OSAKIS, Minn. — At age 81, John E. Wicht Jr. seems to be having the time of his life as a competitive, entrepreneurial farmer — even in a tumultuous marketing year.
Wicht Farms, based in Todd County, is a vision of modern farming, impeccably neat and standing on the south side of Interstate 94. He and his family and crew raise corn and soybeans, also farming in Stearns, Pope and Douglas counties.
The Wichts started building the site after buying land in the area in 2006, putting a headquarters on a bare field. There are two brown matching 200-foot-long buildings — one a fully heated shop and office and another for cold storage. The grain handling site has six bins with a total of 1 million bushels of grain storage, with a large-capacity grain dryer.
Wicht runs the place with two full-timers — his son, Jarron, and right-hand-man Dean Rieland — and a part-time crew including two other Wicht sons, John III and Jessy, who is ag loan officer in Fergus Falls, Minn.
The elder Wicht is upbeat about the 2020 crop. The soybeans are harvested and the corn is under way, especially after a difficult start to the year.
“We came from 2019 with over 1,000 acres of corn stalks that never got worked, but we had such a great spring this year, we were able to work it, and everything worked out,” he said.
Wicht described the 2020 soybean crop as “fair.” They were shooting for 70-bushel per acre soybean yields, but most of it was 50 bushels, with some up to up to 60. All of them were Roundup Ready Xtend. Soybeans were hit with some early frost on Sept. 8, so some of the top beans on the plants didn’t make it, Wicht said in an interview at the farm Oct. 20. “That hurt us.”
But it had been a good year with no white mold and no soybean aphid injury.
The farm’s average first harvest date for soybeans usually Oct. 4, but this year, it was a week and a half early. They finished Oct. 15, with two combines running.
And the corn — so far — looks “awesome," he said.
An early frost
As of Oct. 20, the Wichts had just had snow as they were just starting on corn, with one combine. They typically expect 200 bushels per acre corn yield, and that seems possible with about 10% harvested as of Oct. 27. (In 2015, the Wichts averaged 222 bushels per acre across the whole farm.)
They briefly were shut down because of the snow. The corn harvested so far was running 18% to 19% moisture, so it would be relatively inexpensive to dry to the 14.5% moisture storage level.
“I think we have No. 1 quality all the way around — test weight is real good," Wicht said.
Markets prices have been low, yes, but he is philosophical about what caused it and thinks it may be because China is buying.
“Every year we raise bigger yields of corn, the average yield goes up,” he said. “We’ve had years where we sold $3 (per bushel) corn and made a lot of money, because we had the yields and the quality.”
Wicht sells some grain to regional elevators markets, but sells most of the crops through Cargill’s “Pro” pricing program. The farm signs up a year and a half to two years in advance. “When it’s time to sell and move, the Cargill prices that the Pros promoted are always higher than what the going rate is,” he declared. He predicted all would be well with the farm economy if Donald Trump can be re-elected.
Wicht has a distinctive farming history.
He was in the middle of seven children on a diversified dairy farm that his father, John Sr., operated near Aldrich, Minn., about eight miles northwest of Staples. He attended trade school at Staples, Minn., where an instructor had contacts with military contractors. He worked as an apprentice and then a tool and die maker for two companies in the Twin Cities for about 12 years before establishing his own company, WMW Products Inc., in the Osseo, Minn., area. (The name came from last names of the original partners, who he soon bought out.)
“We ended up doing aircraft parts, fuel systems for aircrafts, medical parts — we built hip replacement reamers, we built bacteria-free titanium screws to hold your body together if you had a bad accident. A lot of different medical parts,” he said.
WMW employed up to 38 people, mostly “really good machinists.” Most of his children worked part-time in his business to work their way through college. He has 10 children from two marriages. Along the way, Wicht was a competitive fisherman in Bass Masters for 10 years, traveling the U.S. He also was a race car driver in NASCAR in Alabama.
All the while, he’s farmed and accumulated land.
“My dad told me, when I went to the city, he said, ‘John, buy all of the land you can afford to buy, close to the city, and that’ll be a great retirement for you someday,’” he said. “And that’s exactly what I did.”
In 2006, he sold land in the Osseo/Rogers area and in its place bought land in the Osakis/Sauk Centre/Alexandria areas. He chose the headquarters at the West Union, Minn., exit because it had 220 volt, three-phase power, and off- and on-ramps right on the freeway to facilitate grain trucking.
In 2008, he sold WMW. “I was burned out,” he acknowledged, referring to manufacturing.
“And I couldn’t wait to get up here and farm.”
A drive to compete
Wicht recently offered a tour of a 27-acre field he’s entering the National Corn Growing Contest in 2020. He planted a Gold Country Seed’ variety — 100-day maturity corn, at 40,000 seeds per acre.
“The land I planted it on needs nothing for fertility,” he said. “It’s the best piece of land I’ve ever had.”
He declines to predict what it'll yield “We’re awfully anxious to find out,” he said. ”I’ve had contest fields before, and they’ve always let me down," he said, smiling.
Competition is healthy, he said. “We always want to do better,” he said.
As 2020 comes to an end, Wicht said he’s happy that fall tillage progress so far had been keeping up with the combining. Wicht Farms had been tilling deeper under the soybean ground, with a 620 horsepower John Deere 9620RX four-track tractor. It was good to rip the hard pan, created over the past four years, with muddy conditions.
“The land is in better shape than it’s been for three or four years,” he said.
And beyond 2021, how long does he plan to keep farming?
“Until I get to 100, and then I’m going to retire,” he said, smiling and adding: “Yup.”
That'll be 2040, or thereabouts.