Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Documenting rural Minnesota February 6, 2020


I OFTEN WONDER, as I travel past farm sites in southern Minnesota, how these places will look in 50, even 20, years.



Will once grand barns still stand? Will farmhouses be abandoned? Will corporate ag operations completely replace family farms?



Already the evolution is well underway. Many barns no longer hold livestock, serving instead as storage sheds. Rural houses are not so much farmhouses as dwellings for those working off the farm to supplement their farm income.



Independent farmers either quit, expand or try to hang on for one more year. Some have become innovative—diversifying, organizing, working together to grow and sell local.



The rural landscape is changing, shaped by markets and weather and operating costs and government regulations, issues that have always affected farming. Technology, too, now factors into agriculture.



Some 40-plus years removed from the farm, I’ve witnessed the changes from afar. None of my five siblings stayed on the farm, although two work in ag fields. I no longer have a direct link to the land. And because of that, my children and grandchildren are losing that generational connection to farming, to a way of life. This saddens me. They prefer city over country.



And so I continue to photograph, documenting with my camera lens the places of rural Minnesota. Therein I present a visual history, a memory prompt and an expression of appreciation for the land which shaped me.



FYI: This Saturday, February 8, from 1 – 4 p.m., embrace and celebrate locally-grown and crafted during Family Day at the Faribault Winter Farmers’ Market. In addition to vendors, you’ll find hands-on art activities for kids, games, healthy recipes and more. The market is located inside the Paradise Center for the Arts along Central Avenue in the heart of historic downtown Faribault.

These photos were taken last Saturday along Minnesota State Highway 21 on my way to Montgomery.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


19 Responses to “Documenting rural Minnesota”

  1. Brian Says:

    The change to farms, farming, and the farming culture has certainly changed over the generations. My wife’s grandparents homesteaded in western North Dakota in the early 1900’s. My father in law would often ask me to take him out to the farmstead where he grew up and later raised his own family. I’ve seen their pictures depicting daily activity on the farm, only one well built shed stands now. As we would drive out to the site Ray, my father in law, would point out all the abandoned homesteads where buildings and memories were made. The family homestead was on my UPS route so every time I would go by Rays old farm site I could see the images from his stories and pictures on the farm.

    • What a gift from Ray to share those memories and stories with you. Thank you for honoring him and other North Dakota farmers with your comment today.

      • Brian Says:

        I’m sorry for my poor English, that’s what I get for squeezing a comment in before going to work at 6 am.

      • I don’t recall any poor English. No grades given here. Usually if I see a spelling error, etc. I’ll correct it. That goes for comments from anyone. But sometimes I’m not on my game either. I appreciate your thoughtful comments and that’s the bottom line.

  2. I always love your rural farm pictures. Having had grandparents who farmed I have many fond memories of their farm and animals and all of the fun we used to have exploring. Thanks for sharing.

  3. valeriebollinger Says:

    Beautiful pictures Audrey. Gary is writing about his farm experiences for our boys. His two sisters are still on family run dairy farms in Lancaster County PA.

  4. BERNADETTE Thomasy Says:

    Your question about what the Minnesota rural landscape and lifestyle will look like in 40 or 50 years certainly makes me wonder, too. When I lived in southeast Michigan in the late 60s I was horrified by the many abandoned and messy farm sites there, due to people leaving to work in auto plants, etc. I thought my home state of Minnesota looked comparatively well kept then and still do, but as your photos show the barns of those years no longer have a purpose. They do make beautiful photos that tell a story. I enjoyed each one.

    • Bernadette, thank you for sharing your observations from decades ago in Michigan. That makes sense that farmers would leave their farms to work in the auto industry for better-paying and more secure jobs. But the fall-out in rural areas is not so pretty.

      I continue to see some really well-kept farm sites. I realize the financial cost of keeping up barns, especially. It seems once they are empty of livestock, they decay.

  5. It saddens me to see the fall of the old barns, I have the same thoughts as you about the years to come when these fabulous barns are no more. My dad and I were having a conversation the other day about barns. Dad grew up on the farm and seems to know that you can tell the timeframe that a barn was built by the shape and pitch of it’s roof. Hummmmm. I think I will look into that, seems interesting enough.

  6. Almost Iowa Says:

    Will corporate ag operations completely replace family farms?

    Yes and no. In reality, most family farms are corporate ag operations. It is the best way to organize for tax and legal purposes. Some family farms are comprised of three or four corporate entities.

    On the other hand, there are pension funds and equity funds that own and operate large ag operations. Some are successful and some fall by the wayside year after year.

    I would hate to have to explain $3.00 corn on $10,000/acre land to a board in New York.

    And yes, the trend is toward larger farms, with larger and more expensive equipment – but there are factors that hold this back. Field size for instance. When people think of farms, they think of a bin or barn site with a lot of land around it. More typical, is an operation spread across the countryside in 40, 80, 120, etc plots.

    My brother-in-law moves his equipment two dozen times during harvest and at one point, my father-in-law had one field along the Iowa border and another north of Claremont. That was fifty miles. At that distance, the climate is literally one degree Fahrenheit warmer from one field to the other…. You gotta factor that in. 🙂

    • Thanks for adding to the discussion, Greg. You are certainly more in tune with current agriculture than I am. So many variables in farming today. I appreciate your insights.

      The statement which hits me most in your comment is this: “I would hate to have to explain $3.00 corn on $10,000/acre land to a board in New York.”

      • Almost Iowa Says:

        My being in tune is little more than working the scale house during harvest and listening to the banter, so take it all with a grain of salt. The people who really know farming never fail to remind me that I am but a city boy. 🙂

  7. Sandra Van Erp Says:

    I thoroughly enjoy and relate to all your rural reports, even from towns I haven’t been to, especially southern MN. I used to drive the fields just to soak up the ambience of my ancestry, although I grew up on the SMH campus, played with the deaf kids, yet collected eggs in the relative’s coops, helped feed the stock, etc. etc. Your photos are essential, hopefully won’t end up in the MHS as all that’s left. My cousin was an ag agent in the Red Wing area. The “life” must survive, and the farmer’s markets, and the big equipment industry…..it just must. I think you’re helping.

  8. Ruth Says:

    I like accompanying you on your travels, Audrey. So wonderful you are documenting the landscape. I notice in Ohio when I visit my families that many barns and original farmhouses are gone, the sheep are gone, the horses are gone, the cows are gone even the llamas are gone. Fields that grew crops are spouting McMansions and sprawling plans. I took a video with my granddaughter in the car and talked about how it has changed in the last 13 years they have lived there. I don’t think the kids really understand the impact or the loss.

    • Like Ohio, most farms around here are also devoid of animals. With milk prices dropping, we are especially seeing fewer family dairy farms. The scale has grown to large milking operations.

      “McMansions,” as you rightly term them, are replacing farms to the north of us, nearer to the Twin Cities. I expect that expansion to continue.

      Thank you for talking with your granddaughter about the changes in the landscape and farming. It’s important we pass that along to the next generation.

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