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Published June 21, 2013, 12:00 PM

ND farmer, mother overcome rare double loss

KILLDEER, N.D. – It rained about 11 inches in North Dakota’s Dunn County in April and May, so Shane Olson and his mother, Jackie, were able to plant only 60 percent of their acres on their farm near Killdeer.

By: Mikkel Pates, Forum News Service, INFORUM

KILLDEER, N.D. – It rained about 11 inches in North Dakota’s Dunn County in April and May, so Shane Olson and his mother, Jackie, were able to plant only 60 percent of their acres on their farm near Killdeer.

Shane’s biological father was Kevin Olson. He married Jackie who grew up in Killdeer. Kevin and Jackie had only the one child. As a little kid, Shane wore a T-shirt that said “Dakota Wheat Farmer.”

Shane was 10 and Jackie was 32 when Kevin died from a heart attack related to diabetes.

Kevin and Jackie had been married 13 years. “After Dad passed away, Mom picked it up to keep things going,” Shane says. “There never was any other option. You just have to keep on going.”

Jackie farmed in cooperation with her father-in-law, Kenneth, and her brother-in-law Londell “Ole” Olson, Kevin’s brother. She eventually married Ole, who taught seventh-grade life science at Simle Middle School in Bismarck, and coached wrestling at the junior high.

“Ole had always been involved in my life since I was little,” Shane said. “A few years after Dad passed away, Mom and Dad got married.”

Second Olson dad

Life for the newly re-combined Olson family clicked along for 16 years. The family would spend the weekdays in Bismarck and travel 140 miles to the farm and ranch on the weekends, where they tended crops and maintained a cow-calf operation.

“Every weekend, any time we had off,” the family was at the farm, Shane recalls. “We’d go home on Fridays unless we had a wrestling tournament.”

Shane graduated from Century High School in 1995. He was class valedictorian and was one of the top-ranked wrestlers in the state. At a national tournament, a wrestling coach from Harvard University talked to his parents about him attending the Ivy League school.

Shane had another dream. “I guess I always wanted to be a farmer, as long as I could remember,” Shane says.

Shane attended Bismarck State College for a couple of years and was an Academic All-American wrestler there. He took one year at University of Mary in Bismarck and finished at Dickinson State University in 1999. With his accounting degree, he passed the certified public accountant examination but came back to the farm. In the wintertime, he coached wrestling in Killdeer. He was named Class B Wrestling Coach of the Year in 2002.

Initially, when Shane came home full time, the farm covered about 2,500 acres. “It was everybody’s goal – everybody’s direction to grow the operation,” Shane says.

Facing it again

In 1997, Grandpa Kenneth suffered a heart attack while fencing and died at age 84.

In 2002, Ole was chasing a cow when he collapsed and died at age 57. Shane was 25, and fatherless for a second time.

Faced with a changed labor situation, the Olsons got out of livestock in 2003 and expanded farming acres. In 2005, Shane hired Josh Roll, a local man he’d coached in wrestling. In recent years, he’s hired another worker.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Shane has focused his farming on wheat. “We’ve tried sunflower and corn, but corn out here is a hit-and-miss thing – either really good or really poor, depending on how much moisture you get in August. This is still an arid area out here, and with wheat, you get it in early and you get it off (in August), and it seems to do more for us.”

Often, the Olsons have planted a fourth of their acreage to durum, a fourth to winter wheat and half to spring wheat. The fall of 2012 was so dry until October that they didn’t plant any winter wheat.

The Olsons have planted durum every year since the mid-1990s, but this year they decided to swing toward spring wheat and avoid the quality risk. “It wasn’t worth it for the premium you were getting,” Olson says, acknowledging that that might change in future years.

The Olsons were well-equipped to adapt to this year’s brief planting window. In March, the Olsons had acquired two 60-foot Horsch Anderson drills, each equipped with 1,000-bushel tending air carts. They also had a 40-foot-wide International Harvester disk drill.

The big Horsch Anderson rigs are wonders to behold – the largest made by the company and made in Andover, S.D. Shane says they’re only two of three in existence, and are made to handle difficult conditions. The seed carriers run on 12-foot-long tracks and each carry four, 250-bushel poly tanks. Shane says he didn’t take the PowerTrak option that would have given them hydraulic motor drives, as a prototype in Canada employed. Even without the drives, they retail at about $500,000 each.

The Olsons had intended to plant 100 percent spring wheat and typically hope to get it planted by May 10 – June 1 at the latest. The last they planted this year was May 25.

“We kind of ran out of time for this season,” Olson said.

Embracing change

At age 60, Jackie says she’s proud of her son – how he’s overcome adversity, like the wrestler he is. And no, she’s never run into anyone who was widowed twice, in a similar situation – ever met a son who lost two farming dads this way.

“You never get used to those changes,” Jackie says, shaking her head. “But you do the best you can and move on.”

The hardest part for her was to adapt to the farm planning and knowing the right move.

“Not the physical things, but the planning to make sure you were planting the right things,” she says. “It was a lot on (Shane’s) shoulders that was hard for me to watch. But we made it.”