The couple has experimented with various cattle breed crosses, from shorthorns to Angus to Simmentals, ultimately settling on Herefords due to Gayle’s liking for them.
“They’re nice to work with, they’re really calm,” Scott said.
A significant portion of their land goes toward feeding and bedding for the cattle, including pasture, wheat and alfalfa.
“We were doing barley, but the contracts have gotten too small so we’re not doing it anymore,” Scott said. “Otherwise wheat, corn, soybeans, sunflowers, getting into grass seed production.”
Scott’s been farming as long as he can remember in some capacity, as his mother pointed out.
“One day he got into the pickup and said, ‘See, I can reach the drive!’” Gayle said. “He’s been hauling hay bales since he was five.”
Though Frances and Sylvia moved away, becoming the North Valley Health Center Public Health Director and an FBI special agent, respectively, Scott stuck around, marrying his wife Nicole. They have two young children, Hannah and Logan, and live a couple miles from Greg and Gayle. Nicole is a nurse in Thief River Falls. Scott does as much as he can on the farm.
Real impact of trade
One thing that makes Northwest Minnesota unlike Southern Minnesota is that there are no biofuels or processing plants that corn or soybeans can go to. They are reliant on exports as the end point for their grains. Now that the tariff battle with China has effectively taken away their soybean market, the Hilgemans are looking elsewhere.
“We’re really dependent on shipping to the Pacific Northwest export market. When that market disappeared, what killed us was basis more than price,” Greg said. “We need that (Asian) market back if we’re going to raise beans successfully. We used to ship a lot of grain out of Duluth, but there’s very little of that anymore. We can’t compete trying to send it down the Mississippi River.”
They can’t compete with Southern Minnesota’s access to domestic biofuels plants and other farmers’ access to sugar beet and canola processing plants. Plus they face competition from Russia on wheat production too, which they have to keep growing for cattle bedding at least.
Luckily, sunflowers are a bright spot for them.
“Where we haul our sunflowers, they have to hull them for baking purposes,” Scott said. “So there they process them as you haul them in and ship them out.”
Their foray into grass seed looks promising too, although it remains to be seen how it’ll turn out.
Any farmer can tell you that the weather is the most worrisome factor they can’t control. The Hilgemans are no exception.
In addition to calving in Arctic temperatures, they were combining until Christmas last year because of the wettest soil they’d had in years.
“Last year it was a late spring, and then it got hot and dry really fast,” Scott said. “We hadn’t even combined an acre of soybeans when we got a foot of snow.”
They’re luckier than their compatriots in Southern Minnesota, who got even more massive rains last summer and devastating blizzards this past winter.
“Our country here is so flat and poorly drained, if we got a big rain like that, it would be a disaster for everything,” Greg said. “It doesn’t run off very quickly.”
Respect for MFU
Gayle has a longer history with MFU than her husband does.
“My parents were members of Farmers Union and National Farmers Organization,” she said.
Greg didn’t join any agricultural organizations for a long time, though eventually he joined the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association and MFU after that, as well as the Minnesota Wheat Growers.
“I don’t agree with everything that any one group does, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t belong to them and have a voice,” he said. “Farmers are a diverse group of people; you can’t get them to agree on everything.”
Scott joined MFU for himself about two years ago and has already served as a delegate to the National Farmers Union Convention in 2018. He’s still considering how he most wants to be involved and what he most cares about, but is excited for the next convention.
“A lot of the Farm Bill stuff is important to me,” Greg said, “like the environmental and conservation parts of it. I’m not an extremist on that, I try to find common sense in the middle.”
What he connects with most about our organization is the philosophy that started it all: cooperation.
“I have a lot of respect for how MFU does things, forming cooperatives to supply farmers with products they need. Like now with insurance, Green View, Farmers Union Industries, and the Grain Terminal Association and Cenex before. There are a lot of farmers who don’t realize all that Farmers Union is.”