Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From southwestern Minnesota, where corn is king July 9, 2019

 

Farm fields stretch as far as the eye can see under an expansive sky in southwestern Minnesota.

 

TRAVEL MY NATIVE RURAL southwestern Minnesota as I did several days ago, and you will see vast fields of corn stretching across the landscape. Here you will find some of Minnesota’s richest and most fertile soil. Here corn and soybeans dominate.

 

A flooded field photographed on July 3 just east of Belview in Redwood County, Minnesota.

 

In a particularly challenging growing season of late spring planting followed now by too much rain, farmers hope still for a bountiful harvest. Even as they view fields resembling lakes. But to be a farmer is to hold optimism.

 

A tractor and digger parked in a field along Minnesota State Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and the Belview corner.

 

Everything in these small communities centers on a farming economy. In years of good yields, businesses benefit. In years of low yields and low prices, small towns suffer. It is the cyclical nature of farm life in rural America.

 

An abandoned farmhouse sits atop a hill along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner.

 

There’s much to appreciate about this rural region that roots me and grew me into a writer and photographer. Folks value the land and embrace a strong sense of community and of place.

 

Promotional billboards along U.S. Highway 14 and State Highway 4 in downtown Sleepy Eye.

 

In Sleepy Eye to the west of New Ulm, for example, the community celebrates Buttered Corn Days in August. This small town is home to a Del Monte Food’s corn and pea processing plant. We’re talking sweet corn here, not field corn.

 

Vending sweet corn in downtown Sleepy Eye on July 3.

 

Sweet corn season has just begun in Minnesota with roadside vendors pulling into parking lots and alongside roadways to sell fresh sweet corn from the backs of pick-up trucks. Farm to table at its most basic.

 

In a public visiting space at Parkview Home…

 

In the small town of Belview even farther to the west in my home county of Redwood, a single stalk of DeKalb field corn stands in a five-gallon bucket inside Parkview Home where my mom lives. I laughed when I saw the corn stalk with the notation of planted on May 13. Back in the day, corn growth was measured by “knee high by the Fourth of July.” Corn, in a typical year, now far surpasses that height by July 4. Not this year.

 

Silos and grain elevators are the highest architectural points on the prairie.

 

I can only imagine how many conversations that single corn stalk prompted at Parkview where most residents grew up on and/or operated farms. It’s details like this which define the rural character of a place and its people.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Advertisements
 

Higher than your knees July 11, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
Tags: , , , , , , ,
Into the cornfield and up close.

Into the cornfield and up close.

I CAN ALMOST FEEL the corn leaves slicing across my arms, hear the leaves whispering in the wind, see the stalks growing higher and higher, racing toward the prairie sky on a July afternoon.

Corn and soybean fields define southwestern Minnesota.

Corn and soybean fields define southwestern Minnesota.

These are the memories I hold within my cells—the imprint of corn rows stretching into forever. My father’s work laid out before him across the acres. First, seeds dropped into the rich black soil. Next, corn rows cultivated. And then, in autumn, the combine chomping across fields. Golden kernels spilling into wagons. Trips to the grain elevator.

I see all of that in the corn growing in my native southwestern Minnesota.

Through the wildflowers...

Through the wildflowers…

On July 4, my husband and I waded through tall ditch grass and wildflowers to check out a cornfield near Lamberton. Back in the day, corn growth was measured against the expected “knee high by the Fourth of July” standard.

Not quite reaching my husband's shoulders.

Not quite reaching my husband’s shoulders even though the corn appears head high from this angle.

Unless a farmer has to replant or gets his crop in late, his corn is more like shoulder high by the Fourth in today’s agricultural world.

Corn grows in a field next to one of my favorite barns along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

Corn grows in a field next to one of my favorite barns along U.S. Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota.

This year, though, with late planting and many fields drowned out by too much rain, corn growth appears behind the norm.

Across the fence and across the cornfield, my brother's neighbor's place.

Across the fence and across the cornfield, my brother’s neighbor’s place.

But one thing remains constant, no matter the weather, no matter the year. Farmers hang on to harvest hope.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Missing the farm during a Minnesota harvest September 30, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:09 AM
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

An elevator just outside of Vermillion, MN., near Hastings on Saturday morning.

DECADES HAVE PASSED since I’ve been home on the farm for harvest. My middle brother quit farming years ago and the home place is now rented out.

A harvested cornfield between Hastings and Cannon Falls.

I miss being on the farm, anticipating the bringing in of the crop, then watching the combines chomp through rows of brittle cornstalks and brown fields of ripened soybeans.

Between Hastings and Cannon Falls.

I miss the undeniable scent of earth and plant residue.

Harvesting corn just south of Hastings on Saturday afternoon.

I miss the grain wagons brimming with golden kernels.

The Vermillion Elevator, in the small town of Vermillion.

I miss living in a rural community where tractors and aged grain trucks line up at the local co-op elevator.

I miss the hum of grain dryers drying corn.

A grain truck waits on a gravel road near Cannon City, east of Faribault.

Now I view the harvest from a distance, as an observer passing by.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Fill the grain bin in Dennison October 6, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:05 AM
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

SO, TODAY WE’RE GOING to talk signs. Not just any signs, but those homemade signs you find in rural Minnesota.

Chances are, no matter where you live, you drive or walk by creative signage every day and don’t give it a second thought. The signs have simply become part of your landscape. You fail to notice either the messages or the art.

And, yes, signs fall into my definition of art.

But then one day an outsider like me comes to town. And I view your town with fresh eyes. I notice the details—the windows and doors, the wood and brick, and the signs that define your community.

Main Street in Dennison, from city hall north.

That is how I happened upon a unique fundraising sign in Dennison, a community of 168 which straddles the Rice/Goodhue county lines in southeastern Minnesota. My husband and I stopped in Dennison while on a Sunday afternoon drive to view the fall colors in the Sogn Valley area.

There, along Goodhue County Road 9, the main east-west road through town, I found this sign appropriately placed by the Farmers State Bank.

Fronting the road and the bank, this sign tracks contributions to the park fund.

Now, whoever dreamed up this sign deserves some type of recognition for effort and creativity.

Dennison is a farming community. The sign reflects that ag heritage with the half-full grain bin. You did notice the corn and the grain bin, right?

The goal is to fill this grain bin and build that park. Want to help? Contact the city or Farmers State Bank.

The promoters of this park project could have designed the typical graph or thermometer sign to track contributions. But, instead, the sign honors the rural heart of Dennison. You simply have to appreciate that type of creative thinking.

You also have to value the sense of community that defines towns like Dennison. Here folks work together to raise funds for a park and don’t/probably can’t rely on government.

Well done, Dennison, and may you get a good corn yield this fall. Enough to fill the bin.

CHECK BACK for another post featuring interesting signage I found in rural Minnesota.

CLICK HERE to see signs I photographed recently in downtown Janesville.

ALSO, CLICK HERE to see sign images taken a year ago in Pemberton.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

It takes a strong man or woman to farm August 2, 2011

Bins on a farm place somewhere along the back roads between New Ulm and Morgan.

“I COULD NEVER BE MARRIED to a farmer or be a farmer,” I told my cousin Kevin as we stood outside the Vesta Community Hall Friday evening discussing the July 1 windstorms and tornadoes that ravaged my native southwestern Minnesota.

Kevin farms south of Echo, where he lost three grain bins, trees, and, if I remember correctly, an auger, to high winds. He’s looking at replacement and upgrade costs of more than $140,000. And a good chunk of that will not be covered by insurance. Investing so much money in his farm now, at near 60 years old, doesn’t come easily for him, he claims. But he doesn’t have an option if he is to continue farming.

As he was sharing his story, he said, “I told the wife I need to…” Kevin, 56, got married late in life (six years ago), so I still have to remember sometimes that he’s with Kris, a wonderful woman.

It takes a strong man or woman to live a life of farming. As much as I love the farm, I couldn’t farm. I couldn’t handle the financial stress, the “I told the wife I need to” replace the grain bins or I need to borrow money for a new tractor or the beans were hailed out…

I’d stress over borrowing all that money and over the financial risks inherent in farming.  Will commodity prices be up or down when I want to sell the corn and beans? Should I sign a contract now or wait? Should I buy that piece of equipment, build that machine shed? Will I get a decent crop? I’m not a gambler or a risk taker, even though I grew up on a crop and dairy farm.

Soybean and corn fields stretch into forever in southwestern Minnesota. I shot this image on Friday between New Ulm and Morgan.

For many Minnesota farmers, this year has been especially challenging. Crops were planted late due to wet field conditions. Then the heavy rains fell, drowning out entire sections of fields. Next, strong winds and hail devastated beans and corn.

For the first time that I can ever recall, I saw black fields near my hometown of Vesta. My cousin told me the fields had been replanted and then the storms came when it was too late to replant again.

Three days this week, beginning today, farmers, agri-business reps and others will gather at the historic Gilfillan Farm between Morgan and Redwood Falls for Farmfest. There, in the heart of Minnesota’s farm country, I bet if you eavesdropped on a conversation or two or ten, you’d hear some farmer say, “I told the wife I need to…”

I spotted this damage to a building on a farm just north of Belview, which was hit by a July 1 tornado.

I took this shot traveling Minnesota Highway 67 west toward Morgan Friday afternoon. Follow this road and you'll end up at Farmfest. You can see Morgan's water tower and grain elevator complex in the distance.

Farmfest at the historic Gilfillan Farm runs today through Thursday.

When I drove by the Farmfest grounds Friday afternoon, tents were already in place for the event.

A barn, outbuildings and a corn field between New Ulm and Morgan.

Bins on a farm site along the back road between New Ulm and Morgan.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Memories of toiling in the Minnesota cornfields July 20, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:17 AM
Tags: , , , ,

WHAT’S THE WORST SUMMER JOB you’ve ever worked?

For me, the response to that question practically flies off my tongue. Detasseling corn ranks, hands down, as the worst job I’ve ever held, beating out picking rock and walking beans by acres.

Here’s a scenario of how that part-time summer position played out for me back in the early 1970s in southwestern Minnesota: Rise early to catch a school bus. Bounce along bumpy gravel roads with a bus full of other sleepy teenagers to the edge of a cornfield. Slide on a rain coat. Then begin your day’s work, stretching on your tiptoes to pull tassels from corn stalks.

Rows and rows of corn stretch across acres and acres of land under the hot summer sky.

Dew slides down your arm. Rough corn leaves scratch across every inch of exposed skin. You itch. You sweat. You hurry up. Sometimes you bend low to the earth to snap sucker plants that leech onto the main corn stalk. Your back aches. Your muscles scream.

And then, when you have to urinate, you squat between corn rows and hope no one is watching. Forget toilet paper, unless you’ve stashed some in your pants pocket.

As the sun moves higher in the sky, heat and humidity rise. You shrug off the raincoat. Your skin burns. (Who’s heard of sunscreen?) Sweat trickles down your face, burning your eyes. You sweat and sweat some more.

Come noon, you’re thankful for a break in the shade-tree oasis of a farm yard (if you’re lucky) or in the shade of the school bus. You grab your Styrofoam cooler, remove the cover with grimy hands, unscrew the lid of a quart jar and lift the glass to your lips, gulping Kool-Aid like a thirsty camel.

Hungry from all that physical labor, you wolf down a sandwich, inhale chips, nearly consume an entire apple in several bites.

Then it’s back to the corn for a few more hours of reaching and yanking. The oppressive afternoon heat blasts like a furnace, smothers your breath, sucks away your energy. Your feet drag. Your mind screams: How much longer must I tread this land, pull these tassels, endure this misery?

By 3:00, you are bone-weary, exhausted, thankful that your supervisor has finally hollered, “This is the last round.” You are finished, for the day, with the tug-of-war you’ve played with the corn.

You join the line of subdued teens climbing onto the bus, bodies weighted with lead-heavy weariness.

Tomorrow you’ll return to the farm fields to fight the corn again, all for $1.25 an hour.

In the setting sun, a corn tassel stretches high above the corn plant.

JUST A NOTE: Working conditions in cornfields have improved dramatically since the 1970s. Today detasselers ride machines (I’m pretty sure), have access to bathrooms and certainly earn more than $1.25 an hour.

If you have a worst summer job story, submit a comment and tell Minnesota Prairie Roots readers about your experience.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling