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Agronomist tries hand in many different fields

Eric Eriksmoen has always enjoyed agriculture, regardless of what city, state or country he’s lived in.

Raised on the family farm in Leeds, Eriksmoen, who is currently research agronomist at the North Central Research Extension Center south of Minot, got to do more travelling during his childhood years than many people do in a lifetime.

Eriksmoen’s father, Duane, went through some tough times on the farm, including a drought, in the 1970s. This led him to join the United States Foreign Service and move his family to Tanzania, Africa, for the next eight years.

“My father essentially helped develop a foundation seed farm over there with the Tanzanian government,” Eriksmoen said.

Eriksmoen spent a few years in an English-speaking, British-type school in Tanzania before going to an American missionary school on the island of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of Africa.

“In my class I had all of four boys graduating. No girls in the class,” Eriksmoen said. “It was kind of like a little country school.”

Eriksmoen said going to school in Africa was a tremendous opportunity that really gave him a different perspective on how other people in the world live.

“Me, as a 14-year-old student, was financially much richer than 90 percent of the local people in the area,” he said. “Not that that made any difference to me, but it was certainly a culture shock in many ways.”

One of Eriksmoen’s favorite pastimes was simply getting out and mingling with the local people. He enjoyed it so much that he learned both Swahili, the official language of Tanzania, and Malagasy, the official language of Madagascar.

Like his father, Eriksmoen loves agriculture. He went to North Dakota State University and received a bachelor’s degree in agronomy. He then spent a year in St. Louis doing an internship with Monsanto in 1984. That internship was Eriksmoen’s first experience with agricultural research, and he absolutely loved it.

“I enjoyed doing the scientific unknown – what happens if you do this?” he said.

Eriksmoen said the sluggish job market during the the mid-’80s persuaded him to go back to NDSU and get his master’s degree in agronomy.

“The job market at that particular time was really poor. Farmers were struggling. Agriculture was bad. Companies were not hiring so I took this internship at Monsanto and that lasted a year and then I needed to move on,” Eriksmoen said. “School basically provided me with a means of surviving. Student loans gave me some method of living, but also you needed to have a graduate degree in order to get into the research part.”

In 1988 he was hired as a research agronomist at the Hettinger Research Extension Center. The agronomy program there was just four years old, with only the basic research fields in place.

At the time, Eriksmoen said, the dominant farming culture was to use conventional tillage along with summer fallow, which let a field sit idle with nothing growing in it.

“Many of the farmers were practicing summer fallow one year followed by spring wheat. That was kind of the rotation – spring wheat and summer fallow,” he said. “Not a whole lot of diversity.”

Eriksmoen said it was already known at the time that summer fallow wasn’t a good practice to follow. Although it saved some soil moisture and controlled weeds to a degree, in general it was more expensive to do summer fallow than plant considering the return on investment.

“Part of my research was to show that there is a different way to farm and you can maybe add some diversity, some different crops, get away from tillage and go more into no-till and continuously crop,” Eriksmoen said. “Have a crop on your ground every single year. Your yields are not going to be as high as having a crop on a fallow ground, but still if you combine the fallow and your cropping years together, you made more money continuously cropping rather than fallow ground.”

With the research the Hettinger center collected on no-till farming and crop diversity, it was successful in convincing area farmers to leave tilling and summer fallow behind.

“I think you can go down to southwestern North Dakota now and there is virtually no summer fallow whatsoever,” Eriksmoen said. “And most of the farming is now no-till farming and a lot of crop diversity down there.

“So I felt very fortunate and very gratified that the work I was doing was actually contributing to the sustainability and profitability of the farmers in the area.”

In May 2012, Eriksmoen moved to the North Central Research Extension Center to fill a position.

“I had looked at the Minot research center over a period of time and there were some very desirable things that I liked,” Eriksmoen said. “Minot’s station was very progressive. They had very good equipment. They had a very good plant base to work with. They worked with crops and crop production.”

He noted Hettinger worked with livestock as well as crops, which meant the station’s resources had to be split. In Minot, all the resources were devoted to agronomy, which really appealed to Eriksmoen.

There were some challenges, however. Eriksmoen noted the Minot center was still using conventional tillage, and one of his first goals was to convert to no-till.

“I do recognize that there is more than one way to farm and not every crop can be grown with no-till. There are some crops that we have to use tillage on,” he said. “But most of the crops that we grow in the north-central region can and should be grown under no-till cropping.”

Another difference between Hettinger and Minot that was positive was the greater crop diversity in Minot. Eriksmoen said in Minot he can grow soybeans, which was extremely difficult in Hettinger because the climate is much more dry and harsh there. Along with soybeans, Eriksmoen also mentioned sugar beets and corn as crops he was excited to work with.

“Those are crops that in southwestern North Dakota we tried to develop but the climatic conditions just were not right,” he said. “In Minot I can. I can work with those crops and they do very well growing here.”

Eriksmoen continues to be excited about all the different research projects that have opened up to him with the move to Minot. He said he is very gratified that his research has been able to help farmers improve their own crops.

When Eriksmoen isn’t at the extension center helping to grow crops, he just might be out on the road helping to save lives as a working paramedic.

“I’ve been an EMT for 30 years and a paramedic for five years,” he said.

He is a volunteer paramedic with West River Ambulance in Hettinger and continues to work there once a month while residing in Minot.

Eriksmoen said it was an abundance of energy in his younger years that made him decide to dip his toes into the medical field during college, even though agronomy remained his first love. A Minnesota college where Eriksmoen took a few classes before attending NDSU had offered an EMT class, which he took. Since then, he has been working when he can in a different kind of field, which he enjoys just as much as his day job.

“It’s very satisfying, very fulfilling to be able to help people in need,” he said.

(Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944 or Managing Editor Kent Olson at 857-1939. Either can be reached at 1-800-735-3229. You also can send e-mail suggestions to mdnews@minotdailynews.com.)