Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

He’s carrying a gun, at the airport March 31, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:01 AM

The replica sword my son purchased on an educational trip to Spain.

AS THE BOY clad in a cowboy hat walks past, I watch, stunned. He is carrying a shotgun. And he is at the airport.

From just feet away, I can see that his gun is clearly a toy. Still, I am surprised that the boy, who appears to be about six, can tote his fake weapon openly among a throng of disembarked passengers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Sunday afternoon.

A quick glance from afar and someone, anyone, could mistake his replica gun for the real thing.

No one seems alarmed, though, except me.

My concern is only momentary, however, as I soon focus on my 16-year-old son, who has just arrived from Spain via London and Chicago.

We are at the American Airlines baggage claim waiting for his suitcase. That is what I think, until he says we are also waiting for his sword.

A sword? What is it with boys and their weapons?

He has purchased a souvenir sword that arrives tightly secured in cardboard packaging. I am relieved. I want nothing to do with a sword-swinging teen swaggering through an airport terminal.

My security confidence has already been shaken by that gun-toting would-be cowboy.

Later, when we arrive home, I find the sword useless as a cutting tool, although certainly capable of impaling someone, anyone.

I keep my lips pressed tightly together, holding back the question I want to ask: “Why on earth did you buy a sword?”

Even though I asked my son not to bring home a gift for me, he did. He gave me a 24-carat gold necklace and matching earrings hand crafted in Toledo, Spain. This may have been his redemption for buying that sword.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Girls can drive tractors too March 30, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:05 AM

NEARLY 40 YEARS AGO, I broke gender barriers and became the first girl to join the Wabasso High School Future Farmers of America Chapter.

No one made a big deal about this achievement, not even me. But now when I think back, my decision to enroll in animal and plant science classes, thus becoming an FFA member, opened the door for WHS girls to join a once exclusively-male organization.

By my senior year, nearly a dozen girls had become FFA members.

Although I came from a dairy farm, I never intended to become a farmer. I took the agricultural science classes as an alternative to biology, a decision I later regretted. My regrets came on the day of an animal science field trip to a local locker. There we watched the butcher kill and butcher a hog.

I remember one of my classmates, John, teasing me relentlessly about possibly fainting during the butchering process. I never fainted; John did.

That’s my most memorable memory of FFA.

I did nothing else stellar that I can recall, except win an award. A senior yearbook photo shows me holding a plaque, which I think is the Chapter Farmer Scholarship Award. Unfortunately, the academic honor came only with the plaque and no money, which likely explains why I really don’t remember it all that well.

But that was 1974 and this is today.

Nearly four decades later, I am proud to say that my niece, Hillary Kletscher, presides as president of the Wabasso FFA and is a regional FFA director. She’s done well in soil judging and has also attended state and national FFA conventions. I’m sure she’s done lots more of which I am unaware.

Recently, Hillary garnered a national FFA honor for her chapter when the T-shirt she created for the National FFA T-shirt Contest was selected for production and sale in 2010 and 2011. The design beat out hundreds of others to finish in the top 12 and then, finally, in the top six after online voting.

Wabasso High School's winning T-shirt design, front and back.

The process in creating Wabasso’s winning T-shirt began last spring when students were talking about getting their driver’s license. “Adam Schroepfer (a Wabasso FFAer) brought up the point that he had been driving his tractor since he was little and didn’t need a license and he should just drive that to school. So wa-lah, the theme,” says Hillary.

And wa-lah, now the Wabasso FFA Chapter will receive 50 percent of the profits from their T-shirt sales during the first year of sales.

So here’s to you, Hillary, and to all the other Wabasso High School girls, past and present, who proved that girls can drive tractors too.


For information about purchasing Wabasso’s winning T-shirt and to view the other top designs, log on to www.ffa.org.

Text © Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

T-shirt graphic courtesy of Hillary Kletscher


Claiming my son in baggage claim at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport March 28, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:51 PM

COULDN’T ANY REASONABLE mom expect that when her 16-year-old son returns from Europe, he would embrace her before claiming his luggage?

Not my boy.

Late Sunday afternoon I watch as my teen walks toward me after landing at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. He has been gone for 10 days on a Faribault High School Spanish class trip to Spain, and I am anticipating his welcoming hug.

But as he approaches, getting closer and closer, he suddenly veers to the right, directly for the baggage carousel.

I am devastated, especially when I see one girl running into her mother’s arms and my boy running, well not exactly running, the other way.

I am momentarily stunned by this unwelcome welcome.

Then I take action, seeking him out in baggage claim. We nearly bump heads as I reach up to hug my lanky boy-becoming-man and hold him, only momentarily, close. We are, after all, in public view.

He seems more interested in finding his black suitcase among all the other black suitcases and securing his souvenir sword than in seeing either me or his dad. Maybe it’s a boy thing.

Earlier, several mothers tell me how they talked to their traveling teens daily. Me? I got one e-mail three days after departure. Maybe it’s a boy thing. Or maybe it’s not having a cell phone thing. (At least he can’t accuse me of being a hovering helicopter mom.)

On the drive home, I am anxious to hear all about my son’s European travels. But I know that with my teen, waiting for him to share information works better than quizzing him. Yet, I ask a few questions. He tells me Toledo was his favorite destination, that America should have a high-speed rail system. I hear bits and pieces, bits and pieces.

Finally, I ask, “Are you hungry? We’ll pick up a pizza.”

“I’m sick of pizza,” he says. “I’m hungry for sleep…and milk.”

True to his word, upon our arrival home, this weary traveler accepts the large glass of milk I pour for him. And then he’s into the shower and off to bed.

But before my son drifts off, I lean in and gently kiss his forehead before treading quietly down the stairs to wash a mountain of dirty, stinky laundry.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


An Irishman refutes a German’s claims to being Irish March 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:28 AM

THAT MY IRISH uncle would respond to a post I published last week does not surprise me. He didn’t exactly believe my claim that “even a German can be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.”

So, I figured, in order to maintain family harmony, I would publish Uncle Robin’s rebuttals.

However, first I must tell you that my uncle claims to have a mischievous leprechaun, Murphy, who is his fun-loving Irish guardian angel.

“Murphy, as his name suggests, is behind everything that goes wrong and he ensures that things go wrong at the worst possible time,” Robin tells me. “However, Murphy is also responsible for everything that goes well or better than expected – and he generates a ‘reward,’ so to speak, for the manner in which adversities are handled.

“Murphy wasn’t convinced by your Irish connection claims.”

Here are the claims I made in a St. Patrick’s Day blog post followed by Murphy’s, ummmm Robin’s, responses:

ME: “My Grandma Ida often said, ‘The Irish and the Dutch, they don’t amount to much.’ I have no idea why grandma said this, but, if you’re Irish or Dutch, please forgive this German woman. I didn’t believe here then; I don’t believe her now.”

ROBIN: “He (Murphy) laughed off your grandma’s admonition that ‘The Irish and the Dutch – they don’t amount to much’ by noting that ‘Dutch’ in fact is a typical German misspelling of ‘Deutsch’!”

ME: Next, I claimed to have the luck of the Irish because I searched for four-leaf clovers as a kid.

ROBIN: “The shamrock is not clover and never has four leaves.”

ME: I figured since I eat sauerkraut (made from cabbage), that defines me as part Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.

ROBIN: “No respectable Irish man or woman would ever admit to eating sauerkraut.”

Well, Uncle Robin, you’ve certainly disputed any possibility that your 100 percent German niece, me, could ever be Irish.


ON THE SOMEHWAT serious side, though, I boasted in my earlier post that Uncle Robin created the drug Femara, which is used to treat breast cancer in postmenopausal women. I mean, not everyone has an uncle who developed a drug that saves lives. I’m proud of him.

Robin, in his humble Irish approach, tells me: “Murphy of course takes all the credit for Femara. I often wondered how this drug managed to get a name with a distinct Irish flavor (reminiscent of Connemara, Glockemara, etc.) and so I embedded its structure in a shamrock leaf.”

My uncle e-mailed this structure for the drug Femara, embedded in a shamrock. I assume that's Robin's leprechaun, Murphy, posing with his creation.

Now, since I am no chemist, like my uncle, I can only assume Robin, ummmm, Murphy, is not pulling some sort of Irish trick on me.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Beyond Velveeta: Discovering award-winning Minnesota cheeses March 26, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:21 AM

The Faribault Dairy Company ages its award-winning Amablu Gorgonzola in St. Peter sandstone caves.

FOR A KID who grew up eating only Velveeta and American cheese, I’ve become quite the cheese connoisseur. And apparently I have good taste, because my favorite cheese company recently earned top honors in international cheese competition.

Amablu Gorgonzola, produced by Faribault Dairy Company, Inc., won “Best of Class” at the 2010 World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, Wisconsin.

That’s quite an honor, considering this is the largest international cheese and butter competition in the world.

Jeff Jirik beat out 16 other cheesemakers with a score of 99.3 to win the top award in his class.

Hook’s Cheese Company, Inc. of Mineral Point, Wisconsin, placed second, with a score of 98.75 for its Dolce Gorgonzola.

An employee at the Minnesota company’s retail store, The Cheese Cave, was bragging up the prize-winning cheese this past weekend as she handed out samples to customers, including me. She had every right to be proud. This Gorgonzola, which in 2008 placed fourth in the world contest, is superb.

Here’s how Faribault Dairy describes the award-winning cheese on its Web site, http://faribaultdairy.com:

The blue veined Gorgonzola cheese is “sweeter” (less acid) and drier than our blue cheese. Cave aged a minimum of 90 days, the cheese is somewhat sharper in flavor but still “cleans up” well. The sweeter flavor profile pairs up well with dried fruit and nuts or cut as a table dessert cheese.

I often add Amablu Gorgonzola to a salad that also includes fresh pears and dried cranberries and sometimes chicken and cashews. I top it with a light raspberry vinaigrette dressing.

I agree with that assessment. This is one smooth cheese, which I enjoy on crackers, in a salad or simply sliced and popped into my mouth.

If you haven’t checked out The Cheese Cave in historic downtown Faribault, do. There’s no need to cross the border for the best Gorgonzola cheese in the world when you can find it, along with other great cheeses, right here in Minnesota.

Faribault Dairy, which has won numerous cheese awards, produces these additional savory cheeses: St. Pete’s Select Blue Cheese and Amablu blue cheese. The company also markets Fini (a Wisconsin cheddar) and St. Mary’s Grass Fed Gouda (a Wisconsin Gouda), both aged in Faribault’s sandstone caves. Another cheese, Grafton Duet Blue and Cheddar, pairs a Vermont cheddar with St. Pete’s Select Blue Cheese.

It’s clear, isn’t it, that I’m way beyond Velveeta?

The Cheese Cave is a gourmet destination along Central Avenue in historic downtown Faribault.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Bus mystery solved: An explanation from KSTP TV Meteorologist Dave Dahl March 25, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:15 AM

This flood graphic, which has been aired on KSTP TV, is being broadcast nation-wide. See story below.

OK, ALL YOU inquiring readers. I have an answer for you regarding the use of school bus graphics in flood forecasts broadcast on KSTP TV. (See my March 23 blog post.)

I e-mailed Chief Meteorologist Dave Dahl and he responded immediately.

Here’s what I asked:

“I have been wondering this for several weeks: Why are you using school bus graphics and a stop sign on your flood forecast/update maps on the 10 p.m. weather forecast? I don’t understand how school buses relate to flooding. Could you please explain this?”

Here’s Dave’s response:

“They (buses) really don’t, but unfortunately the company that does our animated graphics put a school bus in them. The stop sign is there to indicate that water is flooding roadways, and I guess the school bus serves the same purpose but I wish they hadn’t used a school bus. This graphic is being used all over the country for flooding, but that doesn’t make it right. Thanks for dropping us a note.”

Thanks for the explanation, Dave. I owe you an apology. I thought you created your own illustrations, and I was wrong to assume that. Journalism 101.

Perhaps the company that designed these graphics will rethink placing school buses anywhere near floodwaters, unless, of course, they are FEMA-certified rescue buses. (Read the comments on my March 23 post.)

So the mystery is solved.

Remember, stay off flooded roadways, whether in a car, truck, van or bus.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A butterfly in Minnesota in March? Are you crazy? March 24, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:44 AM

TULIPS ARE POPPING through the cold, black soil. Farmers are working the ground, at least in Goodhue County. And, in Faribault, a butterfly was spotted yesterday.

If you’re questioning the truthfulness of that last statement, I wouldn’t blame you. Butterflies in Minnesota in March, yeah right?

But, I am telling the honest-to-goodness truth.

While preparing lunch yesterday, I glanced out my kitchen window and saw a butterfly perched upon the sun-drenched, leaf-matted hillside. Only weeks ago several feet of snow covered this hill.

I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the monarch-sized, dark brown butterfly resting there. And just to prove to myself, and you, that I wasn’t imagining things, I dashed for my camera.

But I was too late. From the time it took me to grab my camera and race outside, the butterfly had flitted away.

So…, you’ll simply need to take my word for it that I really did see a butterfly in Faribault, Minnesota, on March 23.

That’s the earliest date ever that I’ve spotted a butterfly in Minnesota.

A monarch photographed in my garden last summer.

IF ANY OF YOU readers have seen a butterfly already (in Minnesota), I’d love to hear from you. Maybe this sighting isn’t as unusual as I think.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The strange phone call and the ongoing mystery of weatherman Dave Dahl’s school buses March 23, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:46 AM

WHEN I AM BAFFLED by something, anything, I am bothered by my lack of knowledge or understanding. That’s me, the inquisitive journalist, the creative writer, always wanting to know.

So, here’s what’s bugging me today.

Last evening, my husband answered our phone.

“I’m stuck!” an elderly woman said when he picked up. He thought at first that my mom was calling for help. She wasn’t.

“You have the wrong number. Who are you trying to call?” my husband asks after determining this is not his mother-in-law.

And then he’s asking me, “What are the assisted living places in town?”

I look at him like “Who the heck is on the other end of the phone line and what is going on?” I draw a blank on facility names.

When a stranger called last night not remembering where she lived, my husband turned to the "assisted living" listings in the phone directory yellow pages.

So he grabs the phone book from a kitchen drawer and starts rattling off names to the stranger until, bingo, he gets the right one. Soon he hangs up and I hear him punching in a phone number. Then he’s giving someone his name, explaining that he just received a call from a Dorothy in room 2XX who says she’s stuck.

The person on the other end says she’ll check on Dorothy. And that’s it.

So, I am wondering: Who is Dorothy? Where was she stuck? Why did she call our number? Why couldn’t she remember where she lives? Did she get the help she needed?

THEN LATER, I am puzzled once again. We are watching the 10 p.m. news on KSTP TV when weatherman Dave Dahl comes on. He’s still using graphics of school buses in floodwaters to illustrate flooding in Minnesota.

One of the first bus flood graphics weatherman Dave Dahl used in his KSTP TV flood forecast .

About 10 days ago, Dahl started using these particular bus illustrations. When he isn’t on the air, the buses generally aren’t part of the flood forecasting.

My husband and I are mystified by Dahl’s usage of this artwork.

What do school buses have to do with floods? This inquiring mind really wants to know.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Making maple syrup, a rite of spring for one Minnesota family

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:56 AM

Ryan and his dog, Woody, walk toward the tent that encloses the evaporator for heating maple sap.

INSIDE THE TARP tent, maple sap heats in the wood-fueled evaporator pan creating a cloud of steam that fills nearly every inch of this enclosure.

This isn’t going to work for photos, not at all, I think, as I remove my gloves and fogged eyeglasses, grab my notebook and a pencil, and leave my camera bag safely outside the steamy tent.

Ryan drew open the end flaps so I could photograph the evaporator.

I am here, on Ryan and Sara Vollbrecht’s Faribault area farm, on this chilly Saturday morning, this first day of spring, to learn about maple syrup.

But, as I will quickly discover, the lesson will be more about strong family connections and tradition than about maple syrup making.

That family bond is immediately clear as I am introduced to Ryan’s grandparents, Carl and Violet Vollbrecht, seated on folding chairs on either side of the rectangular evaporator pan.

Carl, 81, began making maple syrup 65 years ago with his brother. Before that, their dad, Fred, perfected the art. While Carl’s son, also Carl, never got into making syrup, Ryan has and he’s been creating the confection on his own for four years. He grew up helping Grandpa Carl make syrup every year during spring break from school.

“He does everything his grandpa did,” laughs Sara.

Ryan agrees. “I do everything old school,” he says. His grandpa also taught him how to smoke meat in a smokehouse. He makes summer sausage and ring bologna. The couple heats their house with wood.

But on this day, they are sitting together—Ryan and Sara, their children, Alexis, 7, and Vince, 3, and Carl and Violet—watching sap bubble and steam as water evaporates. Sara’s brother, Andrew, is also around.

“Ryan, I think you could bring a little wood in here,” Carl instructs. His grandson obliges, grabs more wood, opens the small door in the heating unit he’s built (called an “arch”) and shoves the pieces into the red hot coals.

Wood is stacked inside a shed for the arch and the wood burning unit that heats the house.

The sap is heated to 218 degrees and finished off in a 5-gallon turkey cooker where Ryan can more accurately control the temperature. Like his grandfather, he knows to keep a watchful eye on the cooking process. Last year Ryan left the sap heating overnight and awoke to a gooey caramel mess.

He doesn’t focus on such mishaps, though, choosing instead to reflect on the joys. For this avid outdoorsman, making maple syrup offers the opportunity to get outside after a long winter. “Cabin fever starts setting in,” Ryan says.

So he heads to the 30 acres of woods on his 80-acre property to tap 80 black and sugar maple trees along a half-mile ravine. Most trees produce a half-gallon of sap a day. Forty gallons of sap yield one gallon of syrup.

Ryan, Sara, Vince and Alexis hike along a field road toward the woods.

On this Saturday morning, we are hiking along a field path to the woods on the other side of a hill. As we walk, the soggy ground sucks at my boots. A cold wind blows briskly against my face under a clear blue sky.

Soon we are in the woods, walking down a muddy trail littered with dried leaves and marred by the tracks of the all-terrain vehicle Ryan uses while collecting sap. His son, Vince, typically rides along. But on this day, we are walking, enjoying the quiet beauty of this first day of spring.

Typically, Vince rides with his dad on this all-terrain vehicle to collect the sap from buckets.

We hike until we see the first of the white buckets hung upon the maple trees. The incline is steep and I opt to keep my feet firmly footed on the trail. For awhile I simply stand, taking in the serenity of these woods, imagining the trees leafed out in green and later in autumn splendor.

To the right, and barely visible, two white buckets mark tapped maples.

The Vollbrechts will come here later in the spring to search for morel mushrooms. In the fall, Ryan returns to hunt deer.

On the walk back from the woods, I stop to photograph a weathered birdhouse along the fence line.

Returning from the woods to the building site.

When we arrive back at the farm site, I snap some more photos and Ryan leads me to the large blue drums sitting next to the tent. He lifts the cover from one. We dip our fingers into the clear sap and I savor the hint of sweetness upon my tongue.

As we stand there, Ryan confides that every spring his grandpa taps a few trees on his rural Waterville property, then brings the sap to Ryan’s place to make maple syrup.

“Tradition,” he tells me, “that’s what it is.”

Sap drips from a tapped tree.

The Vollbrechts' amber maple syrup.

IF YOU’RE INTERESTED in purchasing the Vollbrechts’ maple syrup, contact Ryan or me. The family doesn’t actively market their syrup, but have plenty available for sale.


MORE PHOTOS from my visit with the Vollbrechts:

On the back of a pick-up truck are two jugs of maple syrup and a jar of maple butter that Ryan sends hone with me. He puts maple syrup on his breakfast cereal instead of sugar. Ryan also makes a glaze for chicken and ribs with maple syrup and balsamic vinegar.

Ryan's duck hunting companion, Woody, named after the wood duck.

This old windmill, next to the kids' toys and playground equipment, seems reminiscent of bygone eras.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Goodhue County farmers are already in the field March 22, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:04 AM

Sunday afternoon, this tractor and another one had just pulled out of a field along Goodhue County Highway 30.

EVEN AFTER DECADES off the farm, I still pay attention to what’s happening in the fields.

So, when I saw two tractors chisel plowing along Goodhue County Highway 30 in southeastern Minnesota Sunday afternoon, I could not believe my eyes.

This was only March 21, the day after the first day of spring, for goodness sakes.

And farmers were out digging in the dirt?


The mud wedged deep into the tractor wheel grooves and then later deposited in a telltale trail along the county highway indicated to me that it may have been just a little too wet for field work.

But, I know, there’s always that farmer who takes great pride in being the first into the field in the spring.

Are farmers working the land in other parts of Minnesota? Send me your farm report. This southwestern Minnesota prairie native and former farm girl would like to hear.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling