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Jamestown's Terry Wanzek balances farming with a side of politics

Terry Wanzek enjoys spending time behind the wheel of a tractor. Though he plans to retire from farming in about five years, he'll still help the next generation in the field. Trevor Peterson / Forum News Service1 / 6
Terry Wanzek checks over his corn planter before getting in the tractor. Trevor Peterson / Forum News Service2 / 6
Sen. Terry Wanzek speaks from his seat in the North Dakota Senate. (Submitted photo)3 / 6
Terry Wanzek looks over his corn planter. Trevor Peterson / Forum News Service4 / 6
Terry Wanzek first was elected to the North Dakota Legislature in 1992. (Submitted photo)5 / 6
Terry Wanzek's life away from the Legislature includes a lot of time in the tractor. Trevor Peterson / Forum News Service6 / 6

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — As a high school senior, Terry Wanzek was North Dakota FFA's Star Farmer. The designation meant a trip to the National FFA Convention, where he sat next to North Dakota Gov. Art Link.

"I remember being in awe kind of that the governor of North Dakota sat right beside me," Wanzek says. "And I remember thinking to myself, 'He seemed normal. He seemed human.' "

Wanzek would learn over the years about just how "normal" and "human" lawmakers in North Dakota are. He first won election to the North Dakota House in 1992. A quarter-century later, he's still balancing farming and politics.

"I always think of myself as a farmer first who happens to be involved in the Legislature, not a politician who farms on the side," the Jamestown Republican says. "Farming is who I am."

The easiest way to catch up with Wanzek is in the "banker's chair" of his tractor, marveling at the precision agriculture tools he's managing. He's planting 60 feet of corn at a time, all variable-rate seeding with computers that know what's already been planted.

Wanzek farms in partnership with his brother, his son, his nephew and his father, and they've got family members and people who are like family working on the farm and in their other businesses. Altogether, they are farming about 16,000 acres this year.

Working with family, he says, is a matter of good communication. Combining efforts with others makes being a public servant possible.

"It allows me to do something like serve in the Legislature," Wanzek says. "I wouldn't be able to do it if someone wasn't at home. It would be hard to be sitting in the Legislature in April if I knew everybody was seeding and I wasn't getting anything done."

Wanzek served in the North Dakota House for one term, then won election to the North Dakota Senate in 1994. He served until 2002, when he lost re-election largely, he believes, over unfounded rumors that he took big money from Monsanto.

But he came back to the Senate after a victory in 2006, and he's spent the past five sessions on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where the big budget decisions get made.

Those decisions were harder to make this year than in past sessions when North Dakota was flush with cash. General fund appropriations for the biennium ended up at $4.3 billion, compared to $6 billion from the last biennium.

"We said no a lot more than we did other sessions," he says.

Wanzek says lawmakers were careful in the good years to use their excesses on one-time funding rather than set themselves up for failure down the road. Still, hard choices had to be made. The North Dakota State University research and Extension budget took an 18 percent hit, he says.

"I know I shared with some other legislators, I thought we were overdoing it on the research and Extension budget," he says.

Still, there were accomplishments of which he's proud. The Legislature passed a "farmer friendly" subsurface water management bill, Senate Bill 2263. He says he's become a voice for agriculture in the Legislature as the number of lawmakers working in agriculture has shrunk.

His proudest legislative accomplishment also dealt with making a difference for rural communities. His bill in 2011 to provide $75 million for rural infrastructure seemed like a longshot when he introduced it, but his explanation about the need for good roads to get the ever-increasing yields of North Dakota farmers to market influenced urban lawmakers.

In keeping with his pride over the 2011 bill, Wanzek is disappointed Gov. Doug Burgum recently vetoed legislation to give non-oil producing townships $10,000 each for infrastructure.

As Wanzek talks, he deals with the beeping from the monitors in the tractor. Even as technology allows him to take his hands off the wheel, he's still got plenty to watch. And he seems to enjoy it, even after all these years. Wanzek may retire in five years when he's 65, but his routine won't change much.

"And what I'm going to do, I'm going to farm. I like farming," he says. He plans to help the next generation, albeit at a slower pace.

Wanzek's son, Ryan, during the recent legislative session provided him with a concrete example of how fast time passes. When Wanzek first was elected, Ryan was a kindergartner. Now, he's 30, with a family of his own, a master's degree and a spot on the North Dakota Corn Growers Association board. Seeing Ryan at a social put on by the Corn Growers was a revelation.

"I saw my son across the room visiting with legislators," Wanzek says. "And that's when it hit me: He was in kindergarten and now he's here, lobbying legislators."

Wanzek hasn't decided whether to run for re-election in 2018. The death of his brother's wife from cancer in 2014 taught him a lesson about the fleeting nature of life on which he continues to reflect, and he realizes the importance of focusing on family and his grandchildren.

But he's not sure he's ready to walk away.

"I struggle with ending it," Wanzek says. "It's been a great experience. And it may sound a bit corny, but it really feels good when you know there's an issue that needs to be addressed and people want you to help them and you do."

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