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It's not that John Horter is unhappy with that part of South Dakota where he farms. "From the time I was little, I knew what I wanted to do," he says. "I'm thankful that my parents gave me the opportunity."
But you might find some sympathy for him as he wonders why his great-great-grandfather sought out a site two miles north of Bristol, S.D., enduring a harsh winter there in 1890. Then he walked 70 miles south to Watertown, bound to stake his claim on that 120-acre homestead in a state that was not a full year old.
"What made him go north?" Horter wonders, smiling at the thought, perhaps revealing an inside family joke now five generations old? Actually it is six generations with the birth of his and his wife, Jaclyn's, first son, Dane Steven, back in December. "Why didn't he go south?"
Fog had settled over this part of northeast South Dakota on the day Horter talked with a visitor. His farm is set down in a place called the Prairie Coteau, an area marked by low mounding hills and dozens of glacial potholes now flooded by several years of above-normal rains.
We stand on a gravel road, at the peak of a hill with a view of cattle and crops out to the horizon. Immediately below, patches of deep water sidle up to the road. A round bale pokes out of the water on one side. "We used to bale that," he says, nodding toward hay ground now submerged. "Out of this quarter section, there are only 120 acres tillable because of the water."
A guide to the South Dakota climate uses these words: hot summers, extremely cold winters, high winds and periodic droughts. A state included within the turbulent Tornado Alley, it also catches its fair share of blizzards. The record high—120 degrees—stands in contrast to the record low—minus 58. April calves sometimes drop onto still-frozen ground. Raw though it may be at times, this is beautiful farming country, green and fertile, where a summer's day dawns before 6 a.m. and sunsets are delayed until after a time it is dark in most other places.
Historically, South Dakota has been a backwater for corn and soybeans. But in John's time, Dakota weather has changed. For reasons not entirely explained, the growing seasons have turned warmer and wetter. It is a significant variation in the climate that is dragging the boundaries of the Corn Belt west and north.
In 1991, the state posted an average 74 bushels of corn per acre. Today, there are a million more acres of corn that in 2010 averaged an estimated 140 bushels per acre.
Horter has been part of that growth. He has seen corn yields improve 30 to 50 bushels. His beans are about 10 bushels more per acre. These are yield improvements some don't see in an entire lifetime of farming.
His farming enterprise includes a custom planting and harvesting operation that spans 2,500 acres for a number of area producers. The custom operation "lets me spread the cost of the equipment over more acres," he says. "This business also gives us the opportunity to purchase state-of-the-art GPS and other precision equipment."
Horter Farms runs a large Angus and Charolais cow/calf operation with 520 cows. And there is Horter Restoration, a business that generates some needed cash but also feeds a passion. The business restores antique tractors and is of a size that Horter employs one full-time person to finish restorations, now about 100 in total.
The Horter farm has been growing his operation continuously since graduating from college. He farms with his parents, Steve and Gayle Horter. Two grandfathers, ages 87 and 90, both actively farm. He bought a quarter section and an 80-acre field out of college and is working now to close on another 80 acres. "Expanding is great, but you have to be able to manage it. Acquiring acres just to farm acres is not always the best economic decision," he says.
The farm's grain marketing plan leans heavily on selling corn, wheat and soybeans into value-added markets. "My family is an investor in Northern Lights Ethanol as well as Minnesota Soybean Producers. Our corn gets fed to our cattle or goes into the local ethanol plants," Horter says.
He has been selling certified and registered public varieties of spring wheat. Some of their soybeans go to a processing plant. "We want to be diversified," he explains.
Horter is convinced that success in farming comes on the back of a producer with both a keen eye for technology and the markets, but also active in supporting agriculture and the community. He is treasurer of the James Valley Threshing Association, a director on the Day County Crop Improvement Association, and he manages an at-large position in the South Dakota Soybean Association. In his spare time, Horter is a trustee—and handyman—at his church.
"My wife tells me I need to learn the word 'No.' But I have gotten to where I am today because of a great family, faith, opportunity and my own two hands," Horter says. "I couldn't do this without the support of my wife and," he adds, "the occasional picnic in the field."