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How I Work: Custom manure pumping business manages tighter application windows

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 27 February 2019
Rick Martens

With agriculture and farming in his DNA, Rick Martens is operating a business from the farm that has been in his family for generations. Located 80 miles north of Minneapolis, Minnesota, the century-old dairy farm is no longer home to cows, but now serves as the home base for Martens Manurigation, a custom manure pumping business.

“It is a smaller operation to today’s standard,” Martens says, noting it consists of a one-hose drag system. Their niche in the industry is to service smaller farms with a customer base comprised of one large 1,200-cow dairy, several 300-cow dairies, and the rest are mostly 50- to 100-cow dairies. All told, they make 85 to 90 farm stops per year and move around 60 million gallons of manure.

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“When I took over from my dad, he advised me to never let one customer be more than 10 percent of my business,” Martens says. He figures most businesses can risk a 10 percent loss if a customer fails to pay, but any more and it could be a disaster.

In addition to Martens, his son and another employee work full-time in the business. They also have one part-time employee who helps as needed. Due to the shortened manure application windows the last couple of years, he has been working close to full-time.

When the snow melts and their customers are ready to empty winter manure storage units, the crew loads up the equipment and a tiny house built on a step deck and heads to the first farm. Their customers extend throughout a 150-mile radius around the home farm.

During the busy application season, Martens says he wakes up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. If not already at their location for the day, they begin by travelling to the next farm.

Once at the farm or close to it, the crew goes out for breakfast, a tradition they’ve held since the beginning of the business. “It is our one good meal of the day,” Martens says. “It is sacred time – an hour or so to sit all together and talk about business or nothing related to business. It provides downtime and nutrition.”

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Often, they will use the time to discuss the day’s plans – where they are heading, the fields, application rate, what’s in the pit, etc.

Martens’ primary role during application is laying down and picking up the supply and drag hoses. They can pump manure up to 3 miles, but for the majority of stops, the distance is 1 to 1.25 miles. He also monitors all aspects of the application, from agitation to seeing how the placement of manure looks in the field.

He scouts the fields for the next job, either in person if it is nearby or by looking up aerial photos on his phone, in order to plan the best route when they get there.

If different equipment is needed for the next job, he coordinates the rental and delivery of it.

“I am always planning throughout the day how to be as efficient as we can be,” Martens says.

In addition, he manages unplanned activities like answering and returning phone calls to keep his other customers apprised of where they are and fixing breakdowns in the equipment.

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“I’ve had a couple of farms tell me, ‘You make it look easy.’ That’s from the knack of doing it for 35-plus years,” he says.

There’s a lot of days during the busy season when Martens has “lupper” – lunch and supper at the same time. “That’s why we eat a good breakfast. It might be 10 or 11 at night before we get another meal,” he says.

They have a microwave and refrigerator in the tiny house and will often eat leftovers, packaged meals or pick up food from a restaurant if there is a town nearby. If they are close to home, his wife or his son’s wife will bring food out to them.

The crew will work until they have completed what they set out to do that day, which could be 10 p.m. or 4 or 5 a.m. Sometimes it might be when they reached a good point to stop or if they finished the job. If they finish a job early in the day, they will move to the next farm. If they wrap up late, they pack up and move in the morning.

Martens says there is a big difference between working through the night once and doing it for six to eight weeks straight. “I think we get adrenaline and find a way to capture it, but then we crash hard,” he says.

He and his crew capitalize on downtime throughout the day. If there is nothing going on, they are encouraged to rest. “We have to get rest,” he says. “To me, that’s a safety issue. When we are rested, we are more productive and safer.”

Depending on how busy it is, they can take a break in the tiny house. It is similar to an RV and equipped with bunks, a TV and a bathroom with a shower.

“It is our home away from home. That’s where we stay through the week,” Martens explains.

Each week, they leave on Monday morning and return by Saturday night. “We are always home on Sunday,” he says. “We might spend a lot of time repairing equipment on Sunday, but we’re home.”

It used to be they had a six- to seven-week window in the spring and two and a half months in the fall to travel around and apply manure. Due to weather conditions the last two years, those windows have shrunk to three to four weeks in the spring and one and a half months in the fall with the same amount of work to be done in that time frame.

“Spring and fall are our busiest times. Summer manure applications are quite relaxing,” he says.

When they aren’t applying manure, they grow 400 acres of grass hay and produce 1,300 to 1,900 big square bales (3X3X8) each year.

They also spend time repairing machinery and building new equipment. Major repair projects are held for the winter months. They don’t want to completely tear apart a piece of equipment in the summer, just in case it can’t get put back together before they need it again in the fall.

Martens also spends time on business management tasks such as collecting payments, planning the next season and replacing or purchasing equipment.

During these slower months, he will wake up at 5 or 6 a.m. and have a cup of coffee before heading out the door around 7 a.m. The shop is located on the home farm, and he’ll stay out until 5 p.m. or sometimes as late as 9 p.m., depending on what he’s working on.

Martens is involved in local farm organizations such as the Farm Bureau, the Kanabec County Agriculture Society that hosts the county fair and the Minnesota Custom Applicators Association, where he holds the position of executive director. He is also a member of the Lion’s Club and active in his church.

He conducts a music ministry, where he plays guitar and has a MIDI system for a backup band. Martens hosts several polka praise services a year. He sings religious lyrics to traditional polka tunes and adds in some “new age” Christian songs from the ’60s and ’70s.

About 10 to 15 times a year when the pastor is unable to lead the service, Martens will fill in as pulpit supply, having attended two lay-ministry schools including one for preaching. He will even do this in the midst of his busy application season.

“It gives me a reason to shut my mind down from the business and focus on something different,” he says. “I can write from the tractor seat or while driving down the road. I will look up the key pieces of the scripture and focus on that. God gifted me with the ability to speak without notes, so I don’t have to write out a manuscript.”

Martens finds it hard to vacation. “I’m not a person to sit and do nothing,” he says, but from time to time, he and his wife will get away from the farm. For now, they enjoy day trips or short overnight stays to remain close to home to help care for aging parents. Two children and five grandchildren also keep them plenty busy.

He continually invests his time and efforts into his agricultural business so the future generation has the opportunity to know that life as well. “The family farm may not look as it did in the beginning, but then again, nothing does,” Martens says.  end mark

Karen Lee
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PHOTO: Rick Martens is a custom manure applicator who works long days to meet the needs of his customers while also keeping a focus on family and his community. Photo by Karen Lee.

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