Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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

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Autumn, Southern Minnesota’s season of harvest & hope October 4, 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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Somewhere between Morgan and New Ulm, in the middle of prime Minnesota farm land.

Somewhere between Morgan and New Ulm, in the middle of prime Minnesota farm land early Saturday evening.

HARVEST. That word holds the seasons of a farmer’s hope.

A partially-harvest cornfield between New Ulm and Morgan.

A partially-harvest cornfield between New Ulm and Morgan.

From spring planting to summer growth to autumn ripening, a farmer focuses on the outcome—a yield that brims with golden corn and soybeans.

Harvesting between St. Peter and Nicollet.

Harvest equipment sits in a cornfield west of St. Peter.

Through months of looking toward the skies, of weathering too much or too little rainfall, of watching heat shimmer waves across fields, of tending and waiting, a farmer anticipates this season of harvest.

Driving west on Minnesota State Highway 99 toward Le Center.

Driving west on Minnesota State Highway 99 toward Le Center.

On a day trip Saturday from the southeastern to the southwestern side of Minnesota—through Rice, Le Sueur, Blue Earth, Nicollet, Brown and Redwood counties and back—I observed the harvest. Minimal on the eastern side, which has been flooded with too much recent rainfall, but in full swing in the counties of Brown and Redwood.

Combing beans near New Ulm.

Combining beans near New Ulm.

Farmers worked the land, dust enveloping combines.

A red grain truck jolts color into a field near New Ulm.

A red grain truck jolts color into a field near New Ulm.

North of Belview, trucks await the harvest.

North of Belview, trucks await the harvest.

Parked outside the elevator in Morgan.

Parked outside the elevator in Morgan.

Farming communities like Morgan are busy with harvest.

Farming communities like Morgan are busy with harvest.

Grain trucks idled in fields and barreled down county roads toward local elevators

Near Courtland.

Near Courtland.

Grain bins near Waterville.

Grain bins near Waterville.

or homestead grain bins.

Driving into Courtland.

Driving into Courtland.

This time of year, motorists need to be watchful of slow-moving farm equipment.

This time of year, motorists need to be watchful of slow-moving farm equipment.

Harvest started west of St. Peter.

Harvest started west of St. Peter.

The landscape crawled with tractors and combines and trucks, farmers at the wheels, guiding the crops toward harvest.

White among fields of golden crops.

A harvested field against a farm site backdrop of white.

And I observed it all. No longer an intimate part of this process as I once was so many decades ago on my Redwood County childhood farm, I am still connected to this season by the memories that trace deep within me.

West of New Ulm, grain wagons sit in a field.

West of New Ulm.

Harvest still holds me in hope.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Higher than your knees July 11, 2014

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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

 

The final harvest September 28, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:55 AM
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DEEP IN THE RICH FARMLAND of southwestern Minnesota, a group of farmers are planning for harvest. But not their harvest.

They will gather to bring in the crops of their friend and neighbor, Steve, who was found dead at the scene of a single-vehicle crash eight days ago. Even before last Friday’s funeral, these good people had lined up half a dozen combines to sweep across Steve’s corn and soybean fields south of Lucan.

One day for the corn. One day for the beans.

I don’t know the identities of these friends. But I expect they were among the mourners who packed St. John’s Lutheran Church in Redwood Falls on Friday to console a grieving family, to find comfort in Scripture and song and words spoken.

I was there. We heard the pastor tell us how God loved Steve so much that he called him home—too early in our eyes, at the age of 64—to spare him from evil and to give him peace.

Words that helped us to understand, from a pastor who considered Steve a personal friend, who himself paused to wipe tears from his eyes during his message.

As I sat in the balcony, looking down toward the casket, to the family in the front rows, my heart broke. For my youngest brother who had stretched his arms along the back of the pew to encircle his wife and their teenaged daughter and their son. They had lost their father, father-in-law and grandpa.

And later, at the cemetery, as my dear sister-in-law leaned forward in her chair, her head bent, her hands clasped tight in her lap, my heart broke.

Minutes later I pulled my 11-year-old nephew close as tears slid down his cheeks, as his body shook with sobs of grief. I wrapped him in my arms, stroked the back of his head, wished with all my might that I could make everything better for the boy who loved his “Papa” so much.

Later, in the church basement, we found moments of laughter in the stories shared by Steve’s oldest son about the perfectionist farmer who each morning walked out of his farmhouse and checked to see that everything was in its place in the farmyard.

We laughed at the man who spent one final weekend with his family, arriving at a downtown Minneapolis hotel with a small bag, asking to, once again, borrow his other son’s shaver.

It felt good to laugh through the tears, to hear about the grandfather who kept cats because he knew his grandchildren loved them, who got a lamb because he knew his grandchildren would love that lamb.

We laughed and remembered and celebrated the life of a man who was dear to so many.

When Steve’s farmer-friends roll their combines onto his acreage, they’ll pay him one last tribute—by bringing in the final harvest.

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted…”

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NOTE: The above combine photo is for illustration purposes only and was shot just outside of Courtland on Saturday morning.

© 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