Photos courtesy of North Dakota Farmers Union
Farming was important to me,” said Mark Watne, a Jamestown, North Dakota-based farmer who has also served as the elected president of North Dakota Farmers Union (NDFU) since 2013. When asked about his pursual of this career path, Watne is proud of his involvement with the organization and said, “Farmers Union has allowed me to help maintain the very successful family farms and ranches across the United States, operations that are delivering the highest quality and least expensive food in the world.”
Watne, one of the speakers for the upcoming Cultivate Conference, believes that technology is used as a tool for agriculture, providing opportunities for innovations that ultimately allow farmers and those in the agricultural industry to be efficient in adopting to markets and continuing to meet the food and energy needs of the population as it grows. “We must always try to improve our systems of food production and the relationship we play in the environment,” he said.
“I always remind people that next to air and water, food is essential,” continued Watne, “and success in food production has been taken for granted.” Watne believes that how and by whom food is produced is a choice the agricultural industry has the ability to make. “We should lean toward having many farmers and ranchers versus a concentrated system,” he added.
“When food is taken for granted, we overlook the system of diverse farmers that make the access to food so simple,” Watne added, believing that rather than a production problem, the agricultural industry has a distribution problem. This issue can be seen in the fact that there are starving people throughout the world as well as in the United States.
For the most part, people view the use of technology as a great thing. But are there situations where a careful approach needs to be taken? “This is where it becomes a challenge when the technology does not help maintain farm numbers, which can create a problem of maintaining a diversity of production,” Watne answered. “Sadly, the loss of farms will cost the consumer eventually as farmers become integrated into the whole food system. This should stop before it is too late.”
To date, Watne believes that GPS-related technology has made the biggest impact and prior to that, it was mechanization. What could be missing, however, and what many in the ag-tech space have been working on is the best way to gather and utilize all of the data that is out there for farmers to make the best possible decisions for their respective operations.
Compared to the rest of the country, Watne thinks it is important, though, to recognize the way North Dakota is different. “We grow many crops, as many as 33, and we have a large number of diverse farms,” he said. “Technology that can help all or many of these operations and crops poses the greatest opportunity.”
About 12 years ago, NDFU was working to develop projects that would add value in new ways. “Each time, we were taking a commodity and ending up with another commodity, just with lower margins,” Watne said of the process. NDFU started working with farmers to get products directly to consumers while still maintaining ownership and control of the system, desiring to collect more of the food dollar.
As part of the NDFU team, Watne has played a role in helping the organization develop a farmer-owned restaurant system, Founding Farmers and Agraria, his response to what has been one of his proudest moments on the job. “This is primarily near the Washington, DC, area with one restaurant in Philadelphia,” he added, “and is now up to seven restaurants and serving thousands of people every week.”
Watne said that the impact has begun to reward farmers financially who invested early on and plans to expand are in the future. “We have helped a few farmers market some products,” he continued, “and we are educating consumers to purchase from United States-based family farmers and ranchers.”
NDFU Impact By The Numbers
- 50,006 The number of member families NDFU had at the end of 2018
- 1,200 The number of kids who attend NDFU camps every year
- $70,000 The dollar amount the Founding Farmers and Agraria restaurants have purchased from an NDFU member
- 50,000 The weekly number of people who are served by the restaurants
- 82,000 How many miles the NDFU truck has logged hauling product to Washington, DC.
- $50,000 How much NDFU has invested in rural North Dakota nonprofits through its Community Stewards program, donating funds to farm safety initiatives, rural fire departments and ambulance services, local hospital associations, food pantries and more.
This is where it becomes a challenge when the technology does not help maintain farm numbers, which can create a problem of maintaining a diversity of production. Sadly, the loss of farms will cost the consumer eventually as farmers become integrated into the whole food system. This should stop before it is too late.”Mark Watne
What does NDFU offer?
North Dakota Farmers Union is an education-focused organization and offers a variety of programs to educate both youth and adults that have their hand in farming, the cooperative business model and related areas.
On the topic of youth, NDFU provides opportunities for kids to attend cooperative-focused leadership camps: Heart Butte Camp near Elgin and Wesley Acres, near Elgin and Dazey, North Dakota, respectively. The organization also has helped to develop a software package for K-12 students about farm education that is being marketed across the country.
Additionally, NDFU advocates for enhanced income opportunities for farmers and ranchers, provides insurance products and hosts a conference about the latest technologies for farming and ranching with approximately 300 attendees every year.