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)...


  1. I hope you've sent a link to this post to Ms. Bittleman and to your local legislator. It's a good story, well written. Thanks.
    Alice Olson

  2. Thanks for your comment Puzzle Mom. I have not shared this with them. This really is a state issue which needs to be dealt with on that level. I have been trying to encourage everyone I know to get involved in the state at their district nominating conventions to help change the conversation in 'Bismarck'. Oil companies are very willing to follow the rules (that they lobby against) once they are in place and honestly, the 'good' ones wish that the 'bad' ones weren't in business ruining the reputations of all... guilt by association. Again, the conversation of North Dakota politics NEEDS TO CHANGE. The decisions made on the state level have been GREAT for North Dakota (generally speaking) in the short term. However, what can we say to our children's children about the decisions that we have made for short term gain? That is a tough one for me personally. Now that the leases are held by production it is time to get smart and start thinking long term.