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Remembering the Art of Farming


Fri, Jun 1st, 2001
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Conversations with elder farmersEditied by Beth WaterhouseMonday, June 4, 2001

Editors Note: American farming practices have changed dramatically since World War II. Larger farms, animal confinement, genetic modificationsare more the rule than the exception in year 2001. Furthermore, the way that farm life is or is not embedded in the local community has changed. Farmers have dropped to near one percent of the American labor force and it is no longer a given that our youth will continue to farm this land. Meanwhile, the current generation of farmers, if well rooted in their own heritage, is the last generation that remembers farming before WW II, before all these farming changes. We are on the verge of losing their memories-- on the edge of a loss of a very important base of knowledge.

In this context, this project, "Remembering the Art of Farming" has focused on the power of a good story. Through good stories we may remember.

A couple years ago the Collaborative for Watershed Sustainability, a loosely-knit group of individuals working on citizen-level environmental projects in the southeastern Blufflands, decided to try this "remembering" effort. It has been their intent to host some storytelling sessions to save knowledge and stories, like seeds. Memories are alive in Minnesotas farmland, but who is listening to our elder farmers? Who is recording what they say?

So far, fifteen individuals have come together in three different communities to tell stories. Questions that might have been addressed are broad-ranging-- about cropping practices, farming with horses, animal husbandry, farm and family life, maybe how farmers learned, or how communities worked together. To date, conversations have been recorded in the Lake City area, in Harmony, and in the Wells Creek (Red Wing) area.

The project heard from Ralph Lentz, Dennis Rabe, and Art Thicke meeting around Ralphs kitchen table and accompanied by Larry Gates and Gary Holthaus. Another session was held on a snowy April afternoon in the Greenfield Lutheran Church in Harmony, listening to Pauline Austin, Opal Schrock and Drucie Milne. Loni Kemp helped host this meeting. The third session was an even blustery December day at the Diercks home on Wells Creek, hearing stories from Richard and Elaine Diercks, Gerry and Mary Ann Burfeind and Duane Stemmann, accompanied by Beth Knudsen and Julia Frost.

Beth Waterhouse has been the gatherer and then editor of these stories, coming to each session with an open heart and an inconspicuous recorder with fresh batteries. She asked the occasional question, but mostly listened, then took tapes home to transcribe.

Beth is a writer and editor living and working in Excelsior, Minnesota. She has a deep love of story, and an excitement for oral history as well as many years working on environmental or farming issues in Minnesota. Beth has written poetry and essay, usually inspired by the Earth or focused on what she terms "environmental motivation." She has edited Community Connections, a newsletter for The Minnesota Project for eight years, and also teaches Environmental Ethics at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul campus.

Now you, too, will get to "hear" the stories of these fine folk, as they are shared each week for the next 12 weeks in the Fillmore County Journal. Watch for them; clip and share them. And if you want to tell your own story, be sure to call Beth Waterhouse at (952)401-0591. Shed love to come listen!

I always said Id never marry a farmer
a conversation among three women

Edited by Beth Waterhouse

I was born and raised in Iowa and was a town girl all my life, one of four children. My mother was an at-home mother. My dad worked hauling gravel and then he worked for Standard Oil, for 25 years. When I started working as a nurse in Rochester, thats when I met my husband. I always said Im never going to marry a farmer because I had girlfriends who were born and raised on the farm and whenever I went out to visit them I always felt that those women worked so hard. They would be in their coveralls or jeans, big work shirts, out doing chores with their husbands and their hair not done. I always felt like there were no vacations for women from those farms. Yet I loved to go out and visit!

And I always said that I was going to marry someone who could sing because our family was a singing family, and I always said that I wanted to marry someone who could swim and loved lakes.

Well I married a man from Minnesota where theres supposed to be the Land of 10,000 Lakes (and there wasnt a lake around.) He cant carry a note and hes a farmer. And thats the truth about "love is blind."

Because when I married him and I got out on that farm and saw that big farmhouse I thought "how wonderful." This is going to be a wonderful life. And it was. And I did not have to work as hard as those women did that I saw in Iowa because my husband did farming with his cousin and with his brother. They bought machinery together (used machinery) never anything new. They fixed their own machinery. They worked hard.

I was expected to be outside to help rake hay, haul manure, that type of thing, but I was not expected to be out there all the time. So I had a garden, a yard, flowers. And I enjoyed it. We had 280 acres and raised beef cows, not milk cows. Thats another thing. It wasnt as hard because we didnt get up in the morning to milk. And we raised our own pigs and calves.

Well, I also was not going to marry a farmer. The first time I met my husband roller skating up here at the roller rink; he was talking about farming, and I said "thats one thing, Im never ever going to marry a farmer." I laid that right out and said, "I dont know you that well, but this is a fact." But as you said luuhve is blind. And I thought well, maybe this will be different.

I found out very quickly the day after our honeymoon (which was only three days long) when we had to bale some hay. Id never driven a tractor even though Id grown up on a farm. (I had an older sister and my uncle and three older boys also occupied part of our house. I was last on the list so I had only helped outside on occasion.) So it was a rude awakening when my new husband said, "you can drive the tractor and Ill stack the bales on the wagon." It was one of these old tractors, without power steering. I had no clue how to drive a tractor. And let me tell you I knew that day that the honeymoon was over. It was awful.

It went on from there and I got more and more responsibility and I got into the whole aspect. My aunt once told me, dont ever start milking cows because if you do itll be your job. So that held off for a few months til I was quite pregnant with my son, which was not too many months later. Eventually milking was my job, morning and night. One thing after another I just started taking over. I thought well, I can do this job. Pretty soon I got all these jobs.

I had a girlfriend who went to North Manchester in the same college class as my future husband. She was from Minnesota. Our church used to have what they called "Young Peoples Conferences." He came to the conference one time at Lewiston and she was my girlfriend so I was there too. For me, that really didnt start anything, but it did for him! Well, he didnt forget it; thats the thing.

Comes along another church conference. One of the speakers there said "why dont you come to our Seminary? We think you have the potential for doing thus and so." Well that sounded like a thing to do, to go to Chicago and go to the school? I was thrilled. So off I traipsed. Now what happens but he comes to the same place because his sister is there and that kinda starts things. So that was the end of that.

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