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

 

What I’m drawn to photograph in rural Minnesota January 7, 2020

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One of my favorite Minnesota barns is this especially well-maintained one along a back county road west of New Ulm.

 

I FIND MYSELF, all too often in my on-the-road rural photography, focusing primarily on barns. My eyes gravitate toward these agricultural icons that I fear will vanish within the next 50 years, fallen to abandonment and/or replaced by nondescript cookie cutter metal polesheds. That saddens me. But it is the reality of the times, of the decline of the family farm.

 

Massive polesheds have replaced traditional barns on some farms, including this one along Interstate 90 in southeastern Minnesota.

 

I will continue to photograph these beloved landmarks, symbols of a bygone era of farming. Barns hold personal value to me as a farmer’s daughter. I grew up working in the barn—feeding cows, bedding straw, shoveling manure, lugging pails of still warm milk from cow to bulk tank and much more.

 

An abandoned farmhouse near Morristown, Minnesota.

 

A tiny, colorful house in Morristown, Minnesota.

 

Just blocks away in Morristown, newer homes cluster in a housing development. A tornado hit this area in 2018, destroying and heavily damaging houses.

 

While documenting these centers of farm life, I’ve mostly neglected to photograph the homes of rural Minnesota. They vary from abandoned houses with broken windows to modern-day structures.

 

In southwestern Minnesota, an aged farmhouse so familiar to me.

 

It is the decades-old farmhouses that appeal to me most, no matter their conditions. My childhood home until my early teens was a cramped three-bedroom 1 ½-story house without a bathroom. A hulking oil burning stove in the living room heated the structure. A trap door in the kitchen opened to stairs leading to a dark dirt-floored cellar where salamanders lurked. Mom stashed the bounty of her garden in fruit jars lining plank shelves.

 

A southwestern Minnesota farmhouse.

 

I am thankful to have grown up in a minimalist house, in a poor farm family. We may have been poor materialistically. But our family was rich in love. I never realized until I became an adult that I was raised in near poverty. Because of that background, I’ve never needed the most, the best, the newest.

 

In Kenyon, Minnesota, a brilliant turquoise makes this house stand out.

 

On recent road trips, I intentionally aimed my camera lens at houses. Both in small towns and in the countryside. These are not just houses. They are homes. Or memories of homes. Worthy of preserving with my camera as part of rural Minnesota history.

 

A home in the small town of Morristown, Minnesota.

 

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Reconnecting to the land during a March drive in Minnesota March 27, 2018

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SOMETIMES I NEED JUST to get out into the countryside—to reconnect with the land, to see the sky, to feel the pulse of the earth.

 

 

I need to see farms,

 

 

follow rural roads,

 

 

 

hear the crunch of tires upon gravel,

 

 

pass by rows of grain bins,

 

 

notice the oddities of signage,

 

 

the art of the land.

 

 

All of this I need to satisfy that part of me which misses rural life. I shall always retain my farm girl spirit, my connection to my rural roots despite my now decades-long absence.

 

Note: All photos are edited to create a more artsy look. All scenes were photographed in Le Sueur County, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Barn memories February 28, 2017

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barn-85-barn-fence

 

MY APPRECIATION FOR and fascination with aged barns remains strong, steadfast, unwavering. That interest springs from childhood years of laboring in a southwestern Minnesota dairy barn.

 

barn-15-barn-2-silos

 

As the second oldest in a family of six children, I was tasked early on with doing chores alongside my eldest brother. Dad needed the help and I never resented it. I only resented that my brother would steal the silage I’d tossed down from the silo. I suppose I can’t blame him. He had to carry silage across two gutters and a barn aisle to feed cows on the east side of the barn. I had only to step outside the silage room door to distribute chopped and fermented corn on the west side. But still.

 

barn-84-farmhouse

 

Often I told my dad I wanted to be a farmer when I grew up. He never encouraged it. But I loved working in the barn—maybe not the scraping manure part so much. Yet I always preferred farm work to anything Mom wanted me to do in the house.

 

barn-80-barn-silo

 

So I pushed a wheelbarrow down the barn aisle, then scooped shovels full of ground feed before stanchions. I hoisted myself into the haymow to throw down bales of hay and straw. I shook apart straw with a pitchfork, separated alfalfa with gloved hands. I carried pails of milk, washed buckets, mixed milk replacer, fed milk and pellets to hungry calves…

I hold memories of Point of Law booming from WCCO, of hot urine splashing from a cow’s behind, of frothy milk poured into the bulk tank, of a yellow jackknife stuffed inside my pants pocket, of cats clustering around a battered hub cap brimming with still warm milk.

 

barn-81-barn-w-green-patched-roof

 

My dad was right. I never became a farmer, pursuing journalism instead. Only one brother farmed for awhile. He’s still in an ag-related industry as is my oldest brother. The rest of us, well, we left the farm. But I like to think that we’ve truly never left in the sense of a deep-rooted attachment to the place that shaped each of us. I write and photograph from a rural perspective. Another sister works as a floral designer. My youngest brother is an attorney in the Twin Cities metro, but maintains his connection to southwestern Minnesota through deer and pheasant hunting.

We were raised as the sons and daughters of a farmer. That remains, as part of our past and as part of who we became.

TELL ME: Did your childhood influence your direction in life, including career choices, where you lived/live, etc.?

FYI: These photos were taken in rural Rice County and in the Jordan/Prior Lake areas, not in my native southwestern Minnesota. This post honors my farmer father, Elvern Kletscher, who would have celebrated his birthday this week. He died 14 years ago in early April 2003.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In which I see that, yes, winter really has arrived in Minnesota November 22, 2016

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A scene along Minnesota State Highway 23 between Foley and St. Cloud on Sunday afternoon.

A scene along Minnesota State Highway 23 between Foley and St. Cloud on Sunday afternoon, after the sun emerged from grey skies.

THE FIRST SNOWFALL of the season always arrives with considerable hoopla here in Minnesota. As if we hadn’t seen snow that layers the ground in white.

Round hay bales create a snow fence along Highway 23.

Round hay bales create a snow fence along Highway 23.

Last week, sections of my state got plenty of snow. We’re talking two feet in Leader in north central Minnesota. Mixed with high winds, blizzard conditions prevailed in many regions. Down here in the southeastern section? Only flurries. And I’m just fine with that.

Just outside of Monticello.

Just outside of Monticello.

Under grey skies on the flat land north of Monticello, snow dusts fields.

Under grey skies on the flat land north of Monticello, snow dusts fields.

However, a Sunday day trip 2.5 hours north and west of the metro took my husband and me into a snowy central Minnesota landscape.

Along Benton County Road 3 north of Gilman.

Along Benton County Road 3 north of Gilman, snow covers the rural landscape.

And, yes, I confess, I delighted in seeing snow-covered ground for the first time this winter season. There’s something about that initial snow that is magical and pure and, well, beautiful.

I snapped this wintry scene as we pulled into a convenience store/gas station in Foley.

I snapped this wintry scene as we pulled into a convenience store/gas station in Foley on Sunday afternoon.

This truck clearly has not moved in awhile.

This truck clearly has not moved in awhile.

The heavy, wet snow is piled now along the roadside, here in Foley.

The heavy, wet snow is piled now along the roadside, here in Foley.

A rural resident cleans out the end of his driveway along Benton County Road 3.

A rural resident cleans out the end of his driveway along Benton County Road 3.

Some parking lots were treacherously icy, like this one where we turned our van around in Gilman.

Some parking lots are treacherously icy, like this one in Gilman.

As long as you don’t have to deal with the snow and ice. As long as roads are clear, which they were except for icy patches on Benton County Road 3 north of Gilman.

I especially appreciate the visual contrast of red barns, this one north of Gilman, against the white landscape.

I especially appreciate the visual contrast of red barns, this one north of Gilman, against the white landscape.

Everything always seems sharper, brighter on a white canvas.

I photographed this train by the Minnesota State Correctional Facility in St. Cloud. It's heading for Clear Lake.

I photographed this train near the Minnesota State Correctional Facility in St. Cloud. It’s heading for Clear Lake.

Today brings a predicted wintry mix of precipitation to Minnesota. Rain mixed with snow, which likely will create slick roads. That type of winter weather is always unwelcome. But this is Minnesota. I should expect this.

I'm already waiting for spring, even though winter has just started. Here the same train I photographed in St. Cloud passes through Clear Lake as we all wait.

I’m already waiting for spring, even though winter has just started. Here the same train I photographed in St. Cloud passes through Clear Lake as we all wait.

But I don’t have to like it. And I don’t. Is it May yet? The novelty and excitement of seeing the first snowfall has apparently already faded for me.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The rural influence in my writing & photography, plus a farm tour July 12, 2016

Barn, 117 red barn along US Hwy 71 south of Redwood Falls

 

BARNS DRAW MY CAMERA lens like moths to a porch light.

 

Barn, 144 farm site between Olivia and Wilmar

 

My response is reflexive, this focal allure of barns while traveling through rural Minnesota.

 

Barn, 112 bluegreen barn along US Hwy 71 south of Redwood Falls

 

Barns, to me, symbolize rural life. Growing up on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm, I labored in the barn—scooping silage and ground feed, scraping manure into gutters, carrying milk pails from barn to milkhouse, tossing hay and straw bales from the hayloft, bedding straw…

My hair, my skin, my clothing smelled always of cows and manure. I bathed but once a week. That seems unfathomable now. But it was the reality of then.

 

Barn, 145 white barn & cow

 

The barn on our family farm provided more than shelter for the cows. It provided an income, a way of life, a training ground for hard work. No matter what, the cows needed to be tended, fed and milked. Vacations were rare—only two my entire childhood, one to the Black Hills of South Dakota and the other to Duluth. On the occasion when my parents traveled farther, they left my older brother and me home to take care of the farm under our bachelor uncle Mike’s watchful eye.

 

Barn, 142 farm site between Olivia and Wilmar

 

I often told my dad I wanted to be a farmer. He discouraged me. He likely knew what I didn’t, that I wasn’t cut out to be a farmer. I am not a risk taker. And to be a farmer, you need to be a bit of a gambler. You gamble on the unpredictability of weather and of prices. Granted, technology has curbed some of the risk. But still, it’s there.

 

Barn, 132 sheep and barn between Morton & Olivia

 

Instead, I pursued a degree and career in journalism. And then, eventually, I became a full-time stay-at-home mom, setting aside my writing to raise my three kids. Until I found time again to write.

 

Barn, 109 east of Wabasso along US 71

 

In my writing today, unlike my past deliver-the-facts newspaper reporting, I have created a unique voice rooted in rural Minnesota. I may not smell of cow or manure, but those scents linger in my memory, infusing into my writing and photography. I bring a small town rural perspective to my work. I find my joy in writing about and photographing everyday life, everyday places, everyday people, mostly in Greater Minnesota.

The early 1950s barn on the Redwood County dairy farm where I grew up today stands empty of animals.

The early 1950s barn on the Redwood County dairy farm where I grew up today stands empty of animals. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

And it all started in a Redwood County barn.

Fresh eggs and caged chickens attracted lots of interest.

Fresh eggs and caged chickens photographed at an event several years ago at Valley Grove Church, rural Nerstrand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

YOU, TOO, CAN EXPERIENCE farming this Saturday, July 16, by touring agricultural businesses throughout the region during the annual Eat Local Farm Tour. From Simple Harvest Farm Organics in rural Nerstrand to Mississippi Mushrooms in Minneapolis to Hope Creamery in Hope and 26 other sites, you’ll discover Minnesotans and Wisconsinites passionate about local foods. You’ll meet beekeepers, cheesemakers, berry growers, cattlemen/women, trout farmers and more.

Click here for a listing of sites on the Eat Local Farm Tour, which runs from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Note: With the exception of my home barn, all barns and farm sites featured in this post are located along U.S. Highway 71 in rural Minnesota, from south of Redwood Falls to south of Willmar.

 

 

The shifting of seasons in Minnesota November 4, 2015

barn

Grey skies hang over a barn and harvested cornfield west of Sleepy Eye along U.S. Highway 14 on a late October morning.

AS THE SEASON SHIFTS here in Minnesota, I struggle to hold onto the light. To the color. To memories of lush landscapes and warm days.

A bare field near Belview in southwestern Minnesota.

A bare field near Belview in southwestern Minnesota on a late October morning.

I am no fan of the transition months—November and March. I’ve always thought these the least visually inviting. Grey skies dominate. Cold winds rage. The land appears devoid of color. Black fields. Muted tones. Everywhere.

One of my favorite barns in the Springfield area along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

One of my favorite barns in the Springfield area along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

But then a barn flashes red in the monotone landscape.

Clouds break apart over a farm along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

Clouds break apart over a farm along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

Sun spotlights through the clouds beaming light upon the land. A patch of blue emerges overhead.

In the final days of October, my camera landed on this stunningly beautiful treeline near Shieldsville.

In the final days of October, my camera landed on this stunningly beautiful treeline near Shieldsville. I’ve seen some of the prettiest fall colors near my Faribault home. This is true every year.

Nearing the end of October, some corn remained to be harvested.

Nearing the end of October, some corn remained to be harvested.

Along U.S. Highway 14 east of Springfield, this brick barn stands strong and tall.

Along U.S. Highway 14 east of Springfield, this brick barn stands strong and tall.

I begin to notice patches of color—autumn leaves still hanging on, corn carpeting fields, defiant red barns still standing.

The barn with the smiling lips, between Sleepy Eye and Springfield, always makes me smile.

The barn with the smiling lips, between Sleepy Eye and Springfield, always makes me smile.

Harvesting corn along U.S. Highway 52 in the Rochester area in mid-October.

Harvesting corn along U.S. Highway 52 in the Rochester area in mid-October.

A country church along Interstate 90 near the Winona exit reminds me of blessings and thankfulness, especially at harvest time.

A country church along Interstate 90 near the Winona exit reminds me of blessings and thankfulness, especially at harvest time.

Reasons to smile. Reasons to appreciate November. This eleventh month raises my awareness of thankfulness. Thankfulness that I live in Minnesota, a state of four seasons, of changing landscapes, of bountiful harvests. And this week of unexpected November warmth.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling