Disagreement is Good

The other night Linda and I started out the weekend at our daughter and son in laws for happy hour.

For the record, neither of my offspring were female.

Feeling ebullient after winning the Biggest Loser competition with his dad and brother, Nick had the swagger to challenge me to a debate on the President’s latest security infrastructure initiative. .

Despite occasionally interrupting each other, raising our voices, making provocative assertions, and becoming mildly frustrated at each others inability to get it, we ended the conversation respectfully, agreeing that the correct answer depends on your point of view.

There are objective realms where determinate reality exists. Rock brakes scissors, water changes state at 100 degrees centigrade, photosynthesis requires sunshine, and the Vikings will never win a Super Bowl.

There are also subjective worlds, where reality equals perception, aka “a mental image.”

When reality becomes a construct of the gears between or ears, results will vary.

Beyonce or Black Sabbath, vegan vs. paleo, christian or agnostic, Patriotic swamp draining mega successful champion for the common man or sleazy self promoting obnoxious over rated phony?

The mental images we create are influenced by life experience, gender, hormones, personality, race, and a multitude of other factors. Perceptions will be as unique and varied as cumulus clouds, or more precisely, people on the planet.

Though we tend to forget, it is well documented that the resilience of life is enhanced by the nearly infinite number of outcomes which can result from the combinations of our DNA.

Physical diversity among the human population is key to our survival. Intellectual diversity is equally important.

So the next time you become annoyed when you encounter a person with a different point of view, imagine how one dimensional, barren, and flavorless life would be if we all drove the same road to work, dressed the same, performed the same task for the same pay, and spent this homogeneous existence with identical thoughts in our heads.

Speaking for myself, I am darn grateful everyone does not think like me.



Mid Winter Report

Winter has finally arrived in North Iowa and I am almost ashamed to admit I was secretly hoping for the “Polar Vortex of the decade.” This is all my fault.

When brutally cold temps and accumulated snow conspire to turn every day into “Arctic Survival Boot Camp” life in this part of the world can be a struggle. A mild winter should be a thing to celebrate.

Yet, it is the contrast of the seasons that makes living at this latitude special. For me, the joy that comes with that first green grass, blue sky, seventy degree day is born in the depths of winter.

I have also seen sufficient evidence to persuade me the climate is changing. If in the next 50 years, our weather starts to resemble Kansas City more than Rochester, there will be adverse consequences to our farming operation.

Possibly, researchers predicting dire climate change impacts in the near future are catastrophizing. Maybe the rate of global warming will be gradual enough that technology will give us the tools to adapt with out creating widespread disruption and suffering. Or maybe I should adopt the “not my worry” advice of John Maynard Keynes who famously remarked, ” In the long run, we are all dead.”

So it gives me a sense of relief when the National Weather Service predicts 6-9″ of snow and potentially record cold. This is the kind of January I grew up with.

As I head out for my Sunday afternoon, five below zero, snow jog, I will be encouraged by the cold sting on my cheeks, the shiver in my limbs, the crunch of the snow on my boots and the visual clarity of the frigid air.

Old fashioned winters are OK with me.


Making Every Day Good

It has been said that every day is a good day, if you know what to do with it.

At Pinicon, it is relatively easy to do this nine months a year. From April to November, the feasible and worthwhile project list exceeds the supply of labor. The more difficult decision is recognizing which effort has the most value.

However, in mid January, when the days are short, the ground is frozen, and your ambition wants to go on sabbatical, keeping the entire Team constructively employed can be a challenge.

Fortunately for us, potentially beneficial initiatives are so numerous that improvement is a year round activity. Besides, the guilt we would feel for temporarily “punching out” would be severe. ( Guess my spiritual tradition.) Working on that.

As most of our operators work up to 3000 hours annually, cutting back to four, 9.5 hour days per week is the first step in increasing the value of our time during the winter. By the end of the week we still get 90% of the work done on 80% of the hours.

The existing shop has six separate, distinct work areas plus a wash bay. With coordination, 8-10 men can share this space with out getting in each others way.

Our equipment fleet gets bigger every year. Combines have more capacity, tractors have more power, planters and tillage machines go faster and get wider. Yet we need more of all of it.

My point is not so much the expansion of the fleet but the need for upkeep. Whoilla! We just happen to have the trained full time staff and a facility to accommodate them.

Fourteen years ago when Calvin started, he was sole administrative person with an office. He spent 60% of his time in that role. He was also head tile repairer, fertilizer tender driver, ammonia hauler, and dryer chief.

In 2019, there will be seven personnel with significant administrative duties and dedicated work stations. They have some outside responsibility as well but their primary duties are administration and accounting.

The day is coming when desk jobs outnumber machine operators at Pinicon. We are not there yet but we do have functional space for the current needs with out moving Ben into the corner between the north shelf and guard rail of the mezzanine.

As the volume of on farm storage has grown, it has become impractical to deliver all our grain during the summer. With a minimum of 100K bushels getting shipped every month, there is steady work for a handful of drivers. This essential task helps fill the daily assignment plan with out dictating priorities.

Education and staff development is easily the highest value off season effort. The affect this has on safety, retention, quality control and the bottom line cannot be over stated.

Thursday, January 10th. 18 full time staff in attendance, 1.5 hours of classroom instruction, proprietary Pinicon Farm, Version 4.0 content, followed with shop tour and Q and A. Back to work afterwards with a renewed sense of purpose and professionalism.

It was a good day.



Celebrating for the Right Reason

The 2018 Pinicon Holiday/Partner Appreciation party was held this weekend. The date was moved up from the first weekend after New Years to get ahead of Holiday season party fatigue, potentially brutal January weather, make Christmas bonus distribution more timely, and celebrate with our South African workers before they return home.

I would like to take credit for seeing all these advantages but it was the HR department that saw this opportunity and made the recommendation back in August. Danni and Lindsay also took the lead in planning the location, menu and invites.

In the past, I was reluctant to commit to having a party until harvest was completed and financial statements prepared. In my mind, being festive and grateful was contingent on profitability. Until the asset and liability totals are updated, knowing how much progress or regress occurred the previous season is a coin flip. Planning a party without this knowledge was presumptuous.

Well Jim, maybe you were seeing it wrong all those years.

Success today and more so in the future, will be a collaborative enterprise. Not only do we require a team of professionals employed by Pinicon as operators, technicians, bookkeepers, compliance specialists, agronomists, and purchasers, there is a network of vendors, service providers, advisors, and peers we rely on to source inputs, build and maintain infrastructure, and develop strategy.

As the challenge to recruit, retain, and sustainably motivate an organization has become more difficult, tangibly communicating gratitude and respect to everyone that plays a role in your business is vital. Relationship investments should not depend on short term price dynamics any more than stewardship of the land should be compromised due to cheap commodities.

And it took a couple of 30ish, female, administrative staff to open my eyes.

Thank goodness for diversity and youth.

So, regardless if Pinicon made money in 2018, we sincerely appreciate everyone that is part of our association of partners. Our company simply could not exist with out the combined contribution of all the people we employ or do business with.

In the next few weeks, we will have time for the financial analysis. Our best guess is that we will make progress. Either way, we remain confident in our long term success because we have an exceptionally talented group of partners with a vested interest in our future.



Ode to Perseverance

As we wrap up harvest for 2018 and take inventory of our progress, I am reminded that more often than not, it takes years for a particular goal to be reached or a new strategy to demonstrate its value.

The Pinicon “Better Methods Discovery Quest” is littered with exciting idea’s discarded by harmful side effects, pessimism, unrealistic expectations and insufficient resources. Whether they were legitimate dead ends or game changing innovations a couple years beyond our limited problem solving abilities, we’ll never know.  This blog is about two times persistence was rewarded.

In the early days, poor soybean farmers we were. Despite our adoption of the prevailing best practices. We could not make money growing beans.

We experimented with numerous systems in our effort to improve profitability. Different row widths, planter configurations, tillage, varieties, soil amendments, and marketing strategies were tried.

Gradually yields improved but we continued to explore alternative production methods, often times at the risk of going backwards in the short run. When you only get one chance to grow a crop every 12 months, it can take years to recover a large single season setback.

In the last few years, trends became apparent. Row width is over rated. Lower populations outperform higher populations, to a point. There is a strong correlation with high yields and early planting. If soybean production was an Olympic sport, hog manure would be a banned substance.  Drainage, drainage, and did I mention drainage?

Utilizing this experience to fine tune our bean production system, the current emphasis is on timeliness, variety selection, fertility, identification of “never beans” farms, and farm specific tillage.

In 2018, using row width and tillage practices common in the 70’s, we smashed our previous bean yield record. This was accomplished on a larger total bean acreage than we have ever grown. 98% of the crop is in company storage, and 70% is forward sold.

Despite the trade war and burdensome oversupply, this works for us.

In 2014 we decided to hire two H2A workers from South Africa. Finding help locally that was willing to work extended hours during planting and harvest was becoming difficult. Competing with non ag job opportunities on a per hour level was expensive. We would be the first in our area to bring in foreign workers. Local backlash was a real risk.

We knew other farm operations had success with this option but every situation is different. Our expectations for our workers are high. Keeping the machinery going was not the issue. Could we find honest, hard working individuals who took pride in their work and embraced our culture?

Theo and John arrived in early April. It took several months to get them CDL’s, locally orientated, fully furnished houses (H2A rules employer provides housing) and personality conflicts resolved.

After the first year we determined it would take a season to get the typical H2A employee trained into our way of doing things. If we could get them to return a second year they would have the experience and local knowledge to be qualified for our Team.

In 2015 we doubled down and brought in five H2A workers. Turn over among this group was over 50%. By the end of 2015, only one of our original 2014 hires remained.

If this was going to be a sustainable strategy, reducing the drop out rate was essential for developing the skilled, quality workers who could meet our standards.

Fast forward to 2018. (already?) Our South African contingent of Gerhard, Deon, Dirk, Jaco, and J.D. are collectively the best class of H2A workers to date. Their productivity, job skills, and judgement rank them on the first team of Pinicon employees.

To paraphrase my opening statement, even good idea’s will probably take longer to reach fruition than you expect. In the absence of dogged determination, many successful remedies will never be realized.

Ironically, this truism comes with a caveat. While perseverance has been an essential aspect of our drive for improvement, we have also become quicker to recognize when to cut our losses.

Success in business requires finding that balance.



Will We Ever have Another Drought?

I did it. I am daring the Masters of the Universe. Blame me when the rivers and wells go dry, vegetation turns to tinder, and the ensuing Dust Bowl envelops the Corn Belt.

But do not hold your breath waiting.

Look up the Iowa Annual Weather Summary for the years 2013-17. State Climatologist Harry Hilaker compiles temperature and precipitation records for each county. Based on his data,  Mitchell and Howard Counties averaged 7″ more precipitation than normal for this five year period.  2017 was the driest year with rainfall matching the long term average of 35.”  2016 was the wettest with 17.5″ above normal or 52.5″.

As weather calamities go, drought has the celebrity. It is the 13% possibility of a drought in any given year that causes the typical growing season rally. I am always puzzled at farmers and traders willingness to bet on an event with such low probability.

The reality is more damaged is caused by too much rain. National yields are highest following growing seasons with abundant rainfall. However, here in North Iowa, it is the chronic and persistent impacts of erosion, nutrient loss, and reduced yield from excess moisture that collectively do the most harm.

Not one to play the “hapless victim card”, I look at these trends and ask, what can we do to mitigate the effects of too much water, preserve the soil, and achieve yields needed to stay profitable?

Quite a bit, actually.

If there was ever a question regarding the value of 40′ lateral tile spacing, in our minds, this debate is over. Compared to farms with 80′ spacing, we are seeing a 5-10% yield advantage, depending on the soils. Additionally, the improved speed with which the soil recovers has operational benefits allowing us to get back in the field sooner after heavy rainfall events.

With a few exceptions, we have stopped applying NH3 in the fall. Instead we are split applying urea either just before planting or immediately after planting, and again pre tassel or late June. We observed that with more rain and warmer weather, ammonia was being leached from the soil and was not available when the plant needed it. For many years the practice of applying nitrogen as ammonia in the fall worked well. This was our preferred method. No longer.

For corn fields going to beans the next season, we now use a vertical tillage tool in the fall followed by a soil finisher in the spring for seedbed preparation. Our experience with no till in our heavy, wet soils led us to conclude tillage was needed to get the best yields. The vertical till/soil finisher systems achieves nearly identical residue cover and erosion reduction with out the weed control, compaction, and trash management challenges that come with no till.

Every year we install more waterways, surface water diversions, headland berms, and other structures to slow down and reduce the flow of surface water on our farms. By experimenting with different structure designs over the years, we have developed an assortment of strategies for minimizing surface water damage. In situations where the frequency and volume of surface water has reached a level requiring intervention, we can usually come up with a cost effective solution that handles the water and maintains the farmability of the land.

These are a few examples of how we are adapting to the changing climate. We expect recent rainfall patterns to continue so we are making the necessary land improvements and system adjustments to maintain our farms productivity.

Speaking of rain, it looks like the most recent two week wet spell has run its course. We are close to one third done with harvest. Combine, tillage, and fertilizer operations should all be running by the weekend.

The Team has performed very well so far. No major mental errors or bad luck. The Honey Crisp apples in our carefully assembled sack lunches have been a treat!

Only six weeks till Thanksgiving. We might be having our turkey dinner in the field.

Would you like a side of bee’s wings with your dressing Ben?



How We Got Here

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!



Midsummer Project Update

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.



Cold, Wet, and Happy

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.


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.



Opportunity in Adversity


(Inhale deeply)



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.