Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

How a drive along a back road prompts thoughts about farming today February 12, 2020

 

I CALL IT THE BACK ROAD to Morristown, Rice County Road 15 south of Faribault and running west to Morristown. The more-traveled main route follows Minnesota State Highway 60.

 

 

But, I prefer the back way, which takes me past farm sites hugging the county road.

 

Looking across a snowy field along Rice County Road 15 near CR 45.

 

Here I feel immersed in the rural setting with less traffic, open land spreading wide under an equally wide sky.

 

 

I know some of the people who live along this road. They are salt-of-the-earth folks, hardworking, caring… Dairy farmers. Retired pig and crop farmer. A farmer who balances crop farming with a full-time job in town. Families raised on the land, with only one son among those I know along CR 15 continuing in farming. One son’s moved to Nashville, where he’s finding success as a professional oboist. I’m working on a story about him for a regional arts and entertainment magazine.

The times they are a changin’.

 

 

But then agriculture has always been evolving. I think back to my great grandparents and my grandparents who broke the land and farmed with horses in an especially labor-intensive way of life. And then machinery replaced horse power for my dad and his farmer brothers. And my middle brother, who no longer farms, saw even more advances in mechanization and technology. I barely recognize the farms of today.

 

 

I’d like to think, though, that those who still work the land do so because they love and value the land. In recent years I’ve observed a shift in attitudes toward a deepening respect of the soil, of using less chemicals (or even none), of adapting innovative erosion control practices, of protecting waterways…

 

 

I recognize the challenges of balancing the need to earn a living from the land, getting the highest yields possible, with decisions about farming practices. It’s not easy. Public perception and government regulations and weather and fluctuating markets add to the stress. It’s not easy being a farmer today. This is not our grandparents’ farm. Nor even our parents.

 

 

To those who choose to live on and work the land, I admire your stamina and determination. While I miss the peace and solitude of living in the country on land where the nearest neighbor lives more than a driveway width away, I realize I never would have made it as a farmer. I don’t have the guts or the fortitude or adaptability necessary to farm.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2020 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

 

On the road in southwestern Minnesota January 16, 2020

Almost to Morgan last Saturday morning.

 

BY THE TIME we drive into Morgan on the eastern edge of Redwood County, I just want to reach our destination, Belview in southwestern Minnesota.

 

Farm sites abound along back county roads between New Ulm and Morgan.

 

It’s not that we’ve been on the road an interminably long time—around two hours. But the drive seems to lengthen between New Ulm and Morgan, and especially between Morgan and Redwood Falls.

 

A farm east of Morgan photographed in December 2019.

 

This is farm country. Mostly flat. Stretching as far as the eye can see, broken only by farm sites embraced by windbreaks. Or countless power poles fading into infinity.

 

Morgan is a farming community defined visually by its grain elevator complex.

 

Or by the grain elevators and water tower in Morgan.

 

Near Morgan and photographed on January 11.

 

Randy and I talk as we travel, commenting on snow cover in the winter, crops in the other seasons. Oftentimes we reminisce about our farm upbringings, prompted by the rural landscape enveloping us. We are still farm kids at heart, in memory, in the essence of our beings.

 

A not uncommon scene in rural Minnesota, this one in Morgan.

 

Conversation passes the time as does photography. I feel compelled to photograph this place that is so much a part of me. Familiar. Comforting. Forever home.

 

I find myself repeatedly photographing this beautiful barn and farm site west of New Ulm.

 

But my photography isn’t only about me and my connection to this land. It’s also about my desire to document and share this place with those unfamiliar with southwestern Minnesota. I recognize that not everyone appreciates the prairie. Its spacious skies and wide expanse of land can feel unsettling to those who have always only known metro areas. Or trees. I get it. Plop me inside a city and I feel boxed in by tall buildings and uncomfortable on too much concrete among too much traffic.

 

Main Street Morgan photographed in late December 2019.

 

Still, despite the differences between rural and urban dwellers, we all still see the same sun, the same moon. And we are all journeying somewhere on the same planet.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

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

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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

 

“Back home” in rural southwestern Minnesota November 22, 2019

Along U.S. Highway 14 west of Mankato. I grew up some 80 miles west of here.

 

ALTHOUGH I’VE LIVED IN TOWN longer than in the country, I still feel most at home in the familiar surroundings of endless land and vast sky. Southwestern Minnesota. It is the place of my roots, the place of my heart, the place where I feel overwhelmingly comfortable.

 

Farms edge U.S. Highway 14 in this region of Minnesota.

 

I expect most people connect to a geographic location. Do you?

 

Another farm along Highway 14 west of Mankato.

 

Every time I’m back home, because, yes, I still call this rural region back home, I sweep my eyes across the landscape, noticing always how small I feel in this setting. The sky and land overtake every aspect of this place, dwarfing farm sites and farm machinery and people. Only grain elevators seem to hold any sort of visual power.

 

An old-style machine shed in southwestern Minnesota.

 

As I travel through this farming region, I study building sites, pleased by sturdy, maintained barns, dismayed by those with roofs caving. Too many barns are vacant of animals, an almost certain start of their demise.

 

Grain bins define a farm site near Delhi, Minnesota, in my native Redwood County.

 

Like the farmer’s daughter I am, I notice the status of crops from spring planting to harvest. It’s in my DNA, this natural instinct to focus on corn and soybean fields, to assess the growing season, to care about the weather.

 

A farm site west of New Ulm, Minnesota.

 

Although I’ve left this land of my youth, I remain grateful for the earth, the sky, the wind, the communities, the schools, the churches and peoples of southwestern Minnesota. All influenced and shaped me. And still do.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

New efforts to help Minnesota farmers in crisis November 19, 2019

Tilling at sunset, Redwood County, Minnesota.

 

I WITNESSED THE DESPAIR first-hand. The overwhelming concern that can settle in when bad weather affects crops, prices drop and the bills pile high.

 

A well-kept, stately barn west of New Ulm, Minnesota.

 

Too many years I observed the struggles my dad faced as a farmer. Even as a kid I understood. But now, as an adult reflecting on my past, I understand even more. I observed the stress Dad faced in 1976 when a drought left him without enough feed for the livestock and necessitated purchasing a boxcar full of hay from Montana. I recall, too, the time he dumped milk down the drain, part of a National Farmers Organization protest over low milk prices. And then, when a tornado hit our farm, he had to make agonizing decisions about whether to rebuild.

 

A farm site in my native Redwood County, Minnesota, where the land and sky stretch into forever.

 

Certainly, my years on a southwestern Minnesota crop and dairy farm in the 1960s and 1970s differ from today in many ways. Farms are bigger now, family farms fewer. Technology weaves into every aspect of farming. And many farmers (and their spouses) now hold off-the-farm jobs to make ends meet, to continue farming. Yet, the basics of unpredictable weather and prices and resulting stress remain unchanged.

 

About 10 days ago, farmers in southwestern Minnesota rushed to harvest crops.

 

This has been an especially difficult year for farmers in Minnesota. Too much rain. Dairy prices that have plummeted. I don’t know all the intricacies of what’s happening. But I understand enough to recognize that many farmers are in crisis. Financially. And mentally.

 

Harvesting with snow already on the ground near New Ulm, Minnesota, on a recent Saturday.

 

Unlike the era in which my dad farmed, people are doing something about these issues. The Minnesota Departments of Agriculture and Health are holding safeTALK training at locations around the state—including in my community of Faribault on Wednesday, November 20—to help people help farmers in crisis. The training is aimed specifically at suicide prevention and intervention.

 

The grain elevator in Morgan in southwestern Minnesota.

 

This latest focus on the mental health of the ag community is long overdue. Farmers have always been there for one another in times of need, when another farmer, for example, battled a disease like cancer. But when it came to mental health, not so much.

 

Still bringing in the corn in early November in southwestern Minnesota.

 

These latest efforts reflect a societal shift in mental health awareness. More and more of us are talking about it. And that is a good thing. Now we need more mental healthcare professionals in rural areas. Talk is only as valuable as the resources and action to back it up.

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Thoughts after returning “home” to southwestern Minnesota November 14, 2019

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Just a few miles south of Belview, a John Deere tractor travels along a county road.

 

SOUTHWESTERN MINNESOTA. It is the place of my roots. The fields. The small towns. The people. The land. The sky. Even the wind.

 

A real estate and farm loan office in downtown Belview.

 

When I return here, I return with a sense of nostalgia. With memories. With a fondness for all this wide and spacious place represents to me. Yes, I admit to looking through a rose-colored lens, too often forgetting the challenges of living in rural Minnesota.

 

I love the colorful art on this antique shop in Belview, Minnesota.

 

But I prefer to focus on the comfort that going back home brings to me. A sense of calm. A sense of peace. A sense of quiet in a sometimes too chaotic life.

 

The local gas station/convenience store in Belview, next to the grain elevator. An important place since there’s no grocery store in town.

 

Small towns have their issues. Just like anywhere. But they also have the positives of a strong sense of community, of loyalty, of grit and determination. Agriculture weaves into every aspect of these small towns. Like Belview, rooted in agriculture. You see that influence in the businesses along Main Street.

 

Another Belview business.

 

There is comfort in seeing that, despite e-commerce and regional shopping centers, rural communities manage to hold onto local businesses. I often wonder how long. And that is a question only those who live in these communities can answer.

 

Working the land between Belview and Delhi.

 

THOUGHTS?

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling