While the world of agriculture was crumbling, Mikkel Pates found love
Part 2 of Staff Writer Mikkel Pates’ reflections on a 44-year career at Agweek focuses on the 1980s farm crisis.
FARGO, N.D. — I wasn’t looking for trouble, but I couldn’t ignore it.
The 1980s were historic — a decade-long parade of economic traps and confusion.
Loan interest rates soared to 20%. Land values started to slide and fell off the cliff. Farm foreclosures skyrocketed. Grain and hog prices plummeted. (On top of that, some hog producers in southwest Minnesota were afflicted with rhinovirus and forced to depopulate.)
In September 1980, I met Barb Aukes, a radio advertising copy writer at KWOA Radio, at the community event — King Turkey Day.
I popped the question the next year, on Turkey Day.
On May 7, 1982, The Daily Globe published my story, “Jerusalem Artichokes: Boon or Boondoggle.” This meant I was being threatened with a lawsuit when I went to the altar on June 12, 1982.
The Jerusalem artichoke story about American Energy Farming Systems (AEFS) — a Marshall, Minnesota, area company that played on American Christian nationalism to lure farmers into investing in Jerusalem artichokes. Seed prices for this “miracle crop” were a whopping $1,000 an acre for those at the top of the pyramid, making “chokes” for feed and ethanol that were never demonstrated.
Angry AEFS officials phoned me. Their lawyers demanded 25 retractions. They threatened to sue me and the Globe. I remember Paul Gruchow (who drank coffee cups as tall as he was), coming over to my desk to console me about the threat. He smiled at me, impishly, over his glasses, and told me I needn't worry so much.
“They don’t care about your money,” Gruchow said. “They’re suing the Globe! That’s where the money is.” The Globe retracted only one item, a technicality, and the standard, “We regret the error.” Soon, I’d learn that they also were threatening the Forum newspaper in Fargo, and my old friends at The Farmer magazine in St. Paul.
For our honeymoon, Barb and I tent-camped near Winnipeg. On our road trip we stopped in Fargo to talk with Joe Dill , editor of The Forum, a man who had covered the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in Chicago. I’d met Dill on a recent stop at Worthington in his earlier role as bureau chief of The Associated Press. Dill also was a college roommate of my SDSU Journalism Chairman, Dick Lee.
I was also in awe to meet Managing Editor Terry DeVine , an SDSU alum who was an AP correspondent covering Wounded Knee and other crises in South Dakota. A former U.S. Marine, DeVine had taken bigfoot war correspondents “to the war” in Vietnam. Both DeVine and Dill opined that the artichoke company's lawsuit threats would come to nothing. After all, the Minnesota attorney general had just indicted them for fraud.
(Eventually two AEFS executives went to jail. In 1993, Joseph A. Amatto, a rural historian and professor at Southwest Minnesota State University wrote a book — “The Great Jerusalem Artichoke Circus : The Buying and Selling of the Rural American Dream.” Gruchow penned the forward.
Still at Worthington through October 1983, Gruchow urged me to write historic stories about the Farmers’ Holiday Association where a judge at Le Mars, Iowa, was tarred and feathered on April 27, 1933. It had happened 70 miles south of Worthington. Fifty years later, things were heating up again.
On March 21, 1983, I covered a “tractorcade” protest at the Lincoln County courthouse in Ivanhoe, Minnesota, for the Globe. More than 200 farmers were protesting a foreclosure by the Production Credit Association of a local Farm Bureau officer. Hog farmers were hit hard with plunging prices and with pseudorabies. I learned the shock of financial disaster.
In September 1983, DeVine called from Fargo. Would I apply for the ag writer job at The Forum? To seal the deal, DeVine flew to Worthington in the Forum’s company plane. Barb and I loved Worthington, but we agreed to the move while eating famous onion rings at Michael’s Steakhouse .
But there was one last shock.
Sept. 29, 1983, was moving day. I stopped with the U-Haul truck to say goodbye, but my reporting cohorts had no time to talk. Lew Hudson and Stephen Drury Smith only had time for a quick wave. The two were hot on the trail of a monster story: James Jenkins , a failed farmer, and husband — and suffering from mental illness — had lured a pair of ag bankers to the former farmstead they’d abandoned. Jenkins and his son had shot Rudolph “Rudy” Blythe and Deems “Toby” Thulin dead. They went on the lam for months. It would be the subject of a couple of books — Final Harvest , and When Father and Son Conspire.
The crazy path northward
The Forum job was a dream come-true.
Four years into my career, I could be a Dakota version of my NAAJ heroes, Don Muhm and Jerry Perkins, at the Des Moines Register. The Forum was like the Argus Leader in South Dakota — the largest newspaper in a state where agriculture was No. 1.
Fargo and its Red River Valley were in a parallel but different world.
I was familiar with the immense bed of ancient Lake Agassiz. I'd made a story “swing” here as a Farmer magazine intern in 1978. I met history professor and agricultural policy provocateur Hiram Drache , a stern, no-sympathy author of books that focused on efficiency and management. (His titles, included “Tomorrow’s Harvest,” in 1978, and later “R.D. Offutt: Success and Significance” in 2013, were a stern counterpoint to farm crisis sympathy.)
To my surprise, almost no one in Fargo seemed to talk much about the Ruthton killings in southwest Minnesota.
They were still in shock about a local murder of national significance.
In February 1983, two U.S. Marshals were killed and others wounded in a confrontation with Gordon Kahl at Medina, North Dakota. In The Forum newsroom, I sat next to Jim Corcoran , a charismatic federal court reporter who had covered the shooting and manhunt for Kahl, a war hero and tax-protesting farmer. Kahl was killed June 3, 1983, in Arkansas.
At the same time, Corcoran was covering Sarah Vogel, the North Dakota lawyer, who won a federal class action lawsuit against John Block the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Farmers Home Administration (the “FmHA, later renamed the Farm Service Agency). Corcoran moved to Boston. He wrote on a book on Kahl, called “Bitter Harvest, ” in 1991.
I would interview Vogel in the later stages of the Coleman case. I would cover a charismatic, important woman through her career as a lawyer, politician and author of “The Farmer’s Lawyer.”
In 1984, I covered farmers Arvel Glinz and Fred Mutchler from the Jamestown area in their large bankruptcies. The two farmers had staged a tractorcade around a bank in Jamestown. Bank board member Maynard Helgaas told me that the two farmers had borrowed tractors from his dealership for the political theater. (Later, Helgaas would be the father-in-law to North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.)
I wrote about North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Kent Jones, a sincere Republican and farmer from Webster, North Dakota, who started a debt mediation program. Roger Johnson, one of Jones’ mediators, eventually went on to be state agriculture commissioner and then president of the National Farmers Union. In 1985, I interviewed Monty Haugen, a rancher/dairyman and mediator from Milnor, North Dakota, who was famous for pounding lenders’ desks.
In 1986, I interviewed Merlin Yagow, a farmer at Gwinner, North Dakota, who had dug a trench around his farmstead in a futile effort to prevent the Production Credit Association from foreclosing.
The same year I covered aspects of the “North Dakota Spud Scam,” when Jones over-reaching effort to sell 400,000 of Red River Valley seed potatoes to Honduras, through a Miami company called Petrolear Holdings, Ltd. The scandal included Laurence McMerty, the department’s director of agricultural marketing. It would end up killing Jones’ political career.
While I worked the ag beat at the Forum in Fargo, the Grand Forks Herald up north was creating “Agweek” — an innovative, heady weekly publication that focused on markets and policy.
Jim Durkin , Agweek’s first editor, amassed an impressive staff, including South Dakota native Sonja Hillgren, who went on be senior vice president for Farm Journal Media. Durkin asked me about joining up, but I chose to stick with The Forum.
Ironically, one of my best friends was my competitor. I competed with Agweek reporter extraordinaire Randall Mikkelsen , who lived in Walcott, North Dakota, during the day and socialized with our wives in the evenings and weekends. (Randy went on to cover the White House for Reuters, and today is a North American editor for the company.)
Memorably, Randy was there when we covered the press conference when executives of the iconic Steiger Tractor Co., stunned the community by filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Steiger sold out to J.I. Case. I wrote about the agricultural impact when farmer U.S. Sen. Mark Andrews , R-North Dakota, was upset by challenger Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., in 1986.
As Barb and I grew our family (Jessica in 1985, Nicholas in 1988), the world was changing.
Andrews became a good news source when he went on the board of Tenneco Inc., the Texas-based energy company that owned Case-International Harvester. Now as CNH Industrial, the plant still makes the Steiger tractors. I covered the plant’s moves into wheel-loaders, and the move of Steiger refugees who went on to Phoenix International, Inc. which led to John Deere developments in Fargo.
’80s lighter notes
The epic farm crisis had its absurdities.
I went to a small town air strip to cover the “Quick PIK and Roll” move, where North Dakota farmers hired airplanes to shuttle their Payment-in-Kind certificates to Nebraska, to redeem them for grain bushels the government was flushing.
In 1987, I traveled with photo intern Bill Marcil Jr. on a custom harvesting trip to Kansas, with the Dan and Sherry Zirnhelt family from the Forman, North Dakota, area. (Marcil would go on to become president and chief executive officer of Forum Communications Co. and publisher of The Forum.)
I attended a "farm relief" meeting in a south Fargo hotel. I saw Frances B. Cannon, from Dallas, “The world’s only singing psychic and paralegal.” Cannon — a blonde in star-shaped, rose-tinted glasses — used her silky voice to encourage farmers to put their assets into blind trusts and use worthless “sight drafts” to avoid foreclosure.
Cannon’s rumpled companion was Rudolph “The Lion of Judah” Zalowitz, of Hackensack, New Jersey. (I found out from the Hackensack newspaper he famously had been thrown out of court for putting a cat on a witness stand and for putting a witness on that wanted to spread incense in a courtroom.)
Also in 1987, I covered aspects of “Dakota Men,” calendar. It was a 1988 photo calendar of full-dressed, rural fellows in rural farm settings, including Kevin Pifer , and Perry Miller. The calendar project — an innocent project — ended in a scandal, when then-Attorney General Nick Spaeth pursued it for trying to make money off the deal. (Spaeth later lost to Ed Schafer for governor in 1992.)
In 1988, I covered Vogel’s election victory over incumbent Jones, running as an independent, because Republican Keith Bjerke beat him for the Republican nomination. (Bjerke in 1989 went on to be director of the USDA’s Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, following his friend, North Dakotan Milt Hertz of Mott, North Dakota, who, as ASCS chief, had devised and run the PIK program.)
In the next several years, Commissioner Vogel and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and their staffs staged the annual Marketplace of Ideas events. This brought optimism and a sense of entrepreneurship to North Dakota farmers.
Suddenly there was a sense of hope and fun in agriculture again.
Ironically, my last big farm credit event was in Canada. On Oct. 9, 1991, I traveled to Winnipeg, Manitoba, and covered a protest where thousands of farmers picketed the capital. Meanwhile, on the U.S. side of the border, the farm crisis was being replaced by co-op fever.