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Farming in the middle of an oil boom

There’s “the good, the bad and the ugly” when it comes to farming in the middle of an oil boom, says Bob Wisness, a Watford City, N.D., farmer and vice president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association.

The good is clearly the money and the increase in business activity.

Reuters news service recently quoted a Waterford City, N.D., banker as saying he has some customers who own mineral rights who are depositing $50,000 to $60,000 each month in oil royalty checks.

Some rural landowners have made millions selling ag land for oil drilling and truck fleet headquarters, temporary man camps, RV campgrounds, housing and more.

Small towns in the oil patch are no longer in a slow decline. “All of that has been reversed,” Wisness says.

Young people have been able to stay in western North Dakota and earn more than elsewhere in the country. Some have come back to work in the oil boom. Some are getting a chance to farm because they can work in the oil field.

“The benefits of this oil boom are broad-based in that a lot of people are involved rather than a select few,” Wisness says.

Key Points

• Farming in the middle of an oil boom isn’t easy.

• The money is good, but there many negatives for farmers.

• Agriculture shouldn’t be ignored; unlike oil it won’t run dry.


Not everyone is getting rich in the oil patch, though. Farm tenants, for example, do not benefit from oil. They just break even on the crop damage payments, Wisness says.

Farmers lose land to drilling pads, pipelines and roads. They have to pay employees more to compete with oil field wages.

Road dust can hurt crop and forage yields along gravel roads. Greg Kessel, Belfield, N.D., checked his corn losses with a yield monitor this year. Yields were 40% to 100% less in the first 56 rows adjacent to gravel roads than the rest of the field, he says.

Overall, farming is less efficient in western North Dakota than it was before the oil boom. Wisness spends part of each day dealing with something to do with oil. The increased traffic makes it difficult to move farm equipment from field to field. They have to use pilot cars and flaggers to move air seeders and combines.

It takes longer to transport grain because of the traffic. Routine road trips are hazardous. Wisness and Kessel worry about their families’ and their employees’ safety.

“There’s so much traffic that there is no margin for error,” Wisness says.

The ugly might be what has happened to the land. Most farmers have worked all their lives to improve their soils and protect them from wind and water erosion. USDA has made them follow some pretty strict rules if they wanted to be eligible for farm programs.

Oil companies don’t face the same restrictions. Though the land they bulldoze and dig up will be reclaimed after the wells and pipelines are in place, Wisness expects crop yields and forage production will be lower on reclaimed land than undisturbed land for many years.

Quality of life

A price can’t be put on the quality of life changes caused by the oil boom.

For instance, the Wisnesses don’t hear birds around their farm home anymore. Instead, they hear the roar of flared gas from a well. On a still night, it sounds like a jet plane on perpetual takeoff.

The fog they see in the valley on a calm summer morning isn’t fog at all. It’s a layer of dust.

There are so many new people in town that they sometimes feel like strangers in a community where their family has lived for several generations.

Farming has become less important than it used to be, Wisness says. Most government officials don’t come to town to talk about farming. They come to talk about oil.

North Dakota ignores agriculture in western North Dakota at its peril, however. Unlike oil, agriculture won’t literally run dry someday.

“Farmers will be here long after the boom is over and the oil companies are gone,” Wisness says.

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Change: Bob Wisness is farming in the middle of an oil drilling boom in western North Dakota. Oil has changed his business and his life, and it is not all for the better.

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New landmark: The sun rises behind an oil drilling rig just off I-94, near Belfield, N.D.

This article published in the November, 2012 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.