A Resilient North Dakota Farmer’s Transformed Operation
Bill Ongstad compares his wife, Anne Whitman Ongstad, to someone who lived through the ’30s and came out more positive and optimistic. He’s been married to his “workaholic” wife for 42 years, since they met in college at North Dakota State University, he says.
In the past five years, Anne has overcome cancer twice, while remaining the third-generation proprietor and active owner of her family’s 14,000-acre ranch in Robinson, North Dakota.
Her resiliency to come back from adversity is one of Anne’s greatest strengths, says her husband. “That’s Anne. She doesn’t feel comfortable unless she’s working,” Bill says.
Since 1997, Anne has been the primary operator of the extensive operation that was started by her grandfather in 1905, while her parents proudly watch over her efforts from their home 0.5 miles away. She raises 600 cattle, 3,500 acres of organic crops, oversees the operation’s hunting business, and manages the ranch’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) ground as well as four full-time employees and three seasonal helpers.
“She just possesses a drive that a lot of farmers don’t have,” says Bill, a farmer himself. “Her motivation is to feed the world, to do a good job, and to leave the land better.”
The ranch didn’t always look like it does today. Anne has spent years carefully evaluating and transforming her family’s business. Like her parents taught her, she doesn’t limit herself to what surrounding farms and ranches are doing.
“There are innovators – people who try things first – and then there are early adopters,” she says. “I would consider myself to be an early adopter.”
She doesn’t like to be the first, but she likes to be one of the firsts. Whether it’s finding unusual cattle to raise or specialty crops to grow, Anne is constantly considering new opportunities and practices to implement on the operation.
Although Anne has finished cattle, she has now transformed the ranch into a cow-calf and backgrounding operation that caters to a number of specialty markets and companies. She has also slowly pushed back her calving season to have better access to the live cattle market.
On the crop side of the operation, Anne has taken land out of the CRP to break up root-bound soil structures, then worked carefully with the NRCS on cover crops and rotational schedules to ensure soil health. No two years are the same, according to her employees, as Anne is always willing to switch up planting dates and practices to boost yields and profitability.
The Switch to Organic
When Anne began transitioning her family’s traditional cropland to organic, it was for financial reasons. With a variety of soils across the operation and tricky weather conditions, Anne stuck with the organic crops because she enjoyed the challenge of growing them and felt better about the health of her employees (and family) raising crops via organic practices.
“I don’t think it’s wrong to grow conventional crops, but I’m unsure that the science is complete on causes of cancer,” says Anne, whose husband and son farm conventionally in a neighboring county.
In 2015, her husband’s doctor gave him a transitional cell cancer diagnosis and said it was either caused by smoking, petroleum, or exposure to pesticides. He has never been a smoker.
“Now that I have grandchildren, I’m more concerned about health,” Anne says. “ At this point, I’m choosing caution over chemicals.”
Anne’s heart for others, especially her family and employees, and drive to constantly reevaluate agricultural practices to produce the best possible products makes her even more respected by her employees.
A Charitable Leader
After years of working on a Michigan bison ranch, Jim Rembleski was left looking for another job when the operation was sold. After posting ads in a number of newspapers, he got a phone call from Anne and moved out to North Dakota 10 years ago.
“As far as being her employee, she doesn’t really treat us like employees,” says Rembleski. “She treats us like members of her family.”
Another of Anne’s employees, Brad Hartwell, agrees.
“(Anne) allows you to take your time and do it right because your time is valuable to her and you’re going home at the end of the day accident-free,” Hartwell says. “Her number one goal is to make sure that everyone goes home to their families every night.”
In fact, it was never his intention to move to North Dakota at all until he met Anne and visited her farm.
When Hartwell’s grandfather wanted out of his Indiana farm operation, Hartwell started looking for farm work elsewhere. After putting his resumé online, he got a phone call from Anne inviting him to visit her operation. After only one weekend on the farm, he and his wife packed up their Indiana home and put down roots in North Dakota so Hartwell could work for Anne.
“She’ll give the shirt off her back to try and help everybody out,” Hartwell says. “(Anne) is the first woman I’ve worked for, and it’s been the chance of a lifetime that I’d recommend to anyone.”
That’s also true of Anne’s efforts as a volunteer EMT, which she has been for a number of years. Although she doesn’t believe she’s great at being an EMT, Anne knows it will take roughly two hours for an ambulance to pick up and deliver a patient to a hospital from the rural community she lives in.
“She’s well respected and well loved in the Harvey and Robinson communities,” says Bill. “She’s done her part in keeping the community together.”
As the mother of five children, Anne was what her husband calls a 4-H mom for years. She’s now a grandmother to her three grandchildren who live on Bill’s farm in nearby Harvey, North Dakota. She’s hopeful that one of her grandchildren will have an interest in taking over the family operation in the years to come.
Anne is featured in Successful Farming magazine's "10 Successful Farmers" article running in the June issue.