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

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On the road: A look at Redwood County flooding & snow pack March 24, 2019

Westbound just outside of Redwood Falls along Minnesota State Highway 19 late Saturday morning.

 

SNOW LAYERS farm fields.

 

Along Minnesota State Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and the Belview corner.

 

Massive snow piles still mark farm sites, this one along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner.

 

A scene along Minnesota State Highway 19 near the Belview corner appears more winter-like than spring.

 

In the shade of yards and groves and northern hillsides, snow banks remain, reminders of a long Minnesota winter not yet over.

 

In many spots along Minnesota State Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and the Belview corner, snow pushed off the highway (some up to 100 feet from the roadway) remains.

 

Snow shoved from a once-drifted Minnesota State Highway 19 appears like wind-sculpted waves frozen in place just west of Redwood Falls.

 

A sign on the west edge of Redwood Falls along Minnesota State Highway 19 advises motorists to check the Minnesota Department of Transportation website for road closures.

 

In Redwood, the Redwood River appears mostly iced-over.

 

Flooding along Minnesota State Highway 19 between Redwood Falls and the Delhi corner.

 

But outside of town, snow melt floods fields, settles in low-lying areas. Frozen tile and frozen ground allow no outlet for all that water. Farm sites seem temporary lakeside properties.

 

A drainage ditch near the intersection of Brown County Road 29 and Minnesota State Highway 67 southeast of Morgan.

 

Ditches brim with water.

 

East of Courtland along U.S. Highway 14, fields are mostly bare of snow.

 

Between Morgan and Gilfillan, snow cover and flooding increase.

 

Southeast of Redwood Falls.

 

A survey of the countryside while driving from Faribault to Belview and back Saturday presents a perspective on the flooding and potential flooding in southern Minnesota. Not until Randy and I drove northwest out of Morgan did we begin to really notice the difference. Our observations of significant remaining snow pack and already ponding water visually confirms the reason for a flood warning in my native Redwood County.

 

Flooded farm field near Delhi.

 

Just east of Belview.

 

East of Delhi, a closure on the Scenic Byway road.

 

There’s a lot of snow yet to melt, especially west of Redwood Falls. That water must go somewhere since it can’t soak into the frozen soil. And that somewhere is likely into the Redwood River, which feeds into the Minnesota River, which feeds into the Mississippi River. What happens in rural southwestern Minnesota will eventually affect the Twin Cities metro.

 

Near Delhi.

 

Temps and precipitation will factor into the flooding equation, too, as winter transitions into spring. I will tell you that Redwood County, on Saturday, seemed still stuck in the final days of winter.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Autumn on a rural Minnesota acreage, a photo essay October 4, 2018

A restored windmill towers above a refurbished mini barn (soon to be art studio) on my brother and sister-in-law’s rural Redwood County acreage.

 

OF SIX FARM-RAISED SIBLINGS, only two live in the country. Neither farmers. But two work in the ag industry, one as the CEO of an ethanol company, the other as part owner in an implement dealership.

 

 

My middle brother remains in our home county of Redwood and welcomes us back for extended family gatherings, most recently our annual autumn tradition of making horseradish—157 jars this year. The tradition honors our deceased farmer father. He dug and processed horseradish roots for many years. Now we do the same but with easier methods than using an old meat grinder powered by a drill. Like Dad, we give away the condiment.

 

Sunflowers ripen and dry under the prairie sky.

 

Our annual gathering in rural Lamberton isn’t about the horseradish as much as it is about family.

 

I’ve always delighted in milkweed pods bursting with seeds.

 

 

 

While I enjoy our time together, I usually slip away to meander, to take in the rural setting, to photograph. I need that peacefulness amid all the chattering and joking and loudness of a group with some strong personalities.

 

How lovely the broom corn rising and swaying in the prairie wind.

 

My artsy sister-in-law creates vignettes like this that change with the seasons.

 

A sunflower, heavy with seed, bows to the earth.

 

I need quiet. And I need to take in the shifting of the seasons, the artful autumn displays, the aged buildings, all the visual reminders of a rural life I still miss decades removed from the country.

 

A gazing ball in a flower garden reflects sky, land and dried black-eyed susan seed heads.

 

I am grateful for the opportunity to escape to this acreage, to reclaim the serenity of rural Minnesota.

 

An old shed recently moved onto the acreage, to be rebuilt or salvaged for the wood.

 

I realize nostalgia tinges my view of country life. Much has changed since I left the farm nearly 45 years ago. But not the love I hold for the land, for the quiet and grace and muted tones of harvest time.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The season of harvest in southwestern Minnesota October 2, 2018

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THE FARMER IN THE HOODED sweatshirt and jeans motions from atop the combine to the trucker across the field. He’s ready to unload just picked corn into the grain truck late on a Sunday morning near Sleepy Eye.

 

 

Scenes like this repeat throughout southern Minnesota as the fall harvest is underway. I embrace this season as much for the memories as for the sights, sounds and smells.

 

 

 

 

The farm-raised girl in me emerges, vicariously experiencing the harvest through a camera lens.

 

 

 

 

I feel this intense desire to return to the land every autumn. And last weekend an annual horseradish making party with extended family took me back to my home county of Redwood. Along the route there and back, I documented the harvest. It is the closest I come now to being part of the process of bringing in the corn and soybeans.

 

 

 

 

I miss the closeness to the earth that comes with growing up on a farm. Sure things have changed a lot in the nearly 45 years since I left rural Redwood County. But the imprint of harvest remains, still strong. You can take the girl from the land. But you can’t take the land from the girl.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Laura fans: Walnut Grove pageant needs financial help after flash flooding July 13, 2018

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo of the pageant site along the banks of Plum Creek taken several years ago..

 

WALNUT GROVE AND LAURA INGALLS WILDER. The two are synonymous. Wilder brought notoriety to this small southwestern Minnesota prairie community with her Little House books. The town embraces the author in its summer-time productions of The Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant. Staged in an outdoor amphitheater along the banks of Plum Creek, the pageant brings Wilder’s prairie stories to life. It’s a top-notch show that I’ve seen twice.

 

Plum Creek floods the pageant grounds following torrential rain. Photo source: Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Facebook page.

 

But now the Wilder Pageant Committee needs financial help to deal with damage caused by early July flash floods that ravaged southwestern Minnesota, including the creek-side performance site. Shows were canceled because of the flood. Volunteers worked hard to clean up the mess so the show could reopen on July 12 with added performances.

 

Native prairie plants, like black-eyed Susan and coneflowers, are featured on a mural in the heart of Walnut Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I love that about small towns—the coming together to get a job done. The people of Walnut Grove understand the value of Laura Ingalls Wilder to the local economy. And they are determined that the Big Flood on the Prairie will not stop the show despite damage to sets, costumes, sound and light equipment, and site access roads.

 

Flood clean-up. Photo source: Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Facebook page.

 

A gofundme page has been set up to help pay for maintenance to aging and flood-damaged facilities. The goal is $30,000. Please consider donating and spread the word.

 

Photo source: Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Facebook page.

 

I am a mega fan of Wilder’s descriptive writing. That she lived in a dugout on the banks of Plum Creek in my native Redwood County, on my beloved prairie, endears me even more to this author.

 

Laura Look-A-Like contestants gather for a group shot in the park several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

To all the wonderful folks in Walnut Grove and surrounding area, thank you for your tireless efforts to welcome Laura fans from around the world to your community. Even after a devastating flood.

 

Period attire is common among young Laura fans visiting Walnut Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

CLICK HERE to reach the gofundme page and learn more.

NOTE: The Ingalls dugout site is temporarily closed due to flooding.

BUT the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove is open.

Copyright 2018 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

 

When torrential rains cause major flooding in my home region of southwestern Minnesota July 4, 2018

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY, my friends. I hope this finds you celebrating your freedom in a fun way.

 

The Redwood River, flooded over its banks, along Redwood County Road 10 heading south out of Vesta earlier this spring. That’s my home farm in the distance. I expect the flooding is much worse now. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In my home region of southwestern Minnesota, where I was supposed to be yesterday and today with extended family, residents are cleaning up after heavy rainfall flooded the region. Flash flooding resulted in water in basements (and higher), road wash-outs and closures, mudslides, swamped farm fields, overflowing rivers and more. That includes in my home county of Redwood. And the communities of Wabasso (where I graduated from high school) and Vesta (my hometown).

After a flurry of texts between me and my five siblings and lots of online searching yesterday, Randy and I decided not to risk the trip into the flooded region. Although I second-guessed our decision multiple times, it was the right one. This morning floodwaters flowed across a section of US highway 14 east of Lamberton, our route to and from my middle brother’s rural acreage just north of that small town. Likewise I expect the rising Cottonwood River has flooded a county road within a mile of our destination.

Some roads have collapsed in Redwood and Renville counties. I don’t trust the structural integrity of any road covered with water. The Redwood County Sheriff’s Department issued this statement on Facebook early yesterday morning:

We have had numerous (reports) of water covering the roadways. Please DO NOT drive on any roadway that has water running over it. MN DOT and Redwood County highway departments are doing the best they can do get these roads blocked off to warn motorists.

 

A combine similar to this was moved from a Tracy dealership onto Highway 14. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

One of the most creative road blocks happened in Tracy where crews parked a massive John Deere combine across Highway 14 to keep traffic off the flooded roadway.

 

This road-side sculpture welcomes travelers to Wabasso. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

In Wabasso, which got 11 inches of rain within 12 hours, a resident noted on social media that the white rabbit was safe from floodwaters. He was referencing an over-sized rabbit sculpture along State Highway 68. Wabasso means “white rabbit” and is the local school mascot.

It’s good to find humor in a difficult situation, in an area where residents endured another round of rain this Fourth of July morning.

To those who live in my native southwestern Minnesota (and that includes many family and friends), I am sorry you are experiencing this major flooding. Please be safe.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling