Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Feeling right at home at Seed Savers Exchange in rural Iowa, Part I October 18, 2018

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HAVE YOU EVER VISITED a place where you were so comfortably at home that you felt as if you’d been there before, but you hadn’t?

 

 

Seed Savers Exchange just north of Decorah, Iowa, feels that way to me. A nonprofit that preserves heirloom plants through planting and nurturing and seed saving, Seed Savers appeals to the farm girl in me. The peaceful setting. The red barn. The ruralness of it all. Iowa. So like my native southwestern Minnesota.

 

 

A tangle of plants, some towering, some not, drew me into a garden near the massive red barn where young women scooped seeds from ripe tomatoes during a mid-September visit. This is their work, this preservation of seeds. I thought of hippies and pioneers and how this tedious labor matters.

And I thought of biting into a sun-warm tomato plucked from the garden, juice trickling from the corners of my mouth. Memories from the farm.

 

 

 

 

I watch Monarchs and bees wend among towering stems of Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate blossoms, their flight like words of poetry in Diane’s Garden.

 

 

 

 

There’s so much to love about this place. Berries in the back of a pick-up truck. Chicks clustered, safe behind chicken wire. A path that leads away from the farm site to narrow streams. Quiet as only quiet can be in the countryside.

 

 

 

 

 

And then a second garden on the other side of the Lillian Goldman Visitors Center. Here my favorite flower—the simple zinnia and corn drying to harvest and sunflowers heavy with seed. And more, oh, so much more.

 

 

Inside the visitors center, the results of it all—rows and rows and rows of stocked seed packets. Bull’s Blood Beet. Rat-Tailed Radish. Hungarian Heart Tomato. What to choose from among all the alliterations, all the words that write of bounty and beauty. I choose Sea Shells Cosmos Mix for myself, Gold Medal Tomato for a niece with a passion for gardening.

 

 

I wish I could stay here, far from the stresses of life. I feel a peace in being here, sequestered from reality, from noise, from the world. There’s something about Seed Savers Exchange that feels comfortably familiar to me. Like I lived on this land once, walked below this blue sky, wandered among the waving blossoms of Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate. Yet I’d not been here prior to this visit. Except perhaps in the poetry of words and of memories.

PLEASE CHECK BACK for more photos from Seed Savers Exchange.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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An October drive in the Minnesota countryside October 16, 2018

In search of fall colors in rural southern Minnesota.

 

SATURDAY WAS THE DAY, we decided. The day to meander and view fall colors in the Rice County area following a week of nothing but grey skies. Weather forecasters promised half a day of sunshine before clouds moved in again. Yard work could wait. Randy and I needed to enjoy autumn.

 

Colorful Seventh Street in Faribault nearing the intersection of Second Avenue.

 

So, with optimism, we headed out of Faribault along Seventh Street, a roadway bordered by beautiful fall foliage. The sun shone bright during our late morning exit. I was excited, remembering the beauty of last fall, especially around area lakes.

 

This treeline along Kelly Lake showed us some fall color.

 

But as we drove, we soon realized that our expectations did not match reality. The leaves are not nearly as colorful as last season. At least not on this day. I could choose to be disappointed—and I was for quite awhile—or I could choose to look for beauty beyond splashes of fall colors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Place me on a gravel road and I will find something that appeals to me whether a farm site, a field, a cluster of cattle. Just being in the country brings me joy. And peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know some would find this time just driving through the rural landscape to be a waste of hours. But not me. There is a need deep inside me to occasionally reconnect with the land, to simply escape the closeness of gridded city streets. I need to follow gravels roads. I need to see tractors and barns, even artsy rural mailboxes. It’s difficult to explain to someone without rural roots.

 

 

But for me, the land comforts. It rises up like a poem, wrapping my soul in words and images that have shaped—are still shaping—me.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

On the backroads between Faribault and New Prague October 10, 2018

 

A MONTH AGO, before the grey of this too rainy autumn settled upon the southern Minnesota landscape, Randy and I followed the backroads from Faribault to New Prague en route to a brewery. We enjoy craft beers and wanted to check out Giesenbrau Bier Company, billed as a German style bier hall and garten.

I am directionally-challenged when roads are not prairie grid perfect. Randy knows this about me. It’s also a source of frustration when I am unable to read a map. Yes, we still rely on paper maps and atlases. But “just drive” seems more Randy’s philosophy. He’s always confident of eventually reaching our destination.

In no particular hurry to get there on this Sunday afternoon, we took some paved, some gravel, roads, occasionally stopping to observe and, for me, to take photos. At the time I jotted down locations, but have since misplaced my notes. We were somewhere northwest of Faribault, well off the interstate. I prefer this type of travel which allows for a close-up look at life.

 

 

 

 

From a town hall to a grasshopper,

 

 

 

 

 

from a lake to the detail of bordering cattails,

 

 

 

 

from a cornfield to a weathered corn crib to the cobs inside, I notice the overall picture and then the details.

 

 

Along the way we often come across small delights. Scenes that remind us of our rural roots. Scenes that remind us that life does not always need to speed, that afternoons like this are meant to be savored.

 

 

At one point, Randy parked the van along a gravel road so we could watch a couple baling hay. Not with a massive tractor and baler, but with a small tractor and an old-fashioned baler spitting out rectangular bales. Just like we remember from the farm. When the tractor reached the end of the field, the lean farmer leapt off the trailer and headed toward us.

 

 

“You looking for work?” he joked. We told him we’d pass, that we were former farm kids who understood the hard work of baling hay.

 

 

 

 

We continued on toward New Prague then, winding our way to the bier hall, then to a nearby park for a short walk before taking backroads home,

 

 

 

 

past another farmer baling hay and an aged barn with a new metal roof and a sturdy rock foundation.

 

 

I noted then that we should drive these roads again when autumn hues colored the hilly landscape somewhere between New Prague and Faribault. That would be now.

TELL ME: Do you drive backroads? If yes, where and what have you seen?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The season of harvest in southwestern Minnesota October 2, 2018

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THE FARMER IN THE HOODED sweatshirt and jeans motions from atop the combine to the trucker across the field. He’s ready to unload just picked corn into the grain truck late on a Sunday morning near Sleepy Eye.

 

 

Scenes like this repeat throughout southern Minnesota as the fall harvest is underway. I embrace this season as much for the memories as for the sights, sounds and smells.

 

 

 

 

The farm-raised girl in me emerges, vicariously experiencing the harvest through a camera lens.

 

 

 

 

I feel this intense desire to return to the land every autumn. And last weekend an annual horseradish making party with extended family took me back to my home county of Redwood. Along the route there and back, I documented the harvest. It is the closest I come now to being part of the process of bringing in the corn and soybeans.

 

 

 

 

I miss the closeness to the earth that comes with growing up on a farm. Sure things have changed a lot in the nearly 45 years since I left rural Redwood County. But the imprint of harvest remains, still strong. You can take the girl from the land. But you can’t take the land from the girl.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Back in Redwood County after July flash floods July 9, 2018

Just six weeks ago, spring planting was underway in this same area of rural Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2018.

 

DURING MY LAST TRIP to southwestern Minnesota in mid May, farmers worked the land. Tilling. Planting crops. Rushing to get seeds into the soil after a late spring start.

Now, some six weeks later, acres and acres of that same cropland lie under water, corn and soybean fields flooded by torrential rains. Flash floods that turned farm land into lakes early last week.

On our route west of Redwood Falls then north to Belview then later east of Belview along county roads back to Redwood, Randy and I observed lots of standing water. Massive lakes where crops should now thrive. It was disheartening to see the efforts and hopes of so many farmers gone. Flash, just like that. Weather is always the gamble of farming. I would never have the mental fortitude to farm. I admire those who do.

As we drove, I noted the wash of debris along shoulders, evidence that floodwaters overtook the county road. We drove a narrow ribbon of asphalt, water edging both sides of the roadway. Orange cones and orange flags flagged danger. An orange snow fence blocked a gravel road.

I understood that, days after the flash flood, we had not seen the worst of this devastating storm. But it was enough for me to gauge the significant loss to the farmers of my native Redwood County.

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NOTE: My apologies for the lack of flood images. But I am under strict orders from my ortho surgeon not to use my left hand as I recover from surgery on my broken left wrist. “Use it,” he said, “and you will be back in the OR.” I’ll listen, thank you.

© copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Looking for farm work June 29, 2018

A southwestern Minnesota cornfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

BEAN WALKERS and detasslers. I haven’t thought about those two farm jobs in a long time. Because I’d rather forget those summer jobs that found me laboring as a pre-teen and teen in the fields of southern Minnesota. Intense heat and humidity made those hours in corn and soybean fields nearly intolerable. But it was a way to earn money in rural Minnesota back in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

 

And still today apparently. I was surprised to read a recent ad placed in a south central Minnesota shopper by crews looking for work pulling weeds in soybean fields, detasseling corn and picking rocks. Yes, I picked rocks from farm fields, too.

 

Bins peek above a cornfield between Faribault and Dundas. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Hire on to any of those jobs and you will understand hard physical labor. I realize conditions have improved since I yanked tassels, hoed cockle-burrs and heaved rocks from fields. But still, that farm work isn’t easy.

Tell me, have you ever worked any of those three farm jobs? Or tell me about a summer job you worked as a teen. What did it teach you?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Off the interstate in Mauston, Wisconsin: A community that’s dairy proud June 5, 2018

A glimpse of Mauston’s rural character.

 

IF YOU NEVER EXIT the interstate into a small town, you miss so much. Like the Cowtastic CowMoonity of Mauston. That would be in southwestern Wisconsin, just off Interstate 90/94 half-way between Minneapolis and Chicago.

 

 

A search for a picnic spot led Randy and me into this community of nearly 4,500 on a recent Saturday. After securing unclear directions to a park at a local convenience store/gas station, we ended up lost and seemingly headed out of town.

 

 

 

 

 

Then we happened upon the cows. And I momentarily forgot all about lunch, so excited was I over the herd curving along a ballpark fence. We’d just discovered, quite by happenstance, the Cowtastic CowMoonity Project of the Juneau County Dairy Promotion Council. At the under-renovation Mauston Lions Park, complete with picnic shelter, tables, restrooms and playground equipment.

 

 

 

 

After eating my turkey sandwich, clementine and yogurt—yes, yogurt—I headed over to the 60-head herd, camera in hand. You can bet this former dairy farm girl and former Redwood County, Minnesota, dairy princess candidate was excited.

 

 

 

 

It’s clear this community embraces all things dairy. This marks the fourth annual cow art project designed to promote the dairy industry via those cow cut-outs and panels of dairy facts and trivia.

 

 

 

 

Nonprofits, youth clubs, organizations and businesses purchase plywood cut-outs and then create cow art showcased along the park fence during June Dairy Month. So this is about more than just agriculture. Cowtastic CowMoonity also promotes local businesses and causes.

 

 

I love this folksy idea. What a creative way to educate, raise awareness and to show appreciation for the dairy industry, especially family-owned farms, in The Dairyland State.

 

 

 

 

The promotion of the dairy industry doesn’t end, though, when June Dairy Month ends at the end of June. Ten of the cows, selected by a secret panel of judges, are relocated to Veteran’s Memorial Park during the Juneau County Fair, this year from August 12 – 19. Good luck with that, judges. The public then votes for its favorite with the top cow earning a $100 prize.

 

 

 

 

Because of those cows, I’ll remember the CowMoonity of Mauston. I’d suggest this creative and dairy proud community visibly promote this outdoor educational art endeavor along the interstate. Or perhaps station a Cowtastic cow or three near that busy busy convenience store/gas station just off busy busy Interstate 90/94.

 

 

FYI: Want to play Wisconsin dairy trivia? Click here.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling