Tuesday, November 22, 2016

An eventful year: My term as president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association

I was privileged to be interviewed by Jonathan Knutson of Agweek, with this article posted on November 21, 2016:

WILLMAR, Minn. — Corn is a big part of Noah Hultgren's life. Always has been, always will be. But the crop was particularly important to him this past year, when the Willmar, Minn., farmer served as president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

"I never kept track of how much time I spent on it. But almost every day it seemed there was something to do, answering calls or emails or going to meetings. In the winter (of 2015 to '16), it seemed almost like a full-time job," he says.

Part of the one-year job was helping to develop a recently released plan to assist "Minnesota corn growers become the most sustainable and economically responsible in the United States," as the Corn Growers Association puts it. The group has about $250,000 in grants available to help farmers improve their organizations; a committee will evaluate applications.

Another part of the president's job, Hultgren says with a rueful smile, was fielding phone calls from farmers "who wanted to know what I was doing to raise the price of corn." His response: "If I had that power, I'd be a lot richer and I'd have a higher position elsewhere in the world."

Were the callers serious or teasing? "A little bit of both," Hultgren says.

In some ways, the fourth-generation farmer is typical of Upper Midwest agriculture. He operates with his father, Duane, and older brother, Nate — a multi-generational, multi-family-member arrangement so common in area ag.

And Noah Hultgren's part-time job — he's a licensed real estate salesman, who now deals primarily with ag property — also is a familiar part of the area ag scene. Ag finance officials stress the importance of off-farm income, especially when crop prices are poor, as they are now.

But Hultgren, 36, differs from the norm in at least one way: he was unusually young to have held a top leadership post in a state ag commodity group. Typically, leadership positions in such groups are filled by folks in their late 40s, 50s and 60s.

Hultgren nods when asked about that. "There's a lot of gray hair on our council and association. There's more of the middle-aged people. There's only a handful of guys 45 and younger," he says.
The Minnesota Corn Growers Association, which has more than 7,000 members, works with the Minnesota Corn Research and Promotion Council "to identify and promote opportunities for Minnesota's 24,000 corn farmers while building connections with the non-farming public," the association says.

How to get them involved?
Getting relatively young farmers — the average age of U.S. farmers is 58, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — involved in leadership roles in ag commodity groups can be challenging. Often, young farmers have children at home, which can limit their ability and interest to hold leadership posts. Young producers who farm on their own, without help from family members or employees, also can be reluctant to take on other duties.

Noah and his wife, Paula, have three young daughters. Paula, who once worked as an x-ray technician, now is a stay-at-home mother. Noah says that made it easier for him to serve as MCGA president.

Nate Hultgren says he and his father backed Noah's involvement with the group. "We know how important it is to support and promote the crops we grow," Nate says.

Adam Birr, executive director of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, agrees that attracting young farmers to farm group leadership posts can be difficult. "The time commitment is a concern that a lot of younger growers have," he says.

The corn growers association has worked to find ways to help young farmers fulfill the duties of leadership posts by better meshing those duties with their schedule and lifestyles, Birr says. Using more electronic communication, and fewer face-to-face meetings, is one way of doing that, he says.
The MCGA also is working to attract young farmers by placing more emphasis on issues in which they're especially interested. For example, young farmers have said "engaging with consumers" is critical, and so "we've made that a huge point of emphasis" with Hultgren playing a key role as president, Birr says. Hultgren "epitomizes the effort we've made to reach out to the next generation of farmers," Birr says.

Didn't plan to be a farmer
Hultgren says he enjoyed the family farm growing up, but didn't expect to become a farmer.
"In the late 1990s, things didn't look too good (in agriculture.) So my original plan wasn't to be a farmer," Noah Hultgren says. "But my brother left the door for me to come back."

He earned a two-year degree in sales and management and then received his real estate license, selling real estate in the Willmar area. Willmar, population about 20,000, is the county seat of Kandiyohi County.

But with his family's encouragement, he returned to the family farm in 2001. His sales and management degree provides some help in farming. And the real estate experience aids with "understanding value," he says.

Noah is officially Hultgren Farms' agronomy manager, with Nate serving as CEO. "So, he's my brother, but he's also my boss," Noah says. Some of the Hultgren farmland is irrigated, and Duane is in charge of irrigation, though he has other duties, too, Noah says.

Today, the Hultgrens raise corn, sugar beets, soybeans, kidney beans, sweet corn and alfalfa.
Their rotation is primarily beets, kidney beans and corn, with sweet corn and soybeans mixed in. They've recently begun growing more alfalfa, which they sell to a big dairy that opened nearby. The Hultgrens also have 30 beef cattle — ''Dad is a cattle guy," Noah says — on some of the family's non-tillable land.

On the day of Agweek's visit, the Hultgrens weren't quite finished with the 2016 harvest. Plentiful — sometimes too plentiful rains — had produced excellent yields in many fields, but also led to drown-out and repeated harvest delays. To complete their harvest, the Hultgrens hired a local operator with a track combine.

Even with strong yields, turning a profit on corn this year will be difficult, given low prices for the crop, Noah says. "Don't get me wrong; I'm glad we had the good yields. But we're just so far behind" on prices, he says.

Still active in corn group
Hultgren, who initially became involved with a county corn growers group, was encouraged by another grower to work at the state level, too. He's been involved with the state group for about six years, working his way up the leadership track.

Now, as immediate past president, he'll remain active in the state group, particularly with its governmental affairs committee. He plans to stay active after his current position expires, as well.
He's not interested in leadership positions with the National Corn Growers Association because they would require too much time away from his family.

Hultgren stops to think for a few seconds when asked if anything surprised him during his term as state corn growers president. "Well, there's just so much — I don't know if miseducation is the word — that we're up against. There's just so much public misperception about what we're doing," particularly with sustainability, he says.

"There's nothing wrong with saying you need to stay in business to be sustainable. Every farm wants to do the best they can to be the can for the soil, but farmers need to be able to make money," he says.
Hultgren says his stint as state president, though busy, was time well spent.

"There are so many things I enjoyed about it," he says. "There was the camaraderie with other people (corn growers) across the country. And there was knowing that here is an organization that can really help you, on a personal level, grow as a leader."


Monday, June 20, 2016

Interesting StarTribune article on Farmland Management

I read a very interesting article in the StarTribune by Tom Meersman explaining the role of farm managers and absentee landowners:


The article starts by introducing us to a landowner named Dave Butler, as follows:

"Dave Butler doesn’t have a clue how to farm, and he has never lived on a farm. But his parents and grandparents owned a large farm west of Hutchinson, and Butler and his brothers inherited 440 acres after their mother died in 2010. The brothers decided to keep the acreage in the family.
“It’s just a good investment,” said Butler, 62. “They don’t make dirt anymore, you know, and we want to keep it for the family heritage and investment income. I go out there quite a bit and check on it.”
How to make that investment income can be tricky. Butler and his brothers didn’t know what was an appropriate rental rate for the land or how to evaluate whether tenants were taking care of it properly."
According to the story, "Butler’s family is one of about 31,000 land owners renting out cropland in Minnesota to the tune of nearly $2 billion annually, according to federal estimates.
And as the average age of farmers inches toward 60 and more cropland passes to nonfarming younger generations, as in the case of the Butlers, the business of managing many of those farms is on the rise to help with rental agreements, taxes and other financial and land management decisions.
A 2014 survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that more than 2 million acres of Minnesota farmland, most of it used to grow crops, is expected to be transferred during the next five years. And with the graying of farmers, it’s likely that even more ownership changes will occur during the next two decades."
If you find yourself in a similar situation to the Butlers, I'd love to become a trusted advisor for you and your family. As a farmer, landowner, farmland appraiser, and real estate agent and broker myself; I have a unique perspective that very few other people can match. I would welcome the chance to learn about your situation and provide you with the best farmland advice.
Please contact me at 320-894-7528 for more information.
Noah Hultgren

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The House Committee on Agriculture

I was privileged to be able to share some background about my life and farm with the House Committee on Agriculture, as shown here: http://agriculture.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=3418

Here's the article, which will give you some insight into our operation:


For most, receiving phone calls at 3 in the morning is an unnatural and unpleasant experience. For Minnesota farmer Noah Hultgren it’s just another day, or night, on the job. During harvest, farmers like Noah work around the clock to ensure Americans and others around the world have food on their tables. Curiosity got the best of us, so we sat down with Noah to get a glimpse about what life on a farm is really like.

The Hultgrens hail from Kandiyohi County, Minnesota, where they farm the same land Noah’s great grandfather cultivated in the 1930s. Noah’s grandfather, Lowell, was to go into World War II, but was held back to help tend the farm since his two older brothers were already in the service. Lowell and Noah’s grandmother Lucille farmed together with Noah’s great grandfather, Walter. Noah credits them for making the farm grow into what it is today and mentioned that while his grandfather passed away in 1997, Lucille is still “alive and doing well at the age of 94.”  He also noted that he and his family currently live in Lowell and Lucille’s home on the farm that was built in the early 1970s.

Noah, his wife Paula, and their three young daughters Ella, Samantha, and Hannah work together with Noah’s parents, Duane and Nancy, and his brother, Nate, to run the family farm. A typical day varies season to season, with harvest and planting certainly demanding the longest hours.

During fall harvest, from around the first of September through the first part of November, the Hultgrens, along with a couple of full-time employees, work in shifts around the clock, harvesting sugar beets, corn, and kidney beans.  Typically, these shifts result in 14 to 16 hour work days, with phone calls coming in at all hours of the night. When asked if he had any time to sleep, Noah responded matter-of-factly, “During harvest, you get your sleep when you can get it.”  Noah went on to explain that his family works six days a week, but that they have always taken Sundays off for church and family time.  He said, “We do not farm on Sundays for religious reasons and the feeling that you can’t work seven days a week. Your mind and body do not stay sharp enough.”

The majority of the Hultgrens’ land is devoted to growing corn, sugar beets and kidney beans, with the rest split evenly between soybeans, sweet corn, and alfalfa. Noah is primarily in charge of the sugar beets while his brother, Nate, calls the shots on kidney beans. Both of these crops require more hands-on management than the others. For example, sugar beets are harvested 24 hours a day in the fall while kidney beans can only be cut at night when the ground is wet and harvested during the day when it is dry.

Most of the crops do not have to travel too far once they are harvested. All of the corn silage goes to a local dairy about a mile up the road. About 75 percent of the total corn crop will end up there when it is all said and done, both silage and shelled corn. The rest of the corn is stored and dried on the farm, with about 10 percent going to an ethanol plant the Hultgrens invested in near Atwater, Minnesota, and the remainder contracted out with local elevators. The sugar beets are delivered to a local cooperative that Noah and Nate are a part of.  For sugar beets, Noah and crew have to work around the occasional temperature shutdowns. If it is cooler than 28 degrees or warmer than 65, the sugar beet processing plant will close down to avoid losing the sugar content of the crop.

Kidney beans have a further distance to travel with most going to a processing plant about 5 hours away in Menomonie, Wisconsin. The soybeans are mostly raised for their seed and stored on the farm until the seed company is ready to take them. Feed soybeans are typically hauled directly to local elevators. The Hultgrens usually make four cuttings of alfalfa per year with the large majority of that being chopped and delivered to the same local dairy that their corn goes to.

The Hultgren operation is a quintessential family farm. Noah’s wife, Paula, who did not grow up on a farm, enjoys chipping in to help Noah and the crew around the farm whenever she can. She also works full-time as the mom of three young daughters and works with the local school and church. Noah says his girls will come and ride with him some during harvest because he isn’t home very much during that time but that his nephews will ride with him and his brother for as long as they can and at every chance they get. “They love the tractors,” Noah said.

He also spends time in the winter months and throughout the year traveling to Washington D.C. and the Minnesota State Capitol in Saint Paul where he advocates on behalf of Minnesota farmers as the president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

The Hultgrens got into the field early this year, with the planting of sugar beets starting on April 11th and corn shortly after that. Noah commented that April was an odd month temperature-wise, with snow covering the ground on April 27th and 28th and 90 degree weather the next week. Noah said, “We had to set the planter a little deeper this year to find moisture. Right now we have emergence on everything but soybeans.” He went on to say, “Everything that is coming up looks good and consistent.”

The top things that keep Noah up worrying at night are weather, volatile markets, and farm policy, especially relating to crop insurance. He said, “It’s hard to fathom the amount borrowed under loans, and without crop insurance one bad year could easily put a farmer out of business.” Water hemp is their main weed problem to worry about, with most of those weeds having to be pulled by hand in sugar beet and soybean fields.

Noah said that although he liked farming as a kid, he initially didn’t think he was going to farm for a living. After graduating from Maccray High School, Noah went to St. Cloud Technical College where he earned a degree in Sales and Marketing. But, it wasn’t until he met Paula that he realized how much he loved farming and how great an environment it is to raise a family in. He hopes that one day one or all of his daughters will be involved in Hultgren Farms.

We look forward to checking back in with Noah and his family in the coming months to see how the crops are doing and what all he and his family are keeping busy with.