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ADM rewards North Dakota couple's regenerative practices with premium contract for 'Knwble Grwn' flax

Archer Daniels Midland is paying Paul and Diane Overby, regenerative farmers from Wolford, North Dakota, to produce flaxseed to be sold in specialty food production markets.

A farmer and his wife in their 60s stand arm-in-arm, flanked by their red International Harvester swather and combine, in a flax field.
Paul and Diane Overby of Wolford, North Dakota, say they’re energized by a new Archer Daniels Midland contract that rewards “regeneratively” produced crops -- with an emphasis on soil health and reduced inputs. They’re hoping consumers and new growers emerge to keep the concept growing. Photo taken Sept. 30, 2022, near Wolford, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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WOLFORD, N.D. — A North Dakota farmer is among a handful of farmers in the Dakotas to grow flaxseed “regeneratively” for the food market for agricultural powerhouse Archer Daniels Midland.

Paul and Diane Overby of Wolford, North Dakota, grew flax in 2022 for ADM’s new brand that is spelled “Knwble Grwn” and pronounced “Noble Grown.” ADM started a pilot program in 2022 and officially will launch the brand in March 2023 and wants to double acres in 2023.

Under the contract, ADM pays a per-acre premium for flax in ways consistent with ADM’s environmentally-friendly aspirations.

Thousands of flaxseed "bolls" in a swathe are in the foreground as the farmer, standing at right, prepares to combine.
Paul Overby of Lee Farm, near Wolford, North Dakota, said the stems of the flax crop he was growing for a new Archer Daniels Midland crop were still green, but the tops were ready to harvest on Sept. 30, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The Overbys harvested their flax for the brand in September 2022. The company will pick the flax up this month at the farm and truck it directly to their Red Wing, Minnesota, processing plant. They’ll sell some of the seeds raw but will crush most for an oil market, in small runs. They sell the seeds to foodies and the flaxseed oil to consumers — initially through their own website and then through online retailers like Amazon and Walmart.com.

Paul said he’s happy about the premiums but even more excited that one of America’s major agricultural players is connecting consumers with building soil health.

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A field-soiled farm left  pokes at a flaxseed "boll," in the right palm -- roundish like a peas, but fragile and segmented like an orange, and holding oil-rich flax seeds.
Flax seeds grow in a “boll” which is a protective covering around the seeds, or kernels, that grow in eight to ten segments, in a configuration reminiscent of how orange slices grow. Photo taken Sept. 30, 2022, near Wolford, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“Knwble Grwn” is a “play on words,” explained Jaime Goehner, an ADM commercial manager in Minneapolis. “If you think about the ‘noble’ work that farmers have done for centuries.”

And consumers want to "know" about where their food is coming from — “ what type of soil, what geography," Goehner said.

Valuing soil health

To Paul, “regenerative” means reducing disturbance to the soil. It means reducing the “environmental load,” increasing soil biology and health, and reducing synthetic inputs.

A swather runs through a brown-gold field of flax, putting it into swathes or long piles, that a combine threshing machine will harvest a few minutes later.
Diane Overby on Sept. 30, 2022, runs the swather in a flax field on “Lee Farm,” a family operation she runs with her husband, Paul Overby, who grew up here. The two-person operation focuses on regenerative cropping techniques, including cover crops. Photo taken Sept. 30, 2022, near Wolford, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The Overbys employ no-till farming and manage inputs — chemicals and fertilizer — for minimal use. The key thing on flax is not to use any desiccant as a harvest tool. That means no glyphosate (Roundup).

The Overbys have been involved with ADM for about 10 years. They had produced sunflowers for ADM (and Cargill), and moved into Nusuns and high-oleics. Paul grew peas for ADM’s new facility at Enderlin, North Dakota, when the company entered the alternative protein market.

A red combine moves through a field of flax swathes, with their ball-like bolls.
Paul Overby’s combine on Sept. 30, 2022, picks up swathed flax, with its characteristic bolls –- the part of the plant that holds the seed kernels. The straw of the plant was still green, but the seeds were ready to harvest, at only about 7% moisture. Flaxseeds are about 38% oil. Photo taken Sept. 30, 2022, near Wolford, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“It is not organic,” Paul said, of the regenerative descriptor. “It doesn’t mean you don’t have any chemicals. It’s just, ‘How little can we use?’"

The Overbys scout the growing crop, looking for disease that requires a fungicide.

“We scouted aggressively," Paul said.

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Paul and Diane planted cover crops last year in preparation for this year’s flax, which they “no-till” planted in the spring. Paul said flax itself is earth-friendly because it doesn’t need phosphorus fertilizer and needs very little nitrogen fertilizer.

A combine travels right-to-left through a brown-golden flax field.
Paul Overby of Wolford, North Dakota, takes off his flaxseed crop in ideal weather on Sept. 30, 2022 – temperatures in the 60s and light winds.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Paul’s chemical weed control is limited to a Spartan Charge, a pre-emergent herbicide designed to tackle ALS- and glyphosate-resistant kochia, plus preplant burndown of broadleaf weeds. They can use only one pass with a post-emergence chemical. Importantly, Overby said the contract excludes the use of glyphosate as a pre-harvest desiccant, which is typically done with straight-cut combining.

“We can’t use glyphosate on because it is very specifically going into the food-grade market,” Overby said. “Consumers are getting very nervous about … finding traces of glyphosate in the food supply. It’s something we’re going to have to deal with.”

A farmer sits in his combine cab, left, monitoring the release of flax seeds he unloads from a combine spout and into a waiting farm truck box.
Paul Overby, a farmer at Wolford, North Dakota, was pleased at this year’s flax yield, but also that his “regenerative” principles were rewarded by Archer Daniels Midland’s new Knwble Grwn (noble grown) premium contract.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

When the seeds are ripe and dry, Diane swaths the flax. Immediately afterward, Paul picks it up with the combine.

“The flax itself is ripe and dry, but the straw is green,” Overby said. The quick pick-up is designed to prevent windrows blowing in the wind.

Harvest worked well on Sept. 30, 2022, with temperatures in the 60s, sunny and dry. If it had been in the 50s and cloudy, it would have been tougher, Paul acknowledged.

“This contract needs to have a premium. If they’re going to require no glyphosate, they’re going to have to have a premium because it does add risk to the farmer for harvestability,” Overby said.

Planting to politics

Paul’s father, Glenn, farmed conventionally. He chisel-plowed a couple of times in the fall and cultivated in the spring, running a disk in front of the drill. He also raised flax. Glenn was an early-adapter for starter fertilizer use.

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A white farm truck stands at left while a red combine at right unloads flaxseed into it.
Paul Overby on Sept. 30, 2022, at Wolford, North Dakota, unloads flax from the combine that year averaged over 30 bushels per acre, with spots in the field running over 40 bushels per acre.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Paul graduated high school in 1977. As the farm crisis developed, he went on to North Dakota State University, where he was active in student government and Republican politics. He graduated at NDSU 1982, with degrees in agricultural education and agriculture, into the teeth of the farm credit crisis.

With slim profits at the farm, Paul worked off-farm at the Fargo United Republican Committee and then North Dakota 4-H Foundation. In 1988, he went to Nebraska to work the unsuccessful re-election campaign for U.S. Sen. David Karnes, R-Neb. (Karnes made the mistake of suggesting “decoupling” farmers from subsidies and suggesting the country needed “fewer farmers.” Karnes was defeated by former Gov. Bob Kerrey, the Democrat.)

A farm woman's hand holds small, waxy brown flax seeds she picks up in a bucket from which she is testing the crop for moisture.
Paul and Diane Overby harvested flax for a new “Knwble Grwn” contract with Archer Daniels Midland in 2022. The crop was grown with “regenerative” principles and is headed to a premium consumer market. Photo taken Sept. 30, 2022, near Wolford, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Post-election, Paul took a job as vice president of development at Great Plains Regional Medical Center at North Platte, Nebraska. In 1989, he married Diane, from Frazee, Minnesota, whom he’d met in Toastmaster’s back in Fargo. Diane worked in marketing for Great Plains Software (later Microsoft), and then in newspaper advertising.

In 1993, Paul’s parents retired at the farm.

ADM's Red Wing, Minnesota, plant has always produced flax seed oil for industrial purposes and has been certified for human food in a specialty market under the Knwble Grwn brand.

“We chose to give up our suit-and-tie careers and move north to Dakota and start farming,” Paul said, laughing.

Today, they still operate about 1,800 acres on what’s called “Lee Farm,” named for a maternal grandmother’s surname. It includes 1,350 acres of crops. They raise canola, field peas, flax, sunflowers, sometimes soybeans, oats and hard red spring wheat, as well as cover crops.

Also in 1993, the climate turned wet in the Dakotas and Canada.

A woman stands next to an "inter-cropped" field, with the taller canola stalks, beneath which is the aftermath of field peas -- harvested together and then separated at the elevator for marketing.
Diane Overby stands next what she and her husband called “pea-ola,” a harvested field in which they “inter-cropped” peas and canola, Wolford, North Dakota. The crops were harvested together in 2022, and then separated for marketing. Photo taken Sept. 30, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

On top of that, in 1996, Congress passed the “Freedom to Farm” bill that allowed farmers to plant more crops than the standard “program crops” like wheat and barley. The Overbys added field peas, sunflowers and canola. Meanwhile, Paul served on a local co-op board and was a part-time ag mediator for the North Dakota Agriculture Department.

In the early 2000s, the Overbys became active in the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero-Till Association. The group had started in the dry 1980s as farmers converted to no-till to save moisture.

No-till conversion

In 2005, the Overbys converted the whole-farm to no-till, confirming the benefits with yield monitors.

“It all actually fits into the long-term ‘regenerative' ag,” Paul said. “I just didn’t know it.”

Diane admits that at first, she thought Paul was a “lunatic” for shifting to no-till. After two or three years, she was impressed with improved yields and ability to get machines into the field after a rain.

In 2005, Paul became a part-time farm business management instructor at Lake Region State College, in Devils Lake, working with the Dakota Center for Precision Ag Technology. In 2007, he established Verdi-Plus, a reseller of Trimble agricultural software. In 2009, he went on the Northern Plains Resource Conservation and Development Council, and became its president, helping advance cover-cropping.

As he grew crops more renewable, he delivered some crops into smaller-scale “food-grade” markets.

But the Man-Dak Zero Till group was unsuccessful at getting the larger food industry to connect to soil health. Paul got off the board in 2015. The group disbanded in 2016. Meanwhile, Paul went on an advisory committee for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant program. In 2017, he went on the advisory board for the NDSU Ag & Biosystems Engineering Department.

In 2019, an ADM official approached the Overbys about an idea to get into products that supported “soil health.” That led to the 2022 Knwble Grwn contract.

Looking ahead, Overby hopes consumers will become more interested. And the Overbys would like to hand things over to a younger family with similar ideas.

“I am very hopeful that there is a whole bunch of young people that want to try this,” he said. “One of our needs is going to be finding young people who want to try this, and meet Paul and Diane Overby, and maybe we can get together.”

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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