KARLSRUHE, N.D.-When Nancy Beck visited California farms, she heard complaint after complaint about what wasn't working with Environmental Protection Agency regulations. But in North Dakota, that wasn't the case.
"These guys are making it work," she said. "I think it's refreshing."
Beck, who oversees the EPA's chemicals and pesticides program, was one of 12 EPA officials to come to North Dakota as part of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association's 25th annual E-Tour.
Dennis Haugen, a director with the Grain Growers Association, said the tour is part of an effort to provide ongoing education and collaboration with regulators. Every year they try to include stops pertaining to herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and more, showing the equipment used and the philosophies involved in farming.
Over the years, the tour has grown to include other ag groups from North Dakota rather than just the Grain Growers Association.
"It's pretty much all the facets of agriculture in North Dakota," Haugen said.
On Wednesday, June 27, the tour visited Paul Thomas' farm in Karlsruhe. Thomas, North Dakota Corn Growers Association secretary, hopped on the tour bus a few miles from his farm to give the officials some basic information about his operation. His message, he said, was to explain what he does and why he does it, and to demonstrate how he stores and handles grain and how he handle chemicals. Part of his goal was to explain grain storage and the fact that he doesn't use fumigants, he said.
Thomas, with his wife and two sons, farms about 5,500 acres on four farmsteads. He's the fourth generation on the farm.
"Every farmer, at least in this area, has the goal of making the land better," Thomas told the group later in his spick-and-span shop.
Thomas explained his diversified operation to the group. This year, he is growing corn, wheat, oats, barley, canola, peas, chickpeas and soybeans. Some years, he includes pinto beans, lentils and flax. The diversification allows him to spread out his planting and harvesting and to not have all his eggs in one basket, risk-management-wise.
Thomas told the EPA officials how every farm is different. He practices no-till, but it might not work for others people with other soil types and other goals, he explained.
"If I lived in Fargo, I can't tell you I'd do it the same way," he said.
As Thomas went through the history of his farm, one EPA official questioned why he decided to move to conventional agriculture after he took over for his father, who had been certified organic. Thomas explained that he didn't find the labor needs of organic agriculture to be a good fit for the farm, and that he also felt the soil had been degraded by the tilling required. That started a conversation on the use of herbicide in no till, and Thomas talked about his crop rotation philosophies and how he chooses crop sequences in part to help reduce his herbicide and fungicide use.
Beck said the information gained on the tour helps officials understand how products are used and gives them better information for labeling and regulation.
"You can read a lot in an office in D.C., but there's nothing like being out seeing actually how farmers, growers actually work, operate, the constraints that they have, how our regulations are workable or not workable," she said.
Her team in Washington, made up largely of agronomists and soil scientists, works on registrations, regulations, and health and safety information pertaining to chemicals. Of the 12 EPA officials on the trip, 10 are based in Washington and work on pesticides, while two are based out of the Region 8 office in Denver.
Hearing from farmers themselves is especially beneficial, Beck said. She said the perspectives they gain on farm tours allow them to understand risks and economics on the farm. She also appreciates the ability to get to know farmers so that in the event that she has questions she knows who to call.
"We're really interested in knowing what's really happening," she said.
Though the focus of the trip was on pesticides, Beck said she has heard comments on water regulation and the Renewable Fuel Standard to bring back to her colleagues at the EPA.