Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Connect with farmers, the land, animals & more during co-op farm tour July 11, 2019

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Shepherd’s Way Farms, rural Nerstrand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

FARM-FRESH VEGETABLES. Free-range chickens. Fields of flowers. Hand-crafted butter and cheeses. Organic berries.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

All and much more focus the annual Co-op Farm Tour scheduled for 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. this Saturday, July 13, in the eastern half of southern and central Minnesota into western Wisconsin.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots 2016 file photo from Shepherd’s Way Farm.

 

The event offers the public an opportunity to meet farmers on the land, to tour their farms, to engage in farm activities and learn more about local sources of food (and flowers). The more we know, the better informed to make decisions about food choices. The more we know, the better connection with those who grow, raise, tend, harvest.

 

Approaching Shepherd’s Way Farms, rural Nerstrand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

As someone raised on a 160-acre crop and dairy farm in southwestern Minnesota, I understand and appreciate these farmers. Farming may seem like an idyllic life-style. But I will tell you that it’s hard work being a small-scale farmer. The job is labor and time intensive. Yet, talk to one of these mostly new-generation farmers and you will hear their passion for farming. They are dedicated and market savvy and passionate in a way that inspires.

 

In the window of Ruf Acres Market, cartons promoting eggs from Graise Farm. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I hope you can find time this weekend to visit one or several of the farms on the Co-op Farm Tour. Several are in my area of Minnesota, including Graise Farm, Faribault; T.C. Farm, Dundas; Twin Organics Farm, Northfield; Shepherd’s Way Farms, Nerstrand; Ferndale Farm & Market, Cannon Falls; Hope Creamery, Hope; and Little Big Sky Farm, Henderson.

FYI: Click here for more info on the Co-op Farm Tour.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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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

 

From rural Minnesota: Farmer of the Year film showing this weekend in Faribault March 23, 2019

Near Edgerton, 30 miles south of Tyler, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2013.

 

CALL US THE BOLD NORTH, Fly-over Land, that place that’s too cold and snowy—whatever your description of Minnesota, I love this place. Most of the time.

We are a place of prairie vistas, lakes and woods, rolling hills, river bluffs. We are urban and rural. We are separately and together Minnesota.

The Minnesota I know best, and love most, is rural. South of the Twin Cities metro. Gravel roads and small towns. Church gatherings and family reunions. Popping into the grocery store only to strike up conversations with friends and acquaintances. This is the place of hotdishes (not casseroles) and recipes passed among generations.

 

 

But we are also a place of growth. In technology, industry, education, the arts. This weekend art follows rural roads to my native southwestern Minnesota. To an independent feature film written by former Lincoln County Dairy Princess Kathy Swanson. I blogged a few days ago about Farmer of the Year, a film which Kathy co-produced and directed with her partner, Vince O’Connell.

Even though she now calls Vermont home, Kathy remains true to her rural roots in the writing of this fictional story about a retired farmer embarking on a cross country road trip. I’m thankful for that rural authenticity. I’m thankful for Kathy’s creative focus on her rural southwestern Minnesota. It’s a place too often overlooked. Even by Minnesotans. When I tell people where I grew up, I often get a blank look. So I work my way back east, asking whether they know the location of New Ulm. If not, I backtrack even farther east to Mankato. Or often I will say “half-way between Redwood Falls and Marshall” and let them figure out the precise location of Vesta, my hometown. Portions of the film are shot in Marshall, but most are primarily around Kathy’s hometown of Tyler. That includes on her childhood family farm, still in the family.

 

A scene photographed from Rice County Road 15 between Faribault and Morristown, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I hope you will follow Interstate 35, Minnesota State Highway 60, or whatever highway or backroad to Faribault this weekend to view the Minnesota made film Farmer of the Year by YellowHouse Films. It’s showing at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 23, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 24, at the Paradise Center for the Arts.

If you are interested in viewing this independent feature film in your community, talk to the folks at your local movie theater or arts center as the film is not widely distributed. Then connect with Kathy at YellowHouse Films so she can follow up. Whether you live in Minnesota or New York or California or any place in between, Kathy’s happy to work with you in bringing Farmer of the Year to a screen in your area. I’d love for you all to see this rural Minnesota made film that features the place of my roots, southwestern Minnesota.

CLICK HERE to view a trailer of the film and for additional info.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Prairie-rooted farm film, Farmer of the Year, comes to Faribault March 18, 2019

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

HER BACKGROUND MIMICS MINE. Grew up doing chores on a southwestern Minnesota dairy farm in a community where everyone knows everyone. Surrounded by a large, extended family. Danced at the American Legion Hall, ate beef commercials and called the noon meal dinner, the evening meal supper.

 

Filmmakers Kathy Swanson and Vince O’Connell.

 

Although I’ve never met Kathy Swanson, I feel a sisterhood with her. We are both creatives, decidedly connected to the Minnesota prairie of our roots. The place that shaped us, that remains a part of our identities and our creative work.

 

Poster promo photo courtesy of YellowHouse Films.

 

That mutual rural background is the reason I’m so excited about Kathy’s award-winning independent feature film, Farmer of the Year, produced and directed with her life partner, Vince O’Connell. That film by YellowHouse Films (named after the yellow house in Vermont where the couple lives) shows at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 23, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 24, at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault. Ticket cost is $10. When Kathy reached out to me asking for help in bringing the film to Faribault, I didn’t hesitate. I’m always happy to assist another creative and especially someone from my home region. My native county of Redwood is a bit farther to the north and east of hers.

 

Filming in southwestern Minnesota. Photo courtesy of YellowHouse Films.

 

Kathy, a former Lincoln County Dairy Princess, grew up near Tyler, a farming community of some 1,100 within a half hour drive of the South Dakota border. The Vermont filmmakers took their cast and crew to southwestern Minnesota, shooting scenes on Kathy’s home farm (now owned by her brother and his wife), inside her octogenarian father’s house, at the local Citizens State Bank, on area roads and more. The crew also filmed in places like The Lunch Box Cafe and Hole in the Mountain Park in Lake Benton and in downtown Marshall. The film takes viewers along Interstate 90 in Minnesota and into South Dakota, right up to the famous Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. Other shots are of Mesa, Arizona. And, most unique, 1950s farming footage from Kathy’s dad’s 8mm film incorporated into Farmer of the Year. Such documentation can only add to the authenticity of the film.

The mail carrier in the film is the real Tyler mailman. The guy mowing the cemetery is the guy who mows the cemetery. This is real rural life, a life Kathy understands well and tapped into when writing the script.

 

A scene from the film with main characters Hap and Ashley. Photo courtesy of YellowHouse Films.

 

The character-driven film tells the story of an 83-year-old widower farmer who has just sold his farm, then gets an invitation to his World War II Army reunion in California. Hap Anderson and his granddaughter take off in a 1973 Winnebago with plans to stop in Nebraska so Hap can reconnect with an old flame.

So much of the promo material about Farmer of the Year resonates with me:

The film aspires to have a sense of real life within the rural Midwest vernacular.

Farmer of the Year blends the comedy and drama of life into a deceptively simple story of aging, transition and resilience.

Life is one long growing season.

Rated between a PG and a PG13 film, Farmer of the Year has already been widely-shown and praised in Minnesota. It stars noted performers like Barry Corbin of Northern Exposure fame, Mackinlee Waddell of Good Christian Belles, Terry Kiser of Weekend at Bernie’s and others with impressive credentials. YellowHouse Films has 20 short films to its production credit.

 

Just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County, my home county. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I look forward to watching this 1-hour, 43-minute film in my community of Faribault, a 2 ½-hour drive from my hometown of Vesta. I value the exposure southwestern Minnesota gets in Farmer of the Year. This rural region seems too often underappreciated, too often considered the middle-of-nowhere. But it’s some place. It’s the place that shaped creatives like Kathy and me. It’s a place we once called home among people we loved in a land we loved. Still love.

 

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photos (unless otherwise noted) courtesy and copyright of YellowHouse Films

 

From Ulen: Ole & Lena would feel right at home in this Minnesota town November 8, 2018

The ethnicity of Ulen displayed on a business sign. I absolutely love the artistry of this signage.

 

I’D NEVER BEEN TO ULEN, a decidedly Norwegian-American community of some 600 in northwestern Minnesota. But it was on our route from Hendrum back to Detroit Lakes last week Thursday.

 

 

Ulen looks like many other small towns in this remote agricultural region. There’s a school, a grain elevator, a few businesses downtown. Typical.

 

Approaching the grain elevator complex, we notice the rising dust.

 

But then Randy and I observed something not so typical—the demolition of an aged grain elevator. Back in their heyday, these rectangular buildings rose like cathedrals on the prairie, visible for miles. They centered communities, held the harvest. Now many sit empty, replaced by massive grain bins and towering grain silos that hold no aesthetic appeal.

I don’t know the story behind the removal of the vintage elevator in Ulen. I can speculate. But speculation isn’t truth.

 

 

I know only that I felt a sense of sadness as Randy and I sat in our van watching the dust fly while demolition equipment chomped away chunks of this historic building. We missed seeing the elevator in-tact given our late arrival.

 

 

After a bit we drove back through town, past the Ulen Museum, formerly the Viking Sword Museum (the Viking sword found near Ulen has been proven a legend, not truth), then past the Top Hat Theatre.

 

 

When we spotted a vintage house for sale on a corner lot, Randy stopped to pick up a flier. He asked me to guess the price. “$47,000,” I said. Oh, how wrong that guess. The five-bedroom, two-bath house of 3,088 square feet and with four garage stalls is priced at $179,900. No, we’re not interested in living in Ulen, home to a Turkey BBQ going on its 58th year.

 

 

As we exited town, a plain green poleshed caught my eye. Lena’s Lefse, the sign thereon read. Now I know a lot of people who love lefse, who make lefse each holiday season. I’ll eat it just to be polite. I’m convinced the appeal of lefse is more about family tradition and heritage than taste. But then I’m not Norwegian. And I’m not from Ulen. Nor do I know a good Ole and Lena joke to share right now.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

En route to the Red River Valley of Minnesota November 6, 2018

Somewhere on a back road between Detroit Lakes and Hendrum.

 

TRAVELING NORTHWEST TOWARD the Red River Valley from Detroit Lakes last Thursday morning, I thought I was mentally prepared for the vastness, the flatness that define this area. I am, after all, a native of the southwestern Minnesota prairie. And I’ve been to Fargo-Moorhead, which is tabletop flat.

 

Trucks hauling crops are the most common vehicles on roads in these parts this time of year.

 

But this route was different. This nearly 1.5 hour drive took Randy and me off the interstate and onto back county roads and state highways as we aimed toward Hendrum in Norman County. At times we drove for endless miles without sighting another vehicle. It’s unsettling to feel such isolation, to know that you are miles between towns, that the distance between farm places stretches farther and farther.

 

Our route took us through several small towns, including Borup just 20 miles southeast of Hendrum.

 

Yet, I tried to make the best of this drive to visit friends who once lived in Faribault. A job relocated the family of seven to this town of 300 some 30 miles north of Fargo-Moorhead along U.S. Highway 75.

 

Mountains of sugar beets are prevalent in this region.

 

As we headed toward Hendrum, Randy and I, both Minnesota farm-raised, observed the progress of harvest—seemingly slowed by too much rain. In places, mud from farm equipment stamped the roadway and signs warned of slippery surfaces. Acres and acres of corn remain to be harvested. Muddy conditions, however, apparently don’t stop the picking of sugar beets, a major crop in this region. Our friends’ oldest son works at a sugar beet plant as he saves money to attend a college in Washington, D.C. I can only imagine the cultural shock of moving from remote northwestern Minnesota to our nation’s capital.

 

Clusters of grain bins are common in this agricultural area.

 

This is an area that truly is Red River Valley flat, that seems to an outsider rather desolate. But, framed in a positive way, it is a peaceful place. Wide. Spacious. Uncluttered by traffic and housing developments.

 

 

It is a land marked by grain bins and by small town elevators, which can be seen for miles—seven miles once, Randy noted.

 

 

It is a land marked, too, by rectangles of stacked bales rising like barges along our route toward the Red River.

 

 

Here the land and sky seem endless.

 

 

Here agriculture anchors the economy.

 

 

Although I couldn’t live here given the flatness, the remoteness, I can appreciate that others call this place home.

TELL ME: Have you been to the Red River Valley of Minnesota or neighboring North Dakota?

RELATED: Check out this story (click here) by Bob Collins of Minnesota Public Radio about a Sugar Beet Museum in Minnesota.

CHECK BACK as I take you into Hendrum. You won’t want to miss the humor of Hendrum.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Even in rural Minnesota, ag knowledge sometimes lacking October 25, 2018

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Shepherd’s Way Farms, rural Nerstrand. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo. Shown here for illustration only.

 

ARE WE A GENERATION away from losing the farm? Not in the literal sense. But in the sense of understanding agriculture.

Do you know, do your children know, do your grandchildren know the sources of ingredients in food and other products?

A recent test shows me that, even here in rural Minnesota some 50 miles south of Minneapolis, people are not particularly knowledgeable. Granted, this was no scientific study. And it was limited in scope. But results were enough to make me realize that we could do a better job of educating our young people about agriculture. Even those who live in a city like Faribault surrounded by corn and soybean fields.

 

A fest-goer attempts to match animals and plants to products I set out.

 

How did I reach this conclusion? Well, I pulled together several farm-themed matching and other games for a recent kids’ fall fest at my church. One of those required players to match farm animals and plants to five products. Only one boy successfully completed the task as did some, but not all, adults.

 

Registered Holsteins photographed at a Faribault area farm. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I laid pictures of the following on a table: cows, sheep, pigs, corn and soybeans.

Then I set out a can of cranberry sauce, a box of Velveeta cheese, a brush, a bottle of Thousand Island salad dressing and a wool blanket.

The goal was to match the image and product.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Shepherd’s Way Farms.

 

As you might guess, the sheep and blanket, cows and cheese proved easy matches.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo of a cornfield.

 

But not the other three. Can you figure it out? I’ll help. The first ingredient on the dressing label is soybean oil. The second ingredient on the cranberry label is high fructose corn syrup. That leaves the brush. Some brush bristles are made from pig hair.

I expected the game might challenge little kids too young to understand what comes from where or what ingredients are in our food. But I was surprised by mid to upper elementary kids and adults who got the matches wrong.

Does it matter? I believe so. Our kids and grandkids, even us adults, need to be knowledgeable about food and product sources. We need to understand that our food and more doesn’t just come from the store or some online source. It comes from the land, directly or indirectly, grown or raised by farmers. When we realize that, we begin to value and appreciate rather than simply consume.

 

In the window of Ruf Acres Market in historic downtown Faribault, egg cartons promoting eggs from Graise Farm. The eggs are sold at this market and elsewhere in the area. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

ASIDE FROM THIS EXPERIENCE, I’ve seen strong efforts locally to educate consumers about agriculture. Leading the way in my community is Tiffany Tripp of Graise Farm. She and her husband raise grass-fed animals in a sustainable environment, according to their farm website. I’ve seen Tiffany out and about selling and promoting locally-grown/raised. She is currently co-coordinating efforts to market locally-grown/raised/sourced products under a Cannon Valley Grown label. What a great idea. I love her enthusiasm and that of others who recognize the value of what is grown and raised right here in southeastern Minnesota.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling