Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

How a drive along a back road prompts thoughts about farming today February 12, 2020


I CALL IT THE BACK ROAD to Morristown, Rice County Road 15 south of Faribault and running west to Morristown. The more-traveled main route follows Minnesota State Highway 60.



But, I prefer the back way, which takes me past farm sites hugging the county road.


Looking across a snowy field along Rice County Road 15 near CR 45.


Here I feel immersed in the rural setting with less traffic, open land spreading wide under an equally wide sky.



I know some of the people who live along this road. They are salt-of-the-earth folks, hardworking, caring… Dairy farmers. Retired pig and crop farmer. A farmer who balances crop farming with a full-time job in town. Families raised on the land, with only one son among those I know along CR 15 continuing in farming. One son’s moved to Nashville, where he’s finding success as a professional oboist. I’m working on a story about him for a regional arts and entertainment magazine.

The times they are a changin’.



But then agriculture has always been evolving. I think back to my great grandparents and my grandparents who broke the land and farmed with horses in an especially labor-intensive way of life. And then machinery replaced horse power for my dad and his farmer brothers. And my middle brother, who no longer farms, saw even more advances in mechanization and technology. I barely recognize the farms of today.



I’d like to think, though, that those who still work the land do so because they love and value the land. In recent years I’ve observed a shift in attitudes toward a deepening respect of the soil, of using less chemicals (or even none), of adapting innovative erosion control practices, of protecting waterways…



I recognize the challenges of balancing the need to earn a living from the land, getting the highest yields possible, with decisions about farming practices. It’s not easy. Public perception and government regulations and weather and fluctuating markets add to the stress. It’s not easy being a farmer today. This is not our grandparents’ farm. Nor even our parents.



To those who choose to live on and work the land, I admire your stamina and determination. While I miss the peace and solitude of living in the country on land where the nearest neighbor lives more than a driveway width away, I realize I never would have made it as a farmer. I don’t have the guts or the fortitude or adaptability necessary to farm.


© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


12 Responses to “How a drive along a back road prompts thoughts about farming today”

  1. Almost Iowa Says:

    When I first moved to the country, I had to get used to the scent. Especially the rank odor during the fall and spring when hog manure is applied to the fields.

    “It’s the smell of money,” my father-in-law liked to say.

    “It’s the smell of someone else’s money,” I liked to remind him.

    It may be how a lot of family farms remain viable, but something always struck me about hog farming. You see a lot of pictures of barns hung on living room walls, but you never see a painting of a hog barn.

    That says something about farming, and about the gap between nostalgia and making a living.

    • There definitely are differences b/n nostalgia (where I’m mostly at) and making a living. As someone who grew up on a dairy farm, I always thought hog farms smelled. But I bet to the kids living on hog farms, we dairy farm kids smelled. I mean, we only bathed once a week, on Saturday evening so we wouldn’t smell for church. True. We never realized that we smelled. But that was back in the day of lugging the tin bath tub into the kitchen.

  2. meadhobby Says:

    Audrey Helbling,

    I wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your Minnesota Prairie Roots posts.  I was raised in the city, but always wanted to live on a farm or ranch. My ancestors on both sides of my family tree were farmers.  Although a hard way of life, I envision their families as close knit and perhaps enjoying a sense of peace while working their lands.  It is unfortunate that the people of our world today have lost the sense of community that I believe our farming ancestors once held.  My great-grandfather was a community leader and farmer in the Janesville area.  

    Keep your great blog posts coming.  

    Lynne Seaman Mall

  3. It indeed takes guts to stick it out, being a farmer. A tough life choice.

  4. valeriebollinger Says:

    I’d like to drive on that road sometime. Gary said he’s biked it many times.
    When Gary’s younger brother died I told Gary I’d move to the farm with him so his dad could keep farming but he said no thank you.
    Great memories, hard work and a tough life.

  5. Littlesundog Says:

    I do not like what I see in the farming community I once lived in. Bayer (Monsanto) and a half-dozen sister companies have moved in and bought much of the land or have contracted with local farmers. The corn crop is no longer about feeding our nation, but rather for ethanol and exporting. Tyson has contracted with many farmers for Turkey and Chicken farms. Hog farms are popping up too. It’s bad enough that the Ogalalla Aquifer is slowly depleting thanks to over-irrigation, but now toxic runoff waste will contaminate the environment. And then there are the three ethanol plants that appeared overnight. I know running a farm is hard work and it isn’t an easy life. I grew up on a small farm. But the small farms I knew are long gone. I couldn’t even begin to think I know what it takes to run a big corporate farming operation, nor how the small farmer keeps his/her head above water.

  6. Brian Says:

    Thank you for your thoughts and insights Audrey. My father in law Ray, who would have been 100 this year, had a picture of his fathers steel wheeled tractor hopelessly mired in the mud, on the road. In the photo Ray had a board under a rear wheel trying anything to get it unstuck while his father was in the seat. It was a time when 660 acres was more than enough to feed your family and have a little extra. Yesterday’s farmers would marvel at all the advances in farming, too many to list here. But today’s farmers need thousands of acres, a business, biology, chemical, entomology degree, and a hotline to the Lord. May God bless those that dedicate their life to feeding us.

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