American agriculture is unmatched around the world. Yet with this success comes an even greater challenge: Who will replace the half-million farmers and ranchers who plan to retire over the next two decades? Look no further than our next class of America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers. They are among the best of their generation. They embrace the future of agriculture and are developing the technical and managerial skills to build their own successful businesses.
There are moments in time when the thread of a person's life spins off in an unforeseen direction. For Chris Zenker, Gackle, N.D., that happened when he was 9 years old.
Farming just west of this small German community of 300 in south-central North Dakota, long days of summer sunlight allowed young Chris and his father, Joel, to work late into the evening. Chris could already drive the pickup at age 9–off-road only, Joel assures a caller–and operate the haystack mover as the two worked the fields, loading and unloading round bales. Chris loved the work.
Joel was a math teacher by profession. He came back to the farm to help his dad manage his cattle. Joel also coached basketball, track and football, and did some game-time officiating. On a fall afternoon, Oct. 7, 1988, Joel was driving from Gackle to Fessenden, a couple of hours away, to referee a football game. As he drove toward the town on North Dakota state Highway 30, Joel looked ahead to see an old pickup also heading toward Fessenden. He pulled out into the passing lane to move around the slower vehicle. But it suddenly turned left toward an intersecting road, crossing directly in front of Joel. He could not stop. The ensuing accident left Joel paralyzed from the neck down.
Chris Zenker's life forever changed on that October day. His boyhood dreams about farming had, amidst the wreckage, shifted onto a path Chris would walk without his father's backing or his financial resources. But there would be opportunities.
Five years after the accident, Chris' grandfather retired. He rented his 800 tillable acres, mostly wheat ground to a neighbor. Chris was a sophomore in high school. "[Grain farming] was all I wanted to do," Chris says, recalling how he would ride his bike from Gackle out to the farm to help his grandfather. "But I was only 14 and could not start farming at that age."
Chris graduated from high school in 1997, with no farming opportunity in front of him. He enrolled in a two-year diesel mechanics program at North Dakota State College of Science (NDSCS).
Then fate intervened, again. A portion of his grandfather's farm became available for rent. Did Chris want to rent it? Chris took 350 acres "and started my farming career." He harvested his first crop in 1998.
Joel offers the thought that his accident might have created an opportunity for Chris. "Less than a year out of high school, he was already farming for himself," Joel says.
A year later, in 1999, Chris rented the remaining 450 acres from his grandfather. He harvested his second crop, while keeping up with his work at NDSCS. "My farm business started to grow, and I began to buy some equipment," Chris says. He also added 35 bred heifers to his budding business that year.
"I had to start my own farm. I didn't have my dad to back me or his land to farm," Chris says. "But, I thought, right from here, this is where I'm going to start." The fifth Zenker farming generation was born.
"He's quite a young man," says Jack Dahl, of the Dahl Land & Cattle Co., and a family friend of the Zenkers for 60 years. "He's a good businessman, a good farmer and a very good man. He's done a marvelous job," says Dahl, one-time president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and past chairman of the Federal Agricultural Mortgage Association (a position he was appointed to by then President Ronald Reagan).
Chris made his bold move as a 21-year-old farmer. It was 2000, the new millennium. Chris graduated from NDSCS, and he planted his first crop of soybeans. Chris was one of the first growers to plant soybeans in Logan County, N.D. Logan is cattle country. It ranks first in the state in cattle and calves sold. But not a single soybean acre was reported harvested there in 1997.
Chris wanted to raise sunflowers, but marauding flocks of blackbirds would have devoured the crops. Soybeans looked attractive, by comparison.
"I'm willing to experiment," Chris says. Soybeans were a gamble. Chris' early crops were coming in at only the mid-20s to 30 bushels, and his nearest market was 95 miles away in Oakes, N.D. But it was a fortuitous move, as soybeans soon became an important cash crop in North Dakota. Farmers in Logan County grew 81,000 acres of soybeans in 2012. Chris produced 40- to 45-bushel beans in 2014.
"He took the initiative to plant the beans, and they really helped pay the rent," Joel says.
Perhaps the biggest turn in Chris' early career came in 2001. Chris would marry Christina Reed in 2001, it is important to note. That same year, word of Chris' farming abilities found its way to the attention of Harry Krause, a retiring local farmer. Krause happened to have 1,700 acres and a house. Would Chris and his young wife like to move into the house and rent the farm?
Yes, Chris would say, quickly. "But I'm thinking, 'no way,'â€‰" he recalls. "I didn't have the equipment to farm 2,500 acres." But his banker encouraged Chris to apply for a beginning farmer loan from the Bank of North Dakota, the only state-owned bank in the nation. He was approved, and within a short time, began to buy the tractors, combines and semi-trucks he needed to farm the additional ground.
"It was just my wife and me," Chris says. Hailing from South Dakota, without farming experience, Christina was a dental assistant who soon learned how to drive a combine. "We were able to manage," he says. The farm became a healthy operation with a marketing plan that regularly hit the upper end of Chris' price targets.
This patch of North Dakota is a challenging place to conduct the business of farming. Zenker Farms sits on the Missouri Coteau, a flat to hilly, rocky landscape created by retreating glaciers. The weather is harsh and variable. The average daily maximum temperature in July is 84ÂºF; the average daily minimum temperature is -3ÂºF in January. The soils on the hilltops are thin and sandy. The bottoms are thick and muddy, a poorly drained gumbo that when wet all but glues the unaware driver and his equipment to the earth. Visitors will notice everywhere large piles of rocks–each and every endless boulder removed from the fields by generations of tough wheat and barley farmers. Thousands of depressions–they are called potholes–are seasonally filled with water. There are multitudes of cattailed wetlands and nearly 9,000 acres of lakes in Logan County.
While challenging to the row-crop farmer, this is ideal waterfowl habitat. In fact, Gackle is known as the "Duck Hunting Capital of the World." It is a claim backed up with the presence of untold, tens of thousands of ducks–mallards, northern pintails and green-winged teal are among the dozen species that nest here. Some reports claim that the area supports 100 pairs of breeding ducks per square mile.
Zenker Farms, Inc. is a 6,000-acre business, counting all the ground Chris and his brother, Mike, farm in a loose partnership. The farm is growing toward 10,000 acres, producing a 50-50 rotation of corn and soybeans on 18 inches of water per year–most of it falling as rain between April and September. Chris also operates a Conklin fertilizer franchise. Corn yields range from 40 bushels per acre to 200 bushels. Zenker Farms' average yield was 130 bushels per acre of corn in 2014. The corn is fed to his Uncle Warren's 450 cow/calf pairs, into a 2,000-head feedlot and soon, potentially to a newly opened ethanol plant in Jamestown, an hour's semi haul from home.
The farm has gone from zero on-farm storage in 2006 to 260,000 bushels. Chris and a neighbor added another 200,000 bushels of storage when they purchased the formerly closed elevator in Gackle and its four bins.
"I'll spend money to make money," he says. Storage was a good move. The North Dakota oil boom has clogged tracks with tanker cars moving crude out of the rich Bakken Formation, to the detriment of grain typically bound for Asia, by way of ports in Seattle, Wash., Portland, Ore. and Vancouver. A North Dakota State University study finds that unshipped stockpiles of wheat, corn and soybeans may ultimately cost farmers $160 million due to depressed prices. On-farm storage creates for Chris the valuable commodity of time. He can hold his corn and beans for a more favorable basis.
Zenker Farms has invested in variable-rate technology. The system traces geo-referenced lines in fields divided by soil conditions. Seeding rates, starter fertilizer, and in-furrow fertilizer are varied by zone. "We have seen major yield differences in all the zones, including the poor soil zones," Zenker says.
"Chris realizes that if he doesn't continuously move forward and stay innovative, he'll lose his edge and eventually, his profitability," says Cory Oberlander. "What I like best about Chris is that he isn't scared to try new things." Oberlander is president and owner of Agveris Inc., based in West Fargo, N.D.
Tissue testing, soil testing and cover crops are all practices Chris brings to the soils he farms. Half of his fields are no-till, the other half minimum-till. Chris flies crimson clover, tillage radishes and turnips over his corn late in the season. The tillage radishes and turnips break up the hard pan. The clover is for nitrogen. Some fields with organic matter that once measured at 1 to 1Â½ percent now test at 3 to 5Â½ percent.
Chris is not a traditionalist. "Some guys say 'this is the way my grandfather did it,' but things change all the time," Chris says. "I get up, come to the shop and see what we can do next."
He purchased his first parcels of land early in 2014. It was two quarters, and Chris is nervous about the large investment. "Ever since I bought them, the market has gone down," he says. But he knows land is a long-term play. "I bought land that will make the yield monitor go up in the combine," he says.
His father had little doubt Chris would succeed. "Chris is about as competitive as his father was," Joel says. "My grandpa [August] would have been so proud of what his great-grandson is doing," he adds. "[August] was a true farmer 'til the second he died. Average was not good enough for him."
"Every day is a challenge," Chris says. "I need people around me, like the farmers around here who I learn from every day. They will push me to the next level." Average is not good enough.