Sunday, March 16, 2014

A debt of gratitude to both blood and ranching families

Greetings from the epicenter of the Bakken oil formation!

Last Tuesday (March 11, 2014) cowboy hats and over boots converged on Watford City in the heart of the western North Dakota oil boom.  Pete was determined to capture this sight in pictures after being told by a nice reservation receptionist at one of the new motels in town that a bull sale will never 'work' in oil county.

As they flocked to the Watford City Livestock Scale Association to look through our 2014 offering of Angus bulls, and then to Outlaws' Convention Center for lunch and to participate in our video auction it got me reflecting.  It stirred more emotion than I thought the day would and I pondered what the day REALLY meant.

Our Angus cow herd has been very good to us.  We challenge those girls and most of the time they rise to the occasion.  This day had been 25 plus years in the making and it was possible because a junior high age 4-Her had befriended his neighbors, owners of one of the most respected maternal Angus herds in the country.  They providing him an amazing opportunity after witnessing his willingness to help out, to be present and to be curious.  McCumber Angus allowed Pete the opportunity to select a heifer from their replacement pen back in 1985, the point where this day REALLY began.

Pete did an exceptional job formulating a 'project' plan for this inaugural event and spearheading the execution of it with help from a team of friends, family and neighbors.  Over the past year people would ask how plans for the sale were coming and if we felt 'good' about moving to a sale.  If you can remember back to your own marriage engagement period and wedding planning process, well it was a lot like that.  There were sleepless nights.  There were tears.  There was stress.  There was love and support.  There was yelling and arguing.  There were lots and lots of phone calls looking for advice, support and participation.  There was a need to cuss the weather and to thank everyone for their behind the scenes contributions.  And then just days before the sale the continuous polar vortexes that plagued the high plains since November moved north.  Some thawing occurred and the possibility of a seasonal change showed.

The morning of the sale was an anxious one.  Will people show up?  Will they like the bulls?  Will they see value in the bulls for their cattle operations?  Will they remember that Watford City is on CST (I'm just saying that LOTS of people missed our wedding thinking that Watford was on MT)?

I remember the day I picked our local veterinary up from the Am-trak station in Williston back in the spring of 2012.  It was Dr. Pederson's first time to North Dakota and McKenzie County.  Our long time provider to the greater McKenzie County area's four legged critters, Dr. Nelson was retiring and we needed a practitioner.  What I remember more vividly than anything else was telling Dr. Pederson about the ranchers of the area.  I explained that we were a tight knit group who helped each other out and looked out for each other's interests.  There was an unspoken code of ethics in this ranching community where you respected your neighbors and you didn't covet their things.  Business was done with a hand shake and your word was your reputation and without your reputation you had nothing.  These were salt of the earth folks who respected money (for they knew how difficult it was to make a living off the land out here) and were frugal with it, but who valued their relationships above the almighty dollar.

After Dr. Pederson got to Watford City and started practicing in June of 2012 he commented to me many times on how I nailed that description of our ranching community that day.  He has gone on to expand on my observation and add (my paraphrased version of his comments) how faith, family and commitment to others centered our ranching community.  He could see through their actions and words how much they appreciated the lifestyle they live and the people they live it with.  I couldn't agree more.

TRULY, our local and regional ranching community is one of the greatest communities I have ever known.  I am very, very proud to be a member of it.  When you are humbled by your company in that way, the support that was shown to us on March 11, 2014 is beyond anything that I can put into words.  Below are pictures from the day of the sale.  For those of you that were there that day either online or in person, I offer you the most humble "thank you".  For those of you that were not, we hope you can join us next year.

If you are interested in the results of the sale:    
CLICK HERE for 2014 Best Value in the Badlands Sale results

The bulls sacked out at the scale enjoying the sun and warm weather (with the recently constructed and just opened Comfort Inn & Suites in the background).

Cattlemen and friends enjoying the warm sun and conversation at the Watford City Livestock Scale Association Yard.

Part of the sale day (and pre-sale day) crew - l to r:  Kaley Schmidt (Brad's fiancĂ©), Brad Hagen, Zac Hall (Hall Stock Farm) and Kim (Hovet) Murphy.
A pen of 2-year old bulls on sale day.
The lunch crowd at Outlaws' Convention Center.  The Outlaws 'gang' did a great job with our ranch raised beef meal and the entire event... ALL while starting up their Williston location that same week!
Outlaws Bar and Grill - Watford City and Williston locations  

The auction block - Pete, Roger Jacobs (auctioneer), Lee Murphy (brother-in-law and sale clerk).  Not pictured (off to the right) was Logan Hoffman representing DVAuction services.

The south side of the 'sale barn'.

The north side of the 'sale barn'.
The back of the 'sale barn'.

Of the 78 bulls that sold last Tuesday (76 through the sale and 2 afterwards), 54 of them will stay in McKenzie county with the remainder going to Bottineau, McHenry, McLean, Ward, Mountrail, Dunn, Williams, Divide, Billings, Stark and Adams counties in North Dakota and McCone county, Montana.  Four west river North Dakota ranches purchased in volume of 5 or more head.  There were many debts of gratitude felt that day with the volume buyers' support being right up there along with our long time, repeat supporters who in the past found our program in spite of our low key marketing efforts.  

At the end of the day just before climbing into bed my phone chimed with a text from my one and only sibling, my sister Kim.  It read "Great sale today!  Dad would have been so proud to be there."  That pretty much sums it up...

Our debt of gratitude transcends generations, is founded in relationships and could not be more heart felt right now without words to express it.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Our Fortune 500 neighbors and my little wall of shame

Greetings from the epicenter of the Bakken oil formation!

I had the opportunity last week to travel to Washington DC with a TAG (Tomorrow's Agriculture Generation) delegation sponsored by the North Dakota Farmers Union.  It was a wonderful opportunity to visit with North Dakota's senators, visit several agencies and dine at both Farmers, Fishers, Bakers and Founding Farmers (two of the four North Dakota farmer owned restaurants in the great DC area).

2014 TAG delegation with Senator Heitkamp.
Founding Farmers Restaurant- click here

One of the agencies we visited while we were there was the EPA.  We met with their agricultural counselor,  Sarah Bittleman.  As we went around the room and introduced ourselves to her, I used my standard introduction when I get outside the upper mid-west, "My name is Vawnita Best.  Along with my family I ranch in western North Dakota southeast of Watford City where we grow registered Angus cattle".  Ms. Bittleman looked candidly at me and asked "How do you like your new neighbors in western North Dakota"?  I paused, thought about this and where I was sitting and replied, "Do you mean the Fortune 500 ones"?

"Yes, those ones" she replied.

I think my response was along the lines that they weren't overly transparent and that they were backed with extensive legal teams and lobbyist in our state capital.  What I should have said is that simply "WE WERE NOT PREPARED FOR THEM AND ALL THAT COMES WITH THEM".

And so here goes my January story in pictures with a narrative that fills in the blanks and an explanation of my little wall of shame:


Mid-morning on Tuesday, January 7th we are on our way over to the feedlot, Pesek Family Farms in western McKenzie County that feeds our calves.  We had 40 steers committed to Sidney Livestock's Wednesday featured feeder calf sale the next day.  This is the only road in or out of our ranch and these cones were placed across it 3 miles from the county road.

Before walking down our very long hill covered in snow with several inches of ice under it, I more closely examined the warning cones and the hard hat on the road "Hamm & Phillips".
As we walked down and started to see the issue I thought "Houston, we have a problem and I suspect the driver of that rig does too".
Definitely Hamm & Phillips.  Definitely.  Oklahoma plates and all!

The drop off behind the truck's drivers (hanging over the edge) goes at a very steep grade for about 300 feet and then comes to a creek bank with another 50 foot straight fall to the bottom.  The only thing that stopped this tanker loaded with over 6,000 gallons of salt water was that when the drivers on the back of the tractor went over the drop off the tanker's jack dug into the road and stopped the $150,000 rig, the driver / operator and the 50,500 pounds of salt water from ending up in the bottom of Elkhorn Creek.



Remind you, we were on our way over to our custom feeder to sort steers which we needed to deliver to the Sidney Livestock Sale Barn. It is how ranchers pay their bills to the vendors who keep them operating. They market cattle.  So I tried to contact who is responsible for getting this 55,000 pound road block out of the way and found their land line had been disconnected.  For a company who claims to be recruiting talent on an ongoing basis to expand their services in the Bakken this was odd.

After waiting in sub-zero weather with an even larger sub-zero windchill for some one to show the Calvary started to arrive in their red H&P pickups. By that time I was cold, hot (under the collar) and rather chippy. For the sake of protecting the guilty and the innocent, there were four Hamm & Phillips employees that I dealt with that day. We will refer to them as M, the Watford City yard manager; H, the Watford City operations manager; G, the Watford City yard mechanic and R, the Watford City yard machinist. Straight off I asked if the driver / operator was OK.  He was, but shaken. My second question was "How long is it going to take to get this road block moved?  We had time sensitive business to tend to."  M and three guys with him (who I could tell thought I should take a chill pill over what I had to worry about and be more concerned with what they were tasked with) were scratching their heads as they had a good understanding of the technical intricacies it was going to take to not lose the rig and it's recovery equipment over the edge and into the creek below.  I explained to M that I needed to know how long this was going to take and if he couldn't determine that with fair accuracy, he needed to provide us with either vehicles on the down side of the road block or chauffeurs to get us where we needed to go.

M thought that sounded like a tough thing to make happen, but to talk to H, the operations manager and he provided me with his cell number.  Pay attention.  This is an important part of the story.  I called H and explained the situation.  He wasn't excited to pull people from their 'to do lists' when they were already behind.  I reminded him that I wasn't excited either and if Harold Hamm just wanted to buy these 40 steers at fair market value, well then we didn't need to get through their road block today.  OK.  Chauffeurs it would be.  Throughout the day in our travels with G and R, I was pretty sure someone above wanted me to hear about the sacrifices they were making to be here, working to support their families back in Chicago and northern Minnesota.  They were polite, hard working, salt of the earth, humble men who had faced adversity and who felt this 'wild west' was the path to security for their families.  I was impressed and moved by them and the sacrifices that they and their families were making.  I needed to hear that.  I will additionally note that G had two options when we were at the feedlot.  I encouraged him to sit in his heated pickup while we sorted steers.  Oh no.  He ran a gate for us and when it was obvious he knew what he was doing he confessed he grew up on a dairy farm.  He claimed that he enjoyed the day even though it was frigid and he was dressed in shop garb.

Well, fast forward to early February.  I am on the sponsorship committee for the Boots and Bling Gala - the annual fundraiser for the McKenzie County Health Care System.  I decided that after getting to know one of our new neighbors in the area, I would offer them the opportunity to be a part of this event which financially supports many aspects of our health care system which has faced incredible challenges trying to meet the needs of this RAPIDLY changing community.  I called H's cell phone.  He answered.  I asked if he remembered me and if I might get the contact information of the person who oversees their Community Giving Program for the Watford City area.  After a pause, it was declared that he was the person.  Perfect.  I gave him the verbal overview and asked if I could email him additional information.  Yep.  All good.  I then informed him that I would follow up in a week or so.  Needless to say, since that time and after the realization that I am not a CDL driver wanting to drive for Hamm & Phillips H doesn't return my text messages, phone calls or emails. 

I might not always be an idyllic neighbor.  That's not to say that I don't try to do what is right and fair for the neighborhood.  If I am a neighbor that is choosing to not step up to the plate and be a part of local solutions, but rather sit back 'mining resources' for my business' gain with disregard for the impact it's presence has on the neighborhood, I hope someone throws me up on their wall of shame and makes sure I realize what I am doing.

Just a reminder - H&P's driver was less than a foot away from needing McKenzie County's volunteer staffed EMT and Cash and Rescue crew's (these folks are GREAT neighbors) services to extract him from that truck at the bottom of the creek and if he was really lucky, take a trip to the exact emergency room that the annual Gala raises money for to keep the doors open and keep answering the 600 ER visits that come busting through their doors every MONTH.

So back to Ms. Bittleman's question, a handful of our new neighbors are wonderful.  The rest... they need a dictionary, cultural sensitivity training, a meaningful community giving program and a fear of being listed on a wall of shame - what ever it takes to make them want to be a part of the solutions to our many challenges in oil country rather than just sitting back 'mining the resources'.

Lastly, I should mention that while one of our operating neighbors, XTO decided to shut their wells down during that bad storm which resulted in this 'near miss' for Hamm & Phillips, Newfield, the operator that H&P was hauling for chose not to shut their wells in.  Another neighborly decision (which they are notorious for)...