Bill Hartmann

Position Held: Conservation Contractor, Farmer

Interviewer: Jim Barr

Associated NRDs:

Upper Big Blue


MR. BARR: This is Jim Barr. It's July 17th, 2013. I'm in Seward County visiting with Bill Hartmann and wondered if you'd like to give a little bit of your background to begin with, anyhow.

MR. HARTMANN: Well, started out in the construction business in 1954, having returned from Korea where, to my pleasure, I got to run a D8 CAT most of the time and did not mind that at all. And we got married in '53 and then started our business in '54. Primarily, we started out doing fertilizing and lime spreading, but at that time, the counties had their own soil conservation districts. Seward County had one. And they approached some three or four of us guys in the county, if we would take over the responsibility of doing that conservation work, they would get out of the business. And they had their own equipment at that time. And so we agreed to do that. And us four guys, different companies -- we're the only one left, I guess, but we did that. And that was nice. It was a good way to get started. I like to say we -- when we did, we started with virtually nothing and we got most of that left yet.


But we've -- it fed us.

MR. BARR: Did the County pay for the -- county districts pay or did the individual farmers pay?

MR. HARTMANN: No, it was -- well, the federal government was the cost sharer.

MR. BARR: Federal government.

MR. HARTMANN: But the districts, then they just dissolved, and that's where the NRDs came in to replace them. That was the idea, to have one entity rather than scattered all over. And the NRDs started out doing what the Soil Conservation was doing. And as we get into our talk, I'll probably talk about how they've drifted away from that goal, and much to our consternation, matter of fact. And it was a good business. You had to work hard and I started out with old machinery that probably wore out to the guy that I bought it from. But we'd fortunately, would work all night so we could run during the day. We, being, my brother, Dick, was a school teacher, but he helped me. He was going to school at that time. He helped me when he could, and brother, Jim. And so we kept it going, and eventually grew to a few more things and better equipment and to where we are today with a -- I suppose Andy has a crew of a dozen, my son, Andy.

MR. BARR: In the first years, what sort of work were you doing?

MR. HARTMANN: Well, basically, terraces and dams and waterways. And that was a -- early on, we had the whirlwind terrace, if you recall those things, but that was a beginning, cheap way of getting --

MR. BARR: Can you describe one of those?

MR. HARTMANN: They were a plow, Little Giant, International, blunt-bottom plow. They had a group in Texas for an augur splitting on the back where this dirt would fly from the leg and then it would toss it about 12-15 feet. And I suppose you'd go around 100 times, you'd have a pretty good little mound of dirt out there. And we built miles and miles of them, two and a half cents a foot.

MR. BARR: Did anybody use the old one-way file in those?

MR. HARTMANN: Not much. They really didn't work good. You know, you'd try to plow plowed ground and -- that's the way this thing --

MR. BARR: That's how my father did it was with those old -- he did his own.

MR. HARTMANN: Well, he could make that -- and dad did, too, and then follow that contour. That was the first thing, of course, without terrace is follow the contour.

MR. BARR: Would the Soil Conservation Service lay out the --


MR. BARR: What would you have to start with, just flags, or what?

MR. HARTMANN: Yeah, they would put flags every so many feet, steps, but virtually 100 feet. And that was on a grade, of course, and then we just followed that line most times it worked. The detriment was, the drawback, when you went through a ditch, you didn't have -- you had that when you got done in the ridge. No real way to fill them. Tumble bugs, tried them, and could do it, but then when the dozers came in, that all changed and we could build terraces with dozers and also fill those spots in.

MR. BARR: Roughly, what time -- when did the dozers come in, approximately?

MR. HARTMANN: Well, I had one when we started.

MR. BARR: When you started, okay.

MR. HARTMANN: But we still did whirlwind terraces, because the farmer could afford that as opposed to a dozer terrace, which was much more well-built, but cost more.

MR. BARR: Sure.

MR. HARTMANN: So, with the two tied together, we still got the whirlwind plow out here. It works.

MR. BARR: On the dams that you did, are they mostly just farm dams or --

MR. HARTMANN: Yeah, farm ones. And early one, had the Soil Conservation, of course, told us how to build them, drew up the specifications. But we didn't have any such thing as an air tamper, so you hand tamped the tube in, which was a terrible job, hard work. And then they came out with a directive that we will have an air compressor with a tamper. “Oh, my God, we can't afford that kind of fancy stuff.” Once you had one, you didn't -- you wanted it from then on.


And of course, it evolved into better terraces, eventually, and now, of course, they do the tile outlets which are -- and massive in size, but wonderful to farm.

MR. BARR: When the natural resource district idea was being discussed, did you have any -- were there any meetings or input or anything like that?

MR. HARTMANN: Lots of them. And I represented our contractors. Hal Schroeder, I don't know if you remember that name.

MR. BARR: Yes, I remember Hal.

MR. HARTMANN: A wonderful person. He took the Lower Platte South leadership. He was involved in that and, oh, I'd have to think a little bit about others that I could recall really were involved. I think Bryce Neidig from Madison was involved, and, well, Dale Williamson, obviously. And, you know, there was a bunch of people that were really interested in that kind of work. And it went well. We did lots and lots of things like that.

MR. BARR: When that actually started, was there any kind of difference in the way you did business or the work you had to do? Transitioning from the county soil and water districts to the NRD, was there any basic change?

MR. HARTMANN: No, I don't think that -- just good business practice was -- is still in effect, and we tried to do our best.

MR. BARR: But, I mean, were there different types of projects that you needed to work on or was it pretty much the continuation of the same?

MR. HARTMANN: I think it continued. Eventually, we got into bigger watershed dams, per se, and land leveling, which became a big, big part of our business when that was a big item. But we still always built dams until recently. Now the government doesn't want to hold the water. They want to let it go down the creek, let it flow in the river, which is asinine, just plain asinine. But they've lost the focus, which I want to relate to eventually.

MR. BARR: Go ahead.


MR. HARTMANN: Well, maybe it's too early to --

MR. BARR: No, if you got something else you want to talk about, go ahead, because this -- I don't have a real agenda. I just pretty much --

MR. HARTMANN: And I suppose you'll edit this thing a little bit, but early on, of course, water -- and soil and water conservation, that was the deal. And I like to think we were the first environmentalists. There wasn't even a word like that then. All of us didn't even know what -- but we were. And over time, now, after the NRDs got in and the Soil Conservation backed off somewhat -- they work together. And I called -- it's NRCS now, but they -- I think the NRDs, they like -- in ours from York, they even have a person they pay in the local office, clerk or something, so they're on the same page, but they've drifted away from being out there to help the farmer with his land and his crops and his farm, help him make the most out of it, to become a regulatory agency. And today, I would bet you they say, “You can't do that” more often that “That sounds like a good idea. Let's do it.” And I'm talking about such things as, well, building a dam or straightening out a ditch, a meandering waterway, as they call them, a ditch, a creek and a draw or a cleaning out a wetland. You can't do that anymore. They call them wetlands, I call them swamp, which are of no value to a reasonable thinking person. And so now, they -- like I say, the NRDs and SCS, they say “No” more than “Yes.” Although, they do cost share yet on terracing and things. But they've lost their focus, they really have. Now, the NRDs, they worry more about trees and birds and bees and fish and tiger beetles and such things as that. In fact, bike trails instead of “Let's help that farmer get more out of his land and make a better living.” I think they've really gone -- and because of what I call the extreme -- I can't think of my word now, environmentalists, that have a different focus. They've lost the real reason for soil and water and for the farm. And with that in mind, I'll go back to the Bible and I dug this out because I got an award this fall.


MR. HARTMANN: And it related -- from Concordia. It related to the faith and things. But I found this in the Bible, and here's what it says. In Genesis 1:28, maybe like the fifth day of creation is where this -- or sixth. “And God blessed them,” I'm quoting now, “And God blessed them and God said unto them, be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish and the birds and every living thing that moveth on the earth.” So, what does subdue mean? I looked that up in the dictionary, because it sounded interesting, and it does. Subdue, and I won't read all of them, but “to conquer; to overcome by superior force; to get the better of; to gain control over; to subdue to tone down and soften;” and here, number six, right out of the dictionary, to bring -- the meaning of the word subdue, “to bring land under cultivation.” That's a direct quote from the Bible, from God. We're not supposed to worship the earth and worship and think it's pristine. He doesn't ever say it -- he never says the earth is pristine, far from it, subdue it. That means it's vicious and violent, which it is. Nature is violent and is far from pristine. Nothing pristine about it. So that's where they're in conflict, I think, of even the Bible itself.

MR. BARR: Just looking at the condition of the land, say, I don't know, you would have been born in the '30s, probably.


MR. BARR: From that time until now, just kind of relay what you've seen over that period of time in relation to the land here in this general area of the state.

MR. HARTMANN: Well, of course, the hills have -- many of the hills in eastern Seward County have gone back to grass because of the CRP program, which was great. And that'll stay there. I don't look for that to be tore up like it was, simply because it's pretty tough farming. But, it can be done and so we've seen people go from all agriculture every acre to putting away some of it. And we even had some CRP here that part of which we took out this year, but leaving about seven acres, simply because it's pretty poor soil. And I won't get paid any more, but it's -- grass is there, and that's wonderful. And then, going from gravity irrigation to the pivot irrigation, that was a pretty big step.

MR. BARR: Well, the biggest step may have been going from dry land to irrigated (land).

MR. HARTMANN: That's right, and because of the pivot, they're irrigating hills now that they couldn't even dream of -- well, it didn't make sense to try and water.

MR. BARR: Was there any irrigation that you recall when you were young?

MR. HARTMANN: Oh, yes. Clear back -- my uncle, Paul Vander, lived by Clarks on the sand bottom.

MR. BARR: Sure.

MR. HARTMANN: He had a well, you had to dig down about ten feet you'd have all the water you needed.

MR. BARR: Well, I guess that's true. Is that what you do here on this farm?

MR. HARTMANN: No, we don't, but we've got a thing coming we may be able to. East of the Blue River, you can't hardly find enough water for irrigation. Neighbor has a well, it might be a 250 or maybe a couple of them put in. There was another one down the road, but we never tried. It hasn't got anything to do with your report, but it's interesting. There's a company from Wisconsin, Growth Design Engineers, I don't know what they call it, (indiscernible), by Monday we may sign the papers to where they're going to build a bio-plant on 15 acres of our northeast corner. They want to, which will take animal waste and turn it into all kinds of wonderful things, biodiesel, natural gas, fertilizer, farm fertilizer, and other interesting products. But, as a result of that operation, they will generate an enormous amount of water. Enough, if their projections hold true, that we would probably -- we got a dam down here -- we'd enlarge it to hold at least three quarters of that total volume of water, which would be enough, by the figures, to irrigate probably 80 acres.

MR. BARR: Wow! that is interesting.

MR. HARTMANN: That'll be one of the benefits we will derive from agreeing to go along with this project. So, we may get into irrigation, with a pivot, by the way, because our land is hilly. So, that would be a wonderful thing, if it happens.

MR. BARR: In terms of the erosion and that sort of thing, what, if any, changes have you noticed over this period?

MR. HARTMANN: Tremendous. You don't see a lot of terrible erosion any longer, and that's due to the terracing and waterways and just doing a better job of farming. No till is a big item. I don't do that. I'm too old to try that stuff, but I still farm. I'm only 83, so I can go a while yet. But, yeah, the erosion potential is diminished because of CRP and grass and people using their land more efficiently, I guess.

MR. BARR: One of the aspects of the NRD I wanted to visit with you about a little is the financing side in comparison between the county soil and water conservation districts and the NRD. Was there any major difference in the way financing was undertaken or anything like that?

MR. HARTMANN: Only from the standpoint of the NRDs supplemented the government cost share, and that's still going on. I'm not involved in that like I was when I ran the business, so I can't tell you the numbers, but --

MR. BARR: Well, no.

MR. HARTMANN: -- that helped out. Yeah, that's a good program.

MR. BARR: One of the things, I guess, that the arguments for the NRD was that they could have a tax base in which they could support this sort of thing.

MR. HARTMANN: Yes, which is what it is.

MR. BARR: Yeah.

MR. HARTMANN: And I don't mind that. I just don't like to see them spend it on bike trails and trees and -- we got enough trees in this country. We can put new ones in, that's great, but there's a lot of them don't really belong where they are. And people worship them. That's the other sad part of it. They worship trees.

MR. BARR: Where are you in relation to the boundary with this NRD? You're in the Upper Big Blue?

MR. HARTMANN: We're here in the Upper Big Blue. If we were to go about two miles east and --

MR. BARR: I thought it wasn't too far away.

MR. HARTMANN: I could take you to Village of Garland, because I lived there many years, to the very spot on the main street where the water runs this way, because we put a curve in the street.

MR. BARR: Sure.

MR. HARTMANN: We had to find that break, and it's interesting. Everything goes that way from there and this way -- so we're on the east end, I guess, of the Upper Big Blue.

MR. BARR: Well, looking back, you've kind of touched on this, but looking back at the history of the NRD and what your expectation or people's expectation might have been when it was enacted, the legislation was enacted, and then over the course of the time, like I said, you kind of touched on it, but you want to comment any more on this?

MR. HARTMANN: Well, I think -- I don't know if Hal Schroeder is still living or not, but I think he would be horrified if he could see what the money in the Lower Platte South NRD is being spent for. Hal was a great, great person. You know, he was there when they built the big Branched Oak Lake and all these other watersheds. We worked with him as a contractor and for him as damage control and things. A straightforward guy, and I think he would be horrified. His replacement, Brian Johnson, is a good person, but he's been influenced by the environmental people as is the Upper Big Blue, and to the extent that they've lost focus of their real mission.

MR. BARR: One of the differences between the district and the -- the old conservation districts and the natural resource district is, I think the landowners had votes on the other district and now it's basically one person, one vote in terms of electing board members. Is that an issue that you -- that might account for some of the change in the way the projects have gone?

MR. HARTMANN: I don't know if that has been a big effect. You know, there are farmers on the boards, but not all of them are farmers. From that point of view, yes, they've lost their clout. And I suppose in the early days, the districts -- well, their mission was simple. If it made sense, then do it. Now, if it makes sense, “I don't think you can do that.” So, I don't think it's the board members. It's the -- it's just the policy of the country.

MR. BARR: Is it the district or does it include state and federal legislation that --

MR. HARTMANN: Well, yeah, it's all tied together.

MR. BARR: -- NRDs had some impact on?

MR. HARTMANN: You know, the NRDs and the local offices, they got -- well, I said, they even got a clerk paid for by it. It's all tied to one.

MR. BARR: I don't really have a whole set of questions, so if there's anything you'd like to comment on, have at it.

MR. HARTMANN: I've got to go through my notes here a little bit.

MR. BARR: Because, like I said, I'm not really asking a lot of specific questions. I just kind of give people the opportunity to talk.

MR. HARTMANN: Just my thought and my son reflects this, that early on, they were here to help the farmer. I don't think that's true anymore. They'll probably say they are, but in reality, they're more, “No, you can't do that.” “Yes, that makes sense. Let's go ahead and do it.” Before you leave, I want to take you down the road a mile, not quite, and show you what I'm talking about common sense and the lack of it. It's right there in front of us. More concerned with the environment than with saving land and so forth. I can't read my own writing.

MR. BARR: I've had that problem for a long time.

MR. HARTMANN: Yeah, well, we talked on most of these things. Well, and then just recently, one of our board members from the Upper Big Blue is a friend, too, a customer. He was telling us that he had been to an NRD meeting down in, well, it was southwest, and they're now encouraging the farmer to take your dam out, destroy it, and let that water go to Kansas. That's got to be the -- well, I better not use that language, stupid. And have we degraded ourselves to that level of thinking? And they're serious. Bike trails, yeah, camping shelters. You know, that's the kind of stuff they like to talk about. Well, that isn't what they were built -- they were developed for. Yeah, well, now here they say they won't let you build a dam because the water has to go to the Platte River. They need water. And just focus changed from farmland to urban interest. That's basically what notes I've made.

MR. BARR: Well, like I said, I appreciate your time, and if you have anything else, I'm --

MR. HARTMANN: Well, I want to show you this.

MR. BARR: No, I will go down there, and I can record that, too, if you want to when we do that.

MR. HARTMANN: Sure. I think the overall big concern is the NRDs have lost their focus. And that, I think, is because of the -- not the farmers no longer have the majority to make the decisions. It's urban interests that come in and they get on the board, and they're powerful, and they're, you know, that sounds wonderful to save the earth. Well, might destroy it by trying to save it, too, something like that.

MR. BARR: Well, we'll reconvene here in a little bit down there.
- - -

MR. BARR: Okay, we're back.

MR. HARTMANN: Well, here we are. I'm here with Jim, and we're looking at a farm right north of us a mile, half a mile that has what I think is probably one of the dumbest things showing that the government has ever forced on a farmer. And if you were sitting here with us, what you'd be looking at is a meandering creek, not even a stream, just a little channel that meanders through this farmer's field, makes a big loop and goes on downstream.

Well, at one time, in the past, the owner had us come out and dig him, with a backhoe, and I straight channeled across the stream, maybe 700 feet or less, and bypass this loop and fill it in for farmland. If you were sitting here with me, you'd say, that makes a lot of sense. But, no, he could not do that. He had to fill that all back in and leave it like it is now, which is a wasteland really. And it just doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

MR. BARR: It's not a flowing stream.

MR. HARTMANN: No. The farmer did it. He made it low, so it's kind of starting its own channel. And I think he's (indiscernible).