South Dakota’s economy includes some major players – think health care organizations and a solid banking industry. But the backbone of the state’s economic stability is the earth and the life that agriculture professionals develop. As South Dakota Public Broadcasting examines the State of Our State, this story delves into the area’s number one industry: agriculture.
The country air whips across a section of the prairie, carrying an overwhelming combination of dust and diesel. Truck after truck rolls across the gravel and precisely onto a platform at a grain elevator in southeastern South Dakota. A man with dirt under his fingernails cranks a handle, and the crops plummet into a hopper. Billions of tiny soybeans rush from the bed of a semi-truck. A long chute feeds the grain to the top of a towering 50-foot pile of golden pellets.
"Each of these trucks has about 1000 bushels of soybeans that they’re bringing in, and our goal is to get them in and out of this facility somewhere around 7-8 minutes, " Eastern Farmers Co-op grain department manager Kent Mulder says.
Mulder markets the grain and oversees 13 operations for the company. Mulder says growers are eternally optimistic, but it’s a lot easier when the weather cooperates.
"We’re coming off of the worse drought on record for our area, and now, as we’re gearing up toward harvest this year, it appears as though we’re looking at one of our better crops ever, so it’s just amazing how it can change from one year to the next," Mulder says.
Mulder says farmers hauling soybeans from the fields are grateful this year’s sunshine and rain came at the right time and in the right proportions. Dave Reiners says it’s a nice change from 2012.
"Well, I’ve always been told that a coat of paint and an inch of rain will cover up a lot of mistakes," Reiners, the site manager at Worthing Ag Grain, says.
"Yields are wonderful. Markets maybe not as great as they once were, but still, a 50 bushel soybean yield and a $12 a bushel price ought to keep anybody in business," Reiners says.
Reiners works his day job at the elevator, but he’s also a hobby farmer. He cultivates corn and soybeans on 50 acres of land near Harrisburg.
"We have a late model 1985 Allis-Chalmers tractor," Reiners says. "We’re not one of the big guys. We just have fun. It’s our golf game, so we enjoy it."
Whether it’s an enjoyable past time or a way of life, Kent Mulder with Eastern Farmers Co-Op says everyone benefits when the crops do well.
"When there’s bushels out there, it’s better for the farmer. It’s better for the grain elevators. Inevitably it’s better for the communities, because, if there’s money out there, they’re going to spend it," Mulder says.
"My big fear is that it is becoming so cash-intensive, that our people that are in it are going to be up against higher and higher risk situations," state demographer Mike McCurry says. "And when you go up against higher and higher risk, well, it’s kind of like when you play blackjack. Sooner or later, the dealer gets it all."
McCurry studies people and trends in their movements. He establishes a baseline fact about farmers: a farmer needs land. McCurry says the price of rural plots is telling about the kind of people that can afford to be producers. He watched land a mile from his home recently sell for $9000 an acre.
"Instead of 160 acres, which a century and a half ago was a homestead and you could work your way into it, now a farmer to have 160 acres, which is a very small farm, has to go into it and have a million and a half dollars invested," McCurry says. "If we take and assume that he needs 800 acres, that’s five times that. So we’re talking a $7.5 million operation."
McCurry says that’s a hefty amount of cash or loans to get into farming. But he doesn’t think the number South Dakota farms will dwindle. McCurry says, in 1935, the state had 83,000 farms. A decade ago, that number withered to 31,000 farms, and that’s roughly how many farms the state has now. McCurry says farmers seem to have struck a solid balance, in which the size of farms and available technology for planting and harvest mesh well and create stability.
That doesn’t mean agriculture is a sure bet.
"The real gamblers, they’re not in Las Vegas," McCurry says. "They’re out there harvesting corn and beans today."
The state demographer says it’s hard for people to find available farmland, but farmers face immense risk because so many variables contribute to growing crops.
Cars on Interstate 29 whiz by the grain elevator near Worthing. Kent Mulder with Eastern Farmers Co-op says it doesn’t matter what those people do for work or where their jobs take them: everything comes back to agriculture.
"They’re coming into town. They’re going into the local gas station, and they’re fueling up their trucks. They’re stopping off at the restaurants and the convenience stores," Mulder says. "So really, everyone in our geography is affected by agriculture."
A steady stream of semis brings in hundreds more bushels of soybeans. One person can drop off five or six loads in one day. As the harvest intensifies, the atmosphere at the weigh station and grain dropoff becomes frenzied. If the disposition of ag leaders is any indication, this year’s yields are solidifying a strong agricultural foundation to South Dakota’s infrastructure.