WEST FARGO — When Pat Hurley drives farm machinery from a field where he grows soybeans south of the Red River Valley Fairgrounds to another field a mile away on Sheyenne Street in West Fargo, he has no choice but to drive through a suburban neighborhood.
But the subdivision has a median at its entrance, which makes the road too narrow for his machines and forces him to drive on the median or up on the grass of a home across the street.
When he does that, the owner of the house sometimes runs outside yelling at him.
"I'll just wave," he says.
Such is the life of the city farmer, farming in close proximity to urban development. It's nobody's idea of a bucolic life. In fact, it can be a pain in the rear.
Although the growth of the metro area has eliminated much agricultural land, there are still a few conventional farms within the city limits of Fargo and West Fargo, and many more around their edges. Cass County remains one of the top agricultural counties in the nation.
But the challenges of farming near the city are fundamentally different than those faced by farmers in less populated areas. Farmers must be careful about when they spray chemicals near homes. They must navigate urban traffic on slow-moving farm machinery (and deal with the inevitable middle fingers of impatient commuters). They face constant uncertainty about whether the land they farm will be sold to developers.
Hurley, 41, farms more than 4,000 acres with partners Mark Hiatt and Terry Compson. Their farming operations are based in Hickson, 15 miles south of Fargo, but they rent 32 different parcels of land within 30 miles of their base, including several on the edge of the Fargo metro area.
They farm a parcel across the street from Davies High School on the extreme south end of Fargo. They farm three parcels in West Fargo or adjacent to the city.
They also farm 300 acres north of Hector International Airport, just beyond the Fargo city limits. To get to that field with their equipment, they must loop around the west side of the metropolitan area, well beyond the sprawl, and travel gravel roads because their farm machinery goes too slow to travel on the interstate or major urban streets.
Traveling to their farmland north of the airport is a quick 15-minute trip by car, but takes an hour on the circuitous route they must take with their farm equipment.
"That's an hour you could be in a field someplace," Hurley said.
Farmers like Hurley, who grew up on his family's farm near Litchville, face other considerations most farmers never even think about. For example, he decided not to spray pesticides on one of his soybean fields this year because it's next to the Scheels Soccer Complex in West Fargo.
He wasn't allowed to farm another of his fields this year because of a fireworks extravaganza staged at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds, which would have ignited his wheat crop into a field of fire.
And then there's the perception by some urbanites that nearby farmland is a convenient dumping ground. A few years ago, his partner was mowing a ditch just south of Fargo when he hit something. The mower shook and spit out a large object. It was a dehumidifier that someone had discarded in the grass.
"It broke the blades off the mower," Hurley said. "That cost us $500."
'Careful how you spray'
Standing on the farm east of Horace that his great, great grandfather homesteaded in 1889 and he still farms, Claude Richard can see the city and it's getting closer every day.
He can also see the future, and his farm isn't in it.
Richard, 65, has watched urban development grow nearer every year. A decade ago, he said, the closest homes were about four miles away. Since then, the distance has been cut in half. He knows that before long, urban development will swallow up his farm, as it has consumed so many others.
"Someday this farm won't be here," he said. "It will be all houses."
Besides his family's original 160-acre farm, Richard farms 3,600 acres, most of it rented. He's already lost considerable farmland to urban development.
Richard used to farm 320 acres southwest of the intersection of I-29 and I-94. That land is now occupied by the Flying J truck stop, hotels, apartments and other businesses. He used to farm 80 acres at 32nd Avenue South and 45th Street, now all occupied by homes.
He once farmed 460 acres where the Deer Creek subdivision is being built in southwest Fargo, south of 52nd Avenue. Most of that land has been built with homes in the last few years. All that's left for him to farm is 60 acres in two separate parcels. House lots abut those fields on the north.
"I farm right up to those houses," he said. "I spray literally right in their backyards."
Spraying pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals is one of the biggest challenges of farming near urban development, particularly homes. Farmers must pay close attention to wind conditions in deciding when to spray. They are forbidden from spraying when winds would carry chemicals toward homes or when wind speeds are greater than 10 mph.
Sometimes a farmer may have to spray a single field multiple times to get it all because of the location of homes and direction of the winds.
"You have to be careful how you spray," Richard said. "The wind has to be in your favor. If you have different homes in different locations, you can only spray part of that field. Then you come back another day and spray a different part."
Complaints are inevitable and sometimes even result in legal action against farmers.
Hurley tells the tale of a retired woman who lives in the Elmwood Court neighborhood in West Fargo who contacted him to complain that she developed a respiratory infection because of herbicides he sprayed on fields behind her house. Her insurance company asked for a copy of the warning label on the herbicide and, sure enough, the label said that it could cause respiratory infection.
Fortunately for Hurley, the woman wasn't hostile or litigious. He offered to pay for her doctor visit, though, in the end, her insurer paid for it. But now he warns her whenever he's going to spray behind her house, so she can leave home for a few hours.
"She was a nice lady," Hurley said. "I don't want to have that issue again with her. So I just call her and tell her we're going to spray."
The problem isn't limited to areas adjacent to large-scale residential subdivisions. Outward expansion of the urban area has led to increasing exurban development - city folks who want to live in the country, buy a couple of acres, and build a house.
Richard says that every year a half dozen folks approach him and ask if he'll sell them a couple of acres so they can build a home. He always says "no," but other landowners have said "yes," and he now farms land that surrounds homes on three sides, which makes spraying especially difficult. Touring his lands south of Fargo, he points out one such house.
"The wind has to change direction three times before I can finally spray around him," he said.
One such landowner sued Richard a few years back for $350,000, claiming his spraying killed all the trees on his property. Richard said the claim had no merit since plants in the man's garden, located on the edge of the property nearer to his farm than the trees, were unharmed. Still, his insurance company settled with the property owner out of court, paying him $10,000.
Tom Beaton grew up on a farm just west of the Sheyenne River in what is now West Fargo. But it wasn't part of the city then. When he was a boy, Sheyenne Street was Rural Route 3, 13th Avenue was a dirt road where he hunted pheasants, all the land in the area was occupied by farms, and the city barely entered his mind.
Now he can't get away from it.
Beaton, 68, took over his father's farming operation in 1976. He estimates that since then he has lost 2,000 acres of farmland to urban development. He used to farm where the giant Blue Cross Blue Shield office building stands on 13th Avenue and where Menard's is located down the street. He used to farm land all along Sheyenne Street now occupied by homes.
"I've seen a big change in this area," he said. "I cry every time I see all the houses built on our good farmland."
But the issue is more than sentimental. The single most vexing problem many city farmers face is the uncertainty over whether they will be able to farm a particular parcel of land from one year to the next.
Farmland in the path of urban expansion is too expensive for farmers to buy because it's priced for development, so they must rent. All farmers who farm near the city are accustomed to getting "that call" from a landlord telling them a piece of land has been sold and they can no longer farm it. Then they must scramble to find other land to take its place.
Losing 160 acres overnight can mean the difference between a profit and loss, makes it difficult to plan and take on large payments for expensive machinery, and forces urban farmers to watch costs even more closely than farmers elsewhere.
"Why do you think I drive a pickup that's 20 years old?" asked Hurley.
Many absentee landowners are the children of farmers who fled to the city once they grew up, wanting a different life than their parents, but later inherited the land. They no longer have a connection to the soil, and the profit potential is too great. Why would they continue to rent to a farmer for $100 an acre if they can sell the land to a developer for $30,000 an acre?
Beaton, who retired from farming last year and turned over his operations to his two sons, said they got a call in the middle of last summer from one of their landlords saying he'd sold land they farmed to a developer. The developer bulldozed 50 acres of their soybeans right away. His sons got their rent back but received no other compensation.
"They can do it anytime they want," he said. "All contracts are subject to sale of the property. It sucks, I tell you that much."