Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reflections on harvest from fields to art October 13, 2022

Harvesting, left, in a field along a gravel road near Dundas. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

DUST HANGS OVER THE LANDSCAPE like smoke. Hazy. The air dirty with debris kicked up by combines sweeping across corn and soybean fields in southern Minnesota. Harvest is well underway here as farmers bring in the season’s crops.

Trucks haul harvested crops from fields to bins and/or grain elevators. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

From back country gravel roads to the interstate, I’ve witnessed this scene unfolding before me in recent weeks. Combines chomping. Harvested corn and beans spilling into grain trucks.

Harvesting beans. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo October 2022)

Farmers work all hours of the day and night in the rush to finish gathering crops before winter arrives. In the dark of night, bright headlights spotlight fields. In daylight, sunlight filters through clouds of dust.

A grain truck pulls into a farmer’s grain drying and storage complex. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

Harvest is part of my DNA by having been raised on a southwestern Minnesota crop and dairy farm. Decades removed from the land, I still take notice of the harvest. The smell. The hues. The hurry. I understand this season in rural Minnesota.

“Harvest” by Raymond Jacobson. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

In nearby Northfield, I recently happened upon a bronze sculpture, “Harvest,” which had gone unnoticed by me. It’s been there since 2008 at Sesquicentennial Legacy Plaza along the Cannon River, near the post office, near Bridge Square. In all my visits to Northfield, to the Riverwalk area, I missed this public art created by Raymond Jacobson.

Close-up details of the wheat incorporated into “Harvest.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

The historic Ames Mill along the Cannon River. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

An interpretation of a stone grist mill for grinding wheat into flour is included in the sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

It’s beautiful, fitting for a community rooted in agriculture. The 3,000-pound sculpture symbolizes Northfield’s heritage of wheat farming and milling. Just across the river sits the Ames Mill, where the gristmill in the late 1860s produced 150 barrels of wheat daily.

Malt-O-Meal was a major funder for the sculpture. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

In 1927, John Campbell of the Campbell Cereal Company took over the mill and began producing Malt-O-Meal hot cereal. Today Post Consumer Brands owns the mill and still makes that hot cereal. Dry cereal is manufactured at a nearby production facility. Many days the scent of cereal wafts over Northfield.

Harvested wheat and a plowed field cast into bronze. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

All of this—the smell of cereal, the “Harvest” sculpture, the historic Ames Mill—reminds me of the importance of agriculture in our region. It reminds me, too, of my rural roots. I am grateful for my farm upbringing. I am grateful, too, for those who today plant, tend and harvest crops. They are essential to our economy, feeding the world, providing raw product.

Wheat stalk details on an informational plaque which is nearly impossible to read due to weathering of the writing. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2022)

That this season of harvest is honored in a “Harvest” sculpture shows a deep appreciation for history, heritage and agriculture in Northfield. The public art gives me pause to reflect on inspiration in creativity. Today I celebrate the artistic interpretation of harvest displayed along the banks of the Cannon River.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Missing the farm during a Minnesota harvest September 30, 2012

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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


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