REVILLE, Minn. – You don’t see many young women fresh out of college as keynote speakers at an agriculture seminar; but Kari Olson held firm at the Profitability of Soil Health event on Feb. 9.
Twenty-five-year-old Olson graduated in 2018 from North Dakota State University, where she majored in agricultural economics with a minor in crop and weed science. His maternal great-great-grandparents established their Clay County farm in 1872…about 25 miles east of Fargo. So Hawley, Minn. is his hometown. She and her father Rob Olson operate a 2,300-acre farm that experiments with conservation farming practices. Over time, they have reduced tillage and have been exclusively no-till for the past six years. Incorporating cover crops for seven years has helped them accelerate some of the soil health benefits of no-till.
At the Soil Health event, hosted by the Renville County Soil Conservation Department, Olson screened loads of information detailing facts and figures about the Olsons’ conservation agriculture, which includes three woven crops in a three-year rotation with minimal tillage and cover crops. She even shared an adjustment to carbon farming strategies as a future income generator.
After his presentation, Olson agreed to sit down and answer a few questions.
Earth: At 25, you are already a shining star in this exciting world of new practices that are helping Mother Nature heal the landscaping problems of mighty American agriculture. So, was continuing education in a PhD program a consideration?
Olson: My dad had a health problem when I was halfway through college. This significant health issue convinced me to come home and work with my father in his intriguing conservation agriculture business would be a better choice. I considered a PhD, but I knew it would be a better choice. And I’m already happy with my decision. Of course, I had learned a lot about the best agriculture and conservation technologies at NDSU. They have a great staff – and in my opinion they are always up to date with the latest and greatest systems. But perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned in my few years of farming, you have to find a way to work well with Mother Nature – whatever your own ambitions – because Mother Nature always wins!
I like this job. Yes, there are times when I have questioned what I am doing now. But the reality is, the more I get involved in Dad’s deep commitment to improving our farming skills for a better future for the next generations, the more I appreciate this life.
The Land: Who would you say is the most influential person in your life?
Olson: That would be my dad. He is so knowledgeable and has been instrumental in my current situation. If he wasn’t already here, I really don’t know what I would do. These last two health alerts have really put that into perspective for me. Yes, I think I could run the farm. We have the equipment in place and I can handle it all; but I want nothing more than to have my mentor by my side. Of course, I can’t forget my mother. I truly believe that she is the glue that binds this farm and our family together. Whether it’s hauling parts, bringing meals to the field, or running a grain cart, she’s able to keep us up and running. She was able to juggle all this in addition to taking care of our three daughters and our activities while my father was busy. It is crucial for our operations. She deserves an award!
The Land: Your father’s age… and his health today?
Olson: Dad is 60, so chronologically still a young man. This last year has been the most difficult. However, collectively he is on the mend and ready for another season. This winter, he also had his gallbladder removed. But we trust our Lord to keep us both in this exciting and rewarding game together for many years to come.
The Land: As you told us this morning, conservation agriculture is still a game of continuous learning. What is the likely challenge for you this year?
Olson: I think that will be the job. My sister has taken a step back and is now starting her own business; we will therefore be looking to hire someone willing to join us… and who also has a knack for learning quickly.
Because we have no cattle, it is difficult to employ help all year round. Also, we don’t currently offer health insurance, so we have to find new ways to be competitive. One of my selling points is the unique quality of farm life itself and the flexibility it offers in your various work routines.
The Land: So can you and your dad make it work?
Olson: We think so. Dad is ready to take a step back; but he also knows that it will probably take time to find that “right person”. We have highly qualified leads. And our family wants to see us continue like this. Another outlet may even be to contact one of our local colleges to see if they might have students willing to work with us. But God willing, we will continue to make it work. And our Olson family clan thrives by working together to help build a better future for ourselves, our neighbors, our country and generations to come. Big ambitions? You bet…that’s what drives us about the future of American agriculture.
La Terre: Do you see any changes for this 2022 agricultural campaign?
Olson: Like all farmers, market trends also influence how we think. Due to corn’s higher fertility costs, soy seems like a better choice for us. We are usually about one-third corn, one-third wheat, and one-third soybeans. This year, we are shifting some of our acres from corn to soybeans. But we are always open to markets. If the corn seems stronger, we’ll probably make more. And as you know so well, weather conditions up until planting time can also be a factor. Suffice it to say we have a plan; but that may change even until these last acres are taken care of.
The Land: are you fixing part of your harvest planned for 2022?
Olson: We are still marketing some of our 2021 crop and will likely do a delayed marketing of this new crop as well. There’s no denying that Chicago Board of Trade futures are a go-to for locking in soybean futures. The key this year is that if you’re buying big inputs for this year’s crop, you better hedge your butt with selected futures. But we are watching the amount of the futures contract due to another potential drought year. There has been a slight recharge of soil moisture with the autumn rains. We rely on the expertise of our weather and extension forecasters; but obviously we make the final decisions. (Laughter) Ask me again around June 1st.
The Land: How do you measure the soil structure of your land with your new cultivation system? And is the soil structure improving?
Olson: The main thing is that you have to go out and dig. Put a clod of earth in your hands and break it up. If it is easy and gentle to work with hard clods, you will definitely see and feel the difference. And I think we are already seeing a difference. 2019 was very wet – yet we harvested everything and were able to cross our fields without leaving the wheel trenches. We see more frequent major rain events, it seems, but all that moisture seeps into our soils pretty quickly. Surface runoff from silt-laden soils simply does not occur. And we know it’s good for everyone, even the fish in our streams, rivers and lakes.
Land: Is your agricultural land well drained?
Olson: Dad did tile on one particular field and more tile on other acres. But I think as we introduce the father into this farming system, there is less need for tiling. Even in this dry season of 2021, our crops took a week or more to burn compared to neighboring fields. They were able to maintain their health longer; and it tells my dad and I that we have healthier soils. We apparently had a little more than one tank there.
On the other hand, we lost a good chunk of soybean acres to a late frost this spring due to no-till. These practices aren’t the answer to everyone’s problems, but they work for us. We use hybrids with a maturity of 81 to 88 days.
When buying our seeds, inputs or machinery, we focus on three things: buying local, price and service. Price is a factor, but it’s not everything for us. And service is number one – do they treat us well and in a timely manner? One thing my dad focuses on is buying locally…because they pay taxes, they help support the community, they provide income for other kids and employees, they help the local school.
The Land: Next question — and you might not want to comment: what are the consequences if this November there is a significant change in policy — both nationally and in St. Paul?
Olson: That’s a tough question, but I still want to comment. Last year, we faced many harsh comments regarding the change of presidency. There’s no denying that the actions of a president can affect agriculture more than most people realize. These proposed changes in property taxes are a prime example. Our entire farm is applicable to property taxes. I feared losing the farm if these proposed new taxes came into effect. I’m learning how vital it is to pay attention to what’s going on in politics and voice your opinions, especially when it comes to American farms.
We are now faced with legislation that wants to control the treatments we can use on our seeds, the chemicals on our crops, etc. To me, these are unnecessary encroachments on our primary mission of providing people with food.
We try to do our best to work with nature; to protect the land we cultivate. And we’re lucky to have a terrific cadre of agronomists, soil scientists, farm equipment specialists, and more. – all working cooperatively so that we can become increasingly proficient in our challenges of preserving America’s abundance!
La Terre: At your young age, do you become a “spokesperson” for agriculture?
Olson: (laughing) No, let’s not go that far. Perhaps it could be; but I work a lot with Dr. Abbey Wick at NDSU. She is a soil health specialist. She brings me to her meetings to offer a farmer’s perspective in addition to her research on our agricultural technologies. We do some of our own testing, but the results of his NDSU work are the cornerstone of our own farming strategies. The studies reproduced by university specialists that I learned in college are the cornerstone of tomorrow! And I certainly don’t disagree.