capabilities.  The lessons you learn in times of struggle are the innovations that allow you to leap forward in times of comfort.

 

As we move into summer and continue to guide the 2018 crop along to maturity, we can take a moment to reflect on the lessons of this spring.  Then we grab the gears of fresh knowledge and slam forward into the future.

 

-Alex

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2018 Taking Shape

April 13th, 2018 · No Comments

 

Hard to believe but 2018 is 25% over, the millennial equivalent of a 22 year old. And just like that tech savvy, civic minded, pot legalizing young adult, we are beginning to get a sense of how the life of 2018 will unfold.

Here are my top 10 predictions for the year:

1) Our President will continue to insult, exaggerate, confound, and occasionally succeed. I believe the country will look back at this administrations tenure as a watershed moment.

2) After three seasons of record yields, weather conditions will be less favorable. Who wins and who loses in this growing season sweepstakes is anyone’s guess. You feeling lucky?

3) Interest rates will only increase another .5% this year. Not burdensome yet but the writing is on the wall. The rules of the game are changing.

4) The long anticipated mass exodus of farmers will not materialize. The attrition rate will be around 4-6% which is average for about the last 100 years

5) The level of accountability for business and the citizenry (regulations, codes, oversight) will increase. This mega trend goes back over 3000 years. The tipping point is coming but I will be climbing mountains with St Peter by then.

6) Iowa State will beat Iowa and I will collect an eight month supply of cheap tequila.

7) Bert will demote Jim to head trash burner after getting tired of his daily suggestions for revolutionizing Pinicon. OK, just putting this out there to keep my self in line.

8) Pinicon will install drainage tile, restore waterways, and clean up farms. How can so much fun be legal?

9) Jim will summit last 6 of 56 14’ers in Colorado. The window is closing for the old man to pull this off.

10) New Bar and Restaurant in McIntire will increase community pride, create momentum for additional investment, and become a gathering place for local residents.

The current weather forecast is not as promising as my annual outlook. It appears we will not be in the field until May based on the 15 day. The list of projects left to be field ready is short so do not be surprised to see us washing windows and polishing door knobs.

The extra time has allowed us to improve our employee training program with out the guilt of putting aside a repair or improvement project.

As farmers, we get much satisfaction from seeing the immediate tangible results of our efforts, working the land, maintaining and operating equipment, building, fixing and breaking. (ooops!)  If we did not enjoy being physically active, we would probably not be well suited for agriculture.

However, we have come to realize that one of our best opportunities for improvement is instruction for our employees. We will not achieve the best results if our workers do not follow best practices.

Depending on the job description, Pinicon has a written procedure for how it should be done.

Like the football coach who expects every player to know their unique assignment when a certain play is called, we have the same expectations of our workers.

So the last few weeks our upstairs break/class room has been busy with safety, spring planning, tillage school and truck inspection meetings.

This initiative will be a long term proposition. Results will not occur overnight. But we have confidence that as our teams skill level increases the safety, quality and enjoyment of work our will increase.

On a final note, our six seasonal H2A workers have arrived and are settled in to their second home in McIntire. Theo, the senior member of our South African team, will be participating in his fourth season at Pinicon. Their enthusiasm to return every year is encouraging and reminds us how fortunate we are to be from here.

 

Jim

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Baby Steps

March 12th, 2018 · No Comments

 

We all face the dilemma of how to effectively navigate the passage between life stages. Dependent child to self-sufficient adult, student to professional, career path “A” vs. career path “B”, single to married, married to single. You name it.

A life stage most of us look forward to is when we can focus on “living” instead of “making a living.” Many would call this retirement. For me, “absolute freedom” would be a more fitting description.

This topic is relevant because even though the enjoyment I get from work is high and I can still contribute, my plan has always been to redirect my time and energy once certain benchmarks were met.

Being the eternal optimist, I can imagine this happening in the next 5-8 years. That seems like plenty of time to develop a “post rat race” plan. However when the next anniversary of your birth is a two digit number starting with six, you realize how time flies.

The specifics of his next stage are TBD, but I do know it will involve less time at the farm. So in the vein of gradually acclimating to life after Pinicon, one of my winter ’17-’18 goals was to increase vacation days. Luckily, that bar was fairly low.

With the help of a few friends, I set a personal best for “days off in a season” last weekend. Please hold the applause. I owe the credit to the Pinicon team. “Jim, you REALLY need to get away for a few days. It will be good for you!”

Behind every successful leadership transition, is a group of tolerant, understanding, and capable individuals that just need to be left the hell alone.

Baby steps.

The change to daylight saving time this weekend is another sign that the upcoming growing season will be here soon. The pre-planting checklist at Pinicon is reaching completion.

1) Production Plan: check

2) Team Assignments: check

3) Housing and arrival date for H2A workers: check

4) Equipment inspection: check

5) Favorable weather and avoidance of office staff deer collisions: pending

OK, there are a few variables beyond our control. No one bats a thousand.

Expect Pinicon to stay the course in 2018. As we have high confidence in our knowledge of the practices which produce the best result, the emphasis is execution on every acre. In other words, quality control.

There will be a few more snow events before we hit the field as we have not seen the first Robin yet (“three snows on the Robin’s tail” as they say).  Be patient and enjoy the lull.

Soon enough the fields will be fit to work and the 2018 growing season will take center stage.

 

Happy Easter!

Jim

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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

Alex

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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.

-Jim

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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!

Jim

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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.

Jim

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