2018 Taking Shape

 

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

Baby Steps

 

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

Dispatch from the Winter Doldrums

 

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

Room for Better

 

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

Halftime Report

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

Harvest on the Brain

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

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.

Alex

Summer Aficionado

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!

Jim

Still Betting on the Odds

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,

Jim

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.