Passion for Ag Drive Snake River Sugar’s Chairman
Those are apt terms, descriptive of a farmer/businessman whose soft-spoken, considerate demeanor co-exists with a “push-the-envelope” progressive attitude toward not only his own farm’s growth, but also that of the cooperative he leads. “I love farming,” affirms the 52-year-old south central Idaho producer. “Every day we get up, and it’s a new challenge with new opportunities. And, you get to work with good people.
“I don’t know [another] industry in which you could cover the spectrum like you do in agriculture. You can be a scientist if you want, a salesman if you want, a financial analyst. At different times of the day, you have to be all those things. It’s a great occupation!”
That sort of enthusiasm has propelled Grant since he began farming full time back in 1980. Since then, the operation he heads — Grant 4-D Farms — has grown 50-fold. It is active throughout a 40-mile radius of the home farm near Rupert — plus running a couple more farms 160 miles distant from each other. Grant 4-D Farms produces sugarbeets, potatoes, seed potatoes, wheat, malt barley, corn and hay, mainly on irrigated acreage. It also has an interest in a large dairy. During potato harvest, they employ up to 250 people; on a year-round basis, the operation has about 70 employees. Sugarbeets constitute 25% of the crop acreage base, and potatoes comprise another 25%.
That journey of accomplishment really began in 1958 — two years before Duane was born — when his father, Douglas, moved from a central California cattle and sheep ranch to the scrub-brush desert of southern Idaho’s Minidoka County. He arrived with $5,000 and a single small truck. “There previously had been a few cowboys here grazing cattle; but otherwise, it was basically ‘frontier,’ ” his son relates. “When they arrived, they first had to cut the brush, roll it into long windrows and burn it. Then they picked rock and did some leveling.”
Initial irrigation efforts on the new Grant family farm — furrow, in those days — faced formidable obstacles. “It turned out our ground was just too sandy,” Duane explains. “You couldn’t get water to run from the top of the field to the bottom. When it went on the top, it would leach out all the fertilizer. The bottom of the field wouldn’t get any water, so it would dry out, burn up and blow away.
“So it was a disaster for a decade, really, until sprinkler irrigation was more perfected and became effective enough to be installed and used.”
Two technologies — mechanization, led by modern tractors, and sprinkler irrigation, allowing for accurate placement of water on sandy soils — “turned the corner for them,” Duane continues. “Then ground that had been marginal at best became very productive, and they started making money. Of course, the price of grain in the early ’70s helped, too,” he smilingly adds.
Duane began his owning farming career shortly after high school. The idea for the “4-D” name came from his mother, Clarice. “I have two brothers, and it was my parents’ dream, when we put the partnership together in 1980, that all of the kids would be involved,” he recalls. His father’s and brothers’ names also began with “D,” hence “4-D Farms.” Neither brother ended up pursuing a career in agriculture; but the name stuck. (“Now we call it ‘Deeper, Deeper & Deeper in Debt,’ ” Duane jokes.)
While Grant 4-D Farms has expanded greatly under his leadership, Duane gives much credit to his father, who remains keenly interested in the operation’s strategies and day-to-day activities. “I owe him,” he affirms. “He carved off a part of the operation and let me be responsible for it — including the ‘making mistakes’ part. He kept his eyes open and would speak up if he saw us veering too far off track. But if we were just a little off track, he’d let us take our lumps and back us.
“You never really learn unless you have times when things go wrong. He allowed them to go wrong — and then he helped.”
• Board member of Snake River Sugar Company since 2003 and chairman of the cooperative since 2009.
• Grower spokesperson for the Sugar Industry Biotechnology Council since 2007.
• Member of the USDA Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture (five years).
• Pew Foundation Initiative for Food & Biotechnology (four-year stakeholder).
• Past president of the Idaho Grain Producers.
• Past chairman of several National Association of Wheat Growers committees, including 10 years as chair of the NAWG Research Committee.
• The 2003 Eisenhower Agriculture Fellow.
That’s an impressive list — and only a partial one. But Grant has no need for or interest in touting his resume. Rather, he views all these functions simply as natural extensions of his deep passion for agriculture and his desire to constantly move it forward. His extensive history with biotechnology — and specifically the route of Roundup Ready® Sugarbeet technology — provides a good example.
“Back in the late 1980s, I was involved with the National Association of Wheat Growers, and we were all concerned about herbicides,” he recounts. “That was during the Delaney Clause period, and we were actively lobbying both Congress and regulators, trying to keep access to those chemistries that we needed.
“As a tangent of that, I had the opportunity to go with a group of wheat growers down to St. Louis and tour Monsanto’s research facilities. This was before ‘Roundup Ready anything,’ and I knew nothing about biotech. While touring their very impressive facility, they took us into the biotech area and gave us a thumbnail of what biotech was all about. We asked the Monsanto scientists, ‘So what have you done with this?’
“ ‘Well, we’ve taken this tomato plant and made it so you could spray it with Roundup — and it doesn’t hurt the plant.’
“I was like, ‘You’re kidding me!’ The next thing I said was, ‘Can you do this in sugarbeets?’ And they’re like, ‘What are sugarbeets?’ They were looking toward soybeans and corn. But I’d been raising sugarbeets my whole life, and it was obvious: If there was any technology we could use in sugarbeets, that was it. So that was the ‘aha moment’ for me.”
A couple decades would pass, of course, before Roundup Ready sugarbeets became a reality for beet growers around the country. Grant remained keenly interested in the technology during the interim, though, and an enthusiastic advocate for its development and commercialization. Numerous field trials testing transgenic beets were conducted on his farm, and he became deeply involved with USDA’s advisory committee on biotechnology as well as, later on, the Sugar Industry Biotechnology Council.
Part of Grant’s intense interest in transgenic beets definitely stemmed from his own farm’s experiences with the “traditional regimen” of herbicide products and application timing and methods. “It was a nightmare,” he recalls of those pre-Roundup days. “We had failures all the time — fields that would become unharvestable because of our failure to control weeds. We had an army of people applying herbicides around the clock or just at night. We did micro-rates, we did maxi-rates, you name it.”
During the 1990s and early 2000s, 4-D Farms was raising about 4,000 acres of sugarbeets. “We had one sprayer for every 500 acres, so eight sprayers running around,” Grant relates. “We’d break them up into two groups. Each group had its own mechanic and own supervisor who managed the rates — and then the four sprayer operators. They would work whenever they could. It might be all night long; it might be 24 hours straight because they had a window.
“It was a horrible life. Just last spring (of 2011), as the Roundup litigation was progressing through the courts and it was unclear whether we’d be able to plant Roundup Ready seed, my sugarbeet manager flat-out told me, ‘If we have to be conventional again, I’m quitting. I can’t do it.’
“I’m so glad we got to plant Roundup Ready beets!”
While Roundup Ready has been a huge advancement, improved seed technology in general — including trait stacking — has also helped sugarbeet growers tremendously, Grant emphasizes. “On our own farm, 10 years ago the yield was in the low- to mid-20-tons-per-acre range with about 17.5% sugar,” he notes. “Today, we’re averaging in the low 30s with 17.5 sugar. So we added a third in gross yield on a per-acre basis in 10 years. That is just phenomenal!
“Part of it is Roundup Ready. But a big part also is that the quality of this seed, the germplasm, is much better than it was in the ’90s. It’s an entire universe removed from what it was when I started in beets in the late ’70s, early ’80s. And they’re really just getting started. That is what’s so exciting to me.”
Irrigation technology is another area that has contributed substantially to his farm’s sugarbeet success story, affirms Amalgamated’s board chairman. “We’re pretty scattered (geographically),” he points out. “We have on-site managers to control all our center pivots; but all those pivots are equipped with radios, and I can see at any time what any pivot is doing and track its water application for the season.” Lots of growers access their irrigation components via laptops, he points out — “and younger guys who are more ‘techy’ are accessing it through their smartphones.
“Information management is what it’s all about, and those types of technologies let us achieve that.”
Because of the area’s topography and the original surface irrigation layout designs, quite a few fields in southern Idaho historically have not lent themselves to center-pivot irrigation. “Those still have wheel-line and, in some cases, hand-line irrigation systems,” Grant notes. “But pivot irrigation is by far the most efficient way to go.” It also is a big driver in the sale or rental of cropland. “If it’s irrigated with center pivots, it’s worth $50 to $75 an acre more to us than if it’s irrigated with wheel lines,” he says. “In a rental scenario, we simply won’t rent hand-line ground unless it’s incidental to the renting of a larger piece.” Labor is a key reason why. “It’s very expensive (labor-wise), and it’s problematic. The only folks you can get who are willing to do that kind of work tend to have ‘creative documentation.’ We just don’t want to go there.”
Precision agriculture — e.g., variable-rate fertilization and even variable-rate seeding — also has found a place on many sugarbeet farms over the past couple decades. At Grant 4-D Farms, however, it has a zig-zag track record.
“We were probably among the first experimenters/adopters in this area with some parts of precision agriculture — specifically, yield mapping and fertilizer placement,” Duane says. “We got into that in a pretty big way in the early ’90s, mapping by soil type and also doing some grid sampling. But we later moved away from that because the economic benefit didn’t justify the cost. So then we fell back from grid sampling to soil-type topography, driven at that time by Soil Conservation Service maps overlaid with aerial imagery to give us color differentiation. We then applied variable-rate fertilizer technology to that.”
After several seasons using that approach (supplemented with infrared images of the crops during the growing season), the Grant 4-D Farms management team sat down and discussed whether it was providing adequate data for making better management decisions. “After we evaluated it all, we decided, ‘No, it’s not,’ ” Duane remembers. “ ‘The cost is high, our yield has not improved significantly, and our nets have gone down.’ So we moved away from it and went back to broadcast application.”
Grant doesn’t discount the value of variable-rate applications for many growers, but he believes in his own farm’s case, “it could be that we don’t have enough variability in our soils to justify it. We’ll continue to evaluate it, but we haven’t yet seen where the technology is coming down enough in price to where we can justify shifting back.”
The quantum leap in on-farm technology has also played out in the use of GPS — as it has on so many other farms. “All our tractors are GPS-guided,” Grant relates. “That’s been a huge improvement — much more efficient use of tractor and man hours. We’re sold on GPS guidance for tillage, for planting. We’re not yet using it for harvest, but we like the technology.
“But it’s also expensive. And it’s changed the kind of people we need to have. Some of our tractor operators don’t need to have many skills; they basically just have to be able to sit in the tractor and put the clutch in if something bad happens. And then we have another tier of people who need to be really tech savvy, able to understand the GPS technology, able to reboot, reset, reprogram the systems.”
Residue management — facilitated by the Roundup Ready production system — has been another key area of change on Grant 4-D Farms in recent years. “In sugarbeets especially, Roundup Ready technology has been revolutionary for us. That’s a strong word, but it’s accurate in this case,” Duane states. “We are able to consistently grow a profitable crop on every soil type that we have. Under the ‘old’ system, we weren’t consistent on any soil type, and there were some soils on which we simply couldn’t grow sugarbeets because they were either too tight — such as some clays where we couldn’t get the water to infiltrate with the cultivation we had to do — or they were too sandy, and spring wind erosion would take out the beets.”
Now, on the heavier clay soils, “we’re leaving the residue on top of the ground, keeping the cultivator tractor out, doing just one pass in the spring with the strip-till unit, and then planting.” The transition to strip till is ongoing, however. “It’s been a learning curve,” Grant admits. “Residue management is the huge challenge for us. It’s a different system — and different for every soil type.
“We thought, for example, that in sandy ground, leaving all the residue standing was the best way to go, that theoretically it wouldn’t blow — and it didn’t.” The downside to the standing stubble, though, was that it kept the soil colder longer into the spring. “It didn’t blow, but all of the strip-till plots froze out the first couple years. We replanted, and they were our worst yields.”
Bottom line, “we’ve learned we have to knock down that residue,” Grant continues. “If the residue is fairly light, we go across with a McFarlane harrow and then strip till into that. The sun can get onto that ground, warm it up. We had to get away from that ‘shade effect.’
“If the residue is heavy — like that from a 170- or 180-bushel grain crop — we’ll go in with a DMI disk ripper. Then we’ll go in and strip till, pulling the mulch away from the seeding zone. That works really well.”
Grant remains a believer in the strip-till approach; it’s just a matter of modifying the system to fit individual field conditions. “Behind silage corn, strip till is beautiful. And if we bale off the straw and it’s sandy ground, we’ll just strip till into that. But if we leave the straw there or it’s a high-residue situation, we need to do something else.” -- Don Lilleboe