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Serving: West

Nearly 40 crops make it a career

Kathy Tonneson Lon Tonneson wearing a black polo shirt posing for a photograph outdoors
RETIRING NOW: Lon Tonneson finds himself on the other side of the camera for a change. He has written about and photographed Dakota farmers and ranchers for the past 39 years.
After almost 40 years of covering agriculture, it is the right time to retire.

Farmers tell me they have the chance to grow about 40 crops before they retire. Forty chances to do it right. Forty chances to see the perfect year.

Well, I am at 39 of my own “crops” — 12 monthly issues of print magazines and 52 weeks of local editorial content each year — and it’s the right time to retire.

I don’t think I’ve ever gotten my coverage of Dakota agriculture completely “perfect.” There always has been room for improvement. There’s always been another person I wished I had interviewed, another story I wished I had written.

I started covering agriculture in 1981. I had been in the Air Force, graduated from South Dakota State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, co-owned a weekly newspaper in my hometown for a while before losing it, and worked at editing several other weekly newspapers in South Dakota and Minnesota before trying my hand at freelance writing. I was interested in business, and agriculture was the biggest business in the Midwest.

Being something of a romantic, I was hooked on ag journalism when one of the first farmers I interviewed picked up and held a kitten that had curled around his feet while we talked about the price of corn. These are my kind of people, I thought.

Bob Rupp and Tom Doughty, then the editor and manager editor of The Farmer and Dakota Farmer magazines, hired me to work full time in ag. They asked me to move to the Red River Valley. “You bet,” I said, and I have been here ever since.

Ironically, in high school I had dreamed of living on a deserted island and writing novels. I ended up on an acreage surrounded by a sea of wheat and writing about the ocean around me.

Over the past 39 years, I have worked with a good crew of people at the Dakota Farmer. I’m thankful for that. I wish I could take them along with me in the next chapter of my life.

I am also grateful for each and every one of you who granted me an interview or posed for pictures. I met a lot of the Dakota Farmer’s readers over the years. I didn’t get around to all of you, but I was working at it.

I visited some farms twice and interviewed the next generation. Recently, one young, young man, who was taking over his family’s farm greeted me by saying: “Do you remember when you were here last time? I was farming in the sandbox with toy tractors.”

Boy, did I feel old then.

But being in the business this long has allowed me to witness big changes in agriculture — the rise of farmer-owned ethanol, durum and soybean processing plants; the adoption of no-till farming on the Great Plains; and the dawning of regenerative agriculture. Imagine what the next 39 years will hold.

Perhaps more significantly, I saw how farmers survived the 1980s farm crisis and endured droughts, floods, early freezes and trade disruptions of all kinds. It was inspiring.

If recent history is any guide, I’m sure you’ll come through the pandemic and be stronger when it is over.

Good luck everyone, and thanks for spending time with me.

Mindy Ward, Farm Progress senior content director, will be handling the Dakota Farmer for a while. Contact her at [email protected] or call 636-932-4664.

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