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From round fields to square

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By Ken Root

We have amazing travel capabilities across the world today and that has given us great confidence in our ability to move from one area to another. I left Des Moines, Iowa, early on Monday morning with the objective of spending two hours in Imperial, Neb., with Jim Chism, CEO of Frenchman Valley Cooperative, and returning home that night. Chism is preparing to move from the High Plains, where irrigation is the basis for high-yield crop production, to central Iowa, where rainfall on black soil facilitates production at a similar level. He has been with Frenchman Valley Cooperative for 30 years, with the last 12 as Chief Executive Officer. The 56-year-old feed, grain and agronomy executive has accepted employment in the top job at FC Cooperative, based in Farnamville and Ames, Iowa.

I greatly anticipated the trip, even though I had to endure the challenges of airline travel that has created a bureaucracy in the name of security but convinces me that the terrorists won every time I disgorge my bag and disrobe my person to get through the scanners and board the plane. The benefit is that I take a 600-mile nap and, one hour later, find myself in a very different environment.

The plains of eastern Colorado and Nebraska are high and dry. There was no natural fall color other than gray as I zoomed 200 miles east to Imperial. The sod farms near Denver showed a soft green and the wheat that was up and growing had a richness that sharply contrasted to the dry brown corn stalks of a tough season.

The farmers, who had planted past the reach of their center pivot systems, pretty much put the seed out for erosion control because the corn went from six-feet tall to barren two-foot stalks in only a couple of rows. Cattle in feedlots looked content in a landscape that is highly suitable for outside feeding but would not be feasible without locally grown corn. The real treasure of this land is what you can't see, the Ogallala Aquifer that has allowed intensive irrigation since the 1950s. The A frames with tall tires support a water line and sprinklers that pivot around the central post and reach out as much as a quarter mile, covering the bulk of a quarter section. Those that were running on a sunny day were creating a rainbow and laying down enough moisture to bring up winter wheat that was planted into soil that's been tilled just enough to accept the seed without risking wind erosion.

I sped along at 75 miles an hour, going through towns that I remember from years past. While doing AgriTalk in the 1990s, I received a call from a resident of Paoli, Colo. He said the population of the town was 80 and that they were a "no growth" community and didn't want anything to do with economic development. His line that I remember was: "When you come through town, slow down to 40 miles per hour, but don't stop."

At Sterling, where I purchased show calves in the 1970s, I turned on Highway 6 and slowed down to 65 (OK, 70) miles per hour. Leaving Colorado and entering Nebraska requires a sign because the terrain is more of the same. In the valley of the Frenchman River, I noticed a lot more pivots and farming activity so I wasn't surprised to see a large grain elevator and a couple of piles of recently harvested corn.

Jim Chism sat in the first office of the new coop building across the street from grain handling and agronomic services. He graciously gave me his attention for an hour as I interviewed him about his current job and his plans as head of Iowa's largest farmer owned cooperative and the 24th largest in the country. He said he was a native of Missouri, educated at Missouri Western in St. Joseph. He came to Nebraska by way of Dekalb, Ill., and a stint in the hog feeding industry. In 30 years, Frenchman Valley Cooperative has grown by merger and acquisition to the 71st largest in the country with a service area that reaches into three states. He comes across as a very people-oriented person. Of course, 99 percent of the Nebraskans that I've met have that quality as they just seem to be interested in you. Even when they beat you in football most are apologetic and encouraging as they leave your stadium.

He must have had conflicting thoughts as he decided to accept a new job in a countryside that is very different. "I will just have to get used to fields being square rather than round," he said laughingly. "The symmetry is still there, isn't it?" Maybe that is the key. The technology and logistics are much the same. The field-to-field intensity of production parallels and the desire to provide customer service also matches. It is just a matter of applying your skills in a geographic shape on the map. He will manage people and they will manage products. He will interact with businesses and board members who have a vision of how their company can benefit their future.

I didn't talk with him much about Iowa. He may be coming here for the same reasons I did. In the world, there isn't a place where the soil is more black and fertile with rain that falls in abundance. The people are good and hardworking. The landscape is full of color and activity until the snow falls, then it is a matter of endurance until spring.

As I finished my visit and prepared to record video of the landscape on my way back to Denver, I became aware that every place has its strengths and challenges. In agriculture, we face a world of consolidation and mechanization with farmers and businesses having a mental attitude of "eat or be eaten." On the other side is the human element of wanting to succeed and help others to do so. To engage in competition with compassion and live out a life that has inner fulfillment and outward accomplishment.

Maybe the real story is the challenge of proving that we can adapt to a new environment and succeed in new surroundings. That may have been a part of what brought earlier generations to the land and will keep future generations invigorated.

Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at kenroot@gmail.com.

Date: 10/8/2012



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