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THE THREE DAKOTAS
No, not North and South Dakota and some other place we have forgotten about. I am thinking only of North Dakota. Of course it is happening throughout the Great Plains, or as I call them, the northern plains. There is some variation because there are differences among the states. I call it The Three Dakotas but mean only North Dakota because that is where I am from, both physically and spiritually.

As for those other states in what I call the northern plains, Minnesota is the most diverse of the four. It approaches being an industrial state. At least it is from Duluth which really does have a seaport feel to it, and then swinging south and west through the Twin Cities and Rochester and then east down to where it meets Iowa and Wisconsin

The Iron Range, along with a half dozen similar areas in the United States, is mining country. The lakes country is defined by its title. While several other states have similar areas Minnesota’s “up north” must be the biggest lake country in the U.S. It is a culture by itself. No other part of Minnesota is like the lake country.

The rest of Minnesota from the far northwest where it meets North Dakota and Canada down to the South Dakota, Iowa border and all the area not previously mentioned is farm country, some of the most productive in the United States. Like “up north” if you are familiar with farm country you know what it means. If you aren’t familiar with farm country you have a lot of reading to do. Recently I heard a lady who lives in farm country but who has no connection with farming say, “These farmers. All they ever do is complain”. She knows nothing. She understands nothing about farming.

South Dakota is like Montana in the sense that both are farm country in the east and cowboy country in the west. Not the same of course. South Dakota cowboy country is mile after mile of open range until you get to the very western edge in the center of the west boundary where you bump in the beautiful and dramatic Black Hills.

Of course the Rocky Mountains of Montana with Glacier and up against Yellowstone are what most U.S. residents think of when you say the Rockies. What beauty. What drama. How great it is.

And then there is North Dakota. We call them the Killdeer Mountains and the Turtle Mountains, but really, they are at best only respectable hills.

We do call one area hills, the Pembina Hills, but they aren’t. It is a gorge, a dramatic and gorgeous gorge to be sure, but they are not hills. Skeletons from a prehistoric fish have been found in the Pembina Hills.

North Dakota along with much of our Canadian cousins was once part of the great inland prehistoric seas. Listen to that great Ian and Sylvia folk song, The Seven Seas. That is us, 100s of millions of years before we were us.

The closest we come to honesty in our naming of a variation from the plains state we are is The Badlands. That it is, and the terms the tourist bureau uses in describing them are honest. It is a place of beauty. A special place, and truth be told, more beautiful than the badlands of South Dakota, or so I think.

So, after all those qualifiers what am I talking about when I say the three Dakotas? It is this, going back about a decade in North Dakota, before the oil boom, it is what was developing in North Dakota, and to a lesser extent because of differences among the northern plains states, what is happening in the farm country of Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana. It is what is happening because of the new technology in agriculture. The technology from the satellites that direct the tilling, planting, spraying and harvesting. Those unfamiliar with farming today don’t realize how all-encompassing this technology is. It is how this technology means that even though every acre is still farmed there are fewer farms and that means there are fewer farmers and there are fewer people who make their living by accommodating the farmers directly and indirectly.

When I was twelve years old I told my dad I could drive the combine. In the best day that meant I combined 35 acres in a day. Today if I got on that combine in the best day I could combine 250 acres. Just think how many fewer farmers that means.

Today, just push a couple of buttons at the beginning of the field and take your hands off-off everything. The satellite sets the threshing numbers, the concaves, the sieves, and the speed. It steers the combine so all 40 feet of the header are full, to the last inch. As conditions change going down that cut, so too will the combines setting.

Of course when planting in the spring that same satellite set the depth and the seeding rate. Before the seeder went down the rows that same satellite set the fertilizer rates and combinations. It did the same for the sprayer each time it went down the rows.

Impressive? Well, it gives us the biggest yields possible once that great satellite in the sky that has been there since the big bang gives up the growing degree days and the rain.

To sum it up, if you move beyond the eight or so largest cities in North Dakota and now also move out of the one fourth to one third of the state that is the oil patch you see a North Dakota that has changed dramatically, and is changing completely. If that photographer from the National Geographic thought he had some pictures a decade ago wait until the middle of this century, no, maybe only another twenty five years.

There will be fewer abandoned yards left because the land will become too valuable to leave in that state. Tear the buildings down, and rip the soil back into fields.

There is a web site called Ghosts of North Dakota. It is about ghost towns and abandoned places in North Dakota. Many are not true ghost towns because there are maybe one or two houses and even a business still occupied. However, there is not much left. It is a good website. Worth the visit if you care about our great grandparents Dakota.

If the children or maybe grandchildren of the website’s author, Troy Larson, try to continue this site they may not find much interest, at least among descendants still living in North Dakota because there will be so many old places that are relatively new every six or seven miles down the road that the visits won’t be unique.

What may be interesting is every 20 miles or so there may be a “farmstead” with storage for small grains and specialty crops. That storage, because of the costs of today’s storage bins may not look like today’s farmstead.

Instead of a 5000 to 60-70000 bushel bin that is filled at harvest and then emptied as soon as a couple of weeks after harvest only to sit there empty until next year what you might see is a circular platform with five feet or so of a hard permanent circumference. In the center of that will be a large capacity unloading system. Today systems are built to unload a1000 bushel semi-trailer in as little as two and one-half minutes. As the pile grows at that speed the unloading system keeps going up, and up and up.

Around that system is tied a “tent”, actually a new high tech cover. When the system is full it looks like the biggest Native American teepee you have ever seen. The cost per bushel is a fraction of those metal granaries of today.

North Dakota will become like many of the other prairie states. Too few people in too few places. How do you provide the infrastructure to those great unpopulated distances?

I don’t mean schools. That’s easy. Make them live in the few towns, one spouse and the kids? Or, do like Australia and deliver education over the internet.

The problem is building and maintaining the roads, and other tax supported factors. Who pays when agriculture is still an important part of the economy? Maybe not the largest, but a close second.

What happens when you need a part and a technician (we used to call them mechanics)? See that helicopter off to the southwest about 10 miles? He is on the way to this field with that technician and part. Of course if the part is too big even today most implement dealers have a boom truck that comes to the field accompanying the van that is equipped with welders, torches, air wrenches, and every other tool any respectable shop has.

Some examples of what we will look like: Colorado, what is there after you move out of that Denver-Boulder-Colorado Springs metropolis? What about Nebraska? Omaha and Lincoln. Then move 20 miles either side of the Platte and there is nothing there expect some great agricultural land, part of the Great American Bread Basket, but it doesn’t take very many people given the technology of those crops to get that cheap food to the American, and world, population.

These past half dozen or so years have been the start, but it is only the start. There will be three North Dakota’. One will be the oil patch, and it will be impressive, even if you don’t agree with it. There will be substantial changes from today’s technology, but we will be important to the United States and to the world. Then there will be the eight or so larger towns.

I say eight or so, because I am not sure what role Jamestown and Devils Lake will play. I think they will have some role because of the distance between Fargo and Bismarck, and Grand Forks and Minot. Stanley will be important because of oil. Finally, because of the industrialization north, south and east of it, so too will Wahpeton, although no larger than today, and probably smaller.

Finally, there will be farm country. That will be the most dramatic economic and cultural change of the three states within North Dakota. There will be very few people. There will be great distances. There will be technological changes so great that the tech writers will write about North Dakota then just as the energy writers and economists are writing about North Dakota today.

This is my Dakota. The Dakota farm. Mile after mile of fields of wheat. Of course in the Red River Valley it meant sugarbeet fields and in smaller numbers of farmers in the northern valley more for the individual was the potato crop.

The Red River valley became the third largest potato producing area in the United States. That happened with fresh potato stock. Then when the processing potato industry became so important, especially because of potato chips, at one time if you were eating a potato chip west of the Rocky Mountains there was two chances out of three that the potato for that chip came from the Red River valley.

North Dakota lead the nation in other specialty crops. One half of the dry edible beans (baked beans and taco beans, both) were from North Dakota. North Dakota raised more sunflowers than any other state. Today it leads in pulse crops (edible peas, etc).

Time changes all things. Potatoes are still important. Simplot’s (McDonald’s supplier) largest french fry plant is in Grand Forks. However, in total while stability has returned potatoes are a much smaller percent of North Dakota acres than they were in the 1980s.

Today what has changed in North Dakota is the very large increase in acreage devoted to both corn and soybeans across the state. Corn in now a larger crop in terms of acreage than is wheat.

In 1980 it was only Cass and Richland county farmers in North Dakota who knew that was a soybean field they just drove by. Today, as with corn, it is all over the state.

What does this mean? Given the change in technology, and the resulting increases in costs, and given the changes in the crops the North Dakota of anyone more than 50 years of age is gone, and will be changed beyond recognition. It becomes less and less so every year. The social and cultural aspects of that time is gone. That time of our great grandparents is gone. It can never be recovered. We can only hope enough of that has been saved.

 

Last year, 2013, the Grand Forks city building permit dollar value totaled just over $212 million. That was a record for the city. This year to date, that is January through April totaled nearly $79 million while in that record last year in the same time period the amount was not quite $24 million. That is, through April the amount is over three times last years figure at the same time.

Now with so many projects already started there is probable fewer projects that the contractors have the time to enter into yet this year, plus we don’t know what the weather holds for us. Still…? Imagine, especially if local contractors can get more help, or if contractors come in to Grand Forks to bid on contracts what this would do for the years totals.

True East Grand Forks is down by about 20 percent, but that was higher than normal last year because of one large commercial project. This year there is nothing there. That is what happens with one project in a small town. East Grand Forks building has been what we should expect as an average on a year to year basis.

Anyway, this is great for Grand Forks, and really the entire metro area. Things like this can go a long way towards making up for the lack of Canadian trade. I think we have a good year coming, or really already started, here in Grand Forks.

 

And the year is over. Permit totals are just over $212 million dollars for 2013. In the ten year listing of dollar amounts the next closest year was 2006 and that was just over $156,500,000. Even allowing for inflation, which I haven’t calculated as yet, this has to be a record. I think it is just the next year, 2007, that the Great Recession begin. That year the Grand Forks totals were just over $94 million and dropped to less than $82 million in 2010.

See the chart on this posting for those 10 year totals. Grand Forks does jump around quite a bit over these past 10 years. As I recall this really is not the way Grand Forks does it. Unless that has changed, not that there might not be some slight ups and downs, I believe this might be another indication that Grand Forks is on a true growth binge.

How much? How rapidly? How sustained? There are, I believe, a lot of ifs in those questions. It depends to some degree on Grand Forks continued role in the Bakken development. I have written before that Grand Forks is the eastern city that understands how it is, and continue to be, tied to the Bakken. Some of it is because of things that happened 100 year ago such as locating the University of North Dakota AND THE SCHOOL OF MINES in Grand Forks. Of course those are just words, but then it is how the leadership of UND went after that role by establishing the right engineering programs and hitching their wagon to the right oil development leadership. It does make a difference who you place in leadership positions.

In the same vein, but at a different level, it has made a significant difference to Grand Forks that the EERC (Energy and Environmental Research Center) is located here, and if there is an example of the relationship between public education and private business it is the EERC. If North Dakota is serious about growing our state the best thing they can do is bring Dr. Gerry Groenwald (and others he would want with him) into state government and give him enough money to pursue firms he selects to bring to North Dakota.

Instead of passing the money around the state so each city, or school, or other functionary gets theirs, why doesn’t the executive and legislative branches go with proven winners? Instead we have all these so-called Centers of Excellences and the most we seem to have from them is controversy, again and again. If there are winners in Fargo, or even Jamestown, well then use them, but if not don’t just hand something to them.

Another thing that I don’t believe North Dakota, and especially Grand Forks, appreciates is the role the medical school has played to the state and this city. Some is as simple and direct as federal money and a great deal of state money bringing high paying salaried positions here. Not only those people, but with the multiplier effect, and that is real if not as large as some make it to be, it is making a difference to this city and this state.

Also, after several and too long in being corrected mis-steps, the millions of tax dollars spent on promoting attracting conventions, meetings, etc to this city it is working, and that is another story for another time.

Finally, and to me, most important, has been the role private enterprise has played over the settlement of the prairies. It has been the reason for Grand Forks, agriculture in particular. Today I believe Grand Forks is Simplots largest processing facility. Watch those potato trucks roll into that plant all day long, day after day, after day. There may not be a lot of high paying jobs at the factory, but there is a lot of money that comes to this area because of the potato industry.

Then of course there has been the sugar industry. You may have an opinion about the sugar market, but it is as it is and it has made a huge difference to the Red River Valley because of some very far sighted and daring individuals. Enough said for now, but there is not one person in the valley, including college teachers who are not better off because American Crystal is here.

Again there is the multiplier effect from agriculture. All the manufacturing firms. All the crop protection firms. All the trucks and tractors sold in the valley.

This, some may think, is a long way off the Grand Forks Metro building report, but without all of this and more there would be no building report. There would be no reason for building, and it is a long way from the Buffalo Commons.

More, much more, to come.

 

Grand Forks permits totaled nearly $18 1/2 million dollars for November. That would be unbelievable if we didn’t know how large all of 2013 has been. The total to date is nearly $209 million dollars so an $18 million dollar month is not that unbelievable, even coming near the end of the year.
Most will say look at the money that went into apartment homes and that is true. Three and one half times as much this year as last, but still that is only about $55 1/2 million of the $90 million increase in all construction. Another $34 million is in the commercial category, both new construction and remodeling of already standing buildings. A lot of that is motels and we can see that by the increase in the three percent motel fee. Build it and they will come. Grand Forks did (build it) and they did come (for many different reasons).
Single family housing is only a strong half million better than last year and while I would have liked to see a larger increase we have to remember that across the nation after what happened with the housing meltdown more people are telling us they are happy to have the freedom that comes with living in apartments and that is happening in Grand Forks. I have no doubt that much housing of all kinds has to mean an increase in the population of Grand Forks.
Anyway, it has been quite a year to celebrate and we know next year looks good with the $125 million medical school and the new elementary school both planned for at least starting in 2014. In fact they are moving the dirt on the medical school already, and there is also the law school addition.
East Grand Forks is down from last year, but they had a good year last year and this years’ building is respectable. Given the difference in population the single family building is proportionately the same for the east side as for Grand Forks.
Here is the data. Let me know if you would like to see anything else.

 

Grand Forks had just over an $18 million month for building permit values for September. That is pretty good considering that the total for the year was nearly $172 million at that time. That is a lot of building.

Last year the total for September was just over $20 million, but it had plenty of room for that expansion as the building permits at the end of September totaled only some over $104 million.

The single family housing total is ten percent ahead of last year at this time after the September value of over $6 million which was the best total for any month in all of 2012 through this time in 2013.

Of course the big figure this year is for apartments. At the end of September that figure totals nearly $70 million. Last year it was only just over $22 million for the whole year. If there was only the same dollar value of apartments this year the total for the year might not exceed last years, at least it will be close.

Why all the apartment building? I have some ideas and will discuss my theory over the remainder of the year. In the meantime, here are the September and YTD stats:

As for East Grand Forks, at the end of September the year to date total is 75% of the same time last year. While we would prefer to see a figure more like 125% this does not have to be regarded as negative when we are dealing with the smaller towns. Next year it could easily be. The advantage that this town has is that it is beside a larger growing town. It is in a positive category, especially once Minnesota gets its self back on track.