Recently in Resettling Rural Places Category

The Real Happiest Place on Earth

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Gallup poll results came out this week ranking the Happiest States in America. And despite the endless days of subzero weather and blizzards Minnesota ranked among the top Happiest States in America.

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Big Stone County, the bump on the western edge of the MN, is kinda in the middle of the cluster of Happiest States in America- in green. Why do you think that is? Wide open spaces, 4-H, bowling leagues, highest per capita farmers, a "could be worse!" culture? Maybe it's our pleasant winters.

One small thing that makes me happy living in Clinton, MN is that my grocery bags are colored by the elementary kids- most of who I know. With messages about reduce, reuse and recycle. And the kids (Kindergarten through 6th grade) put a lot of effort into these bags, which turn out both beautiful and artsy!


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I just love the children's art put into useful everyday items and then spread throughout the community-- again and again. And these bags can be and are used over again because they are too special to toss and you feel like you need to handle this child's art with care. I'm bringing all these bags back to the store for the next lucky customers. And frankly, that's something you might not be able to do in a large city. The grocery store might not take bags from some random person wanting them to be restacked at the checkout line and reused.

There was one bag I liked in particular--a watercolor with fall leaves and a message "Don't Litter. It Makes the world bitter." Imagine my delight when I found out that it was painted by one of my own sons. And it's no coincidence that I got that bag--Bonnie and Holly at the grocery store tucked that one away to make sure that my groceries would end up in it.


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Let me tell you a little story about a Kindergartener whose name was on the bottom of one of the grocery bags. I make it a point to meet the bus every afternoon when it pulls up to the end of my ½ mile long driveway. One afternoon the bus pulled up and off jumped my two little boys and one of their friends, for a planned Friday sleepover. And then off of the bus comes the sweetest, cutest little 5 year old girl. I looked at the bus driver quizzically and he said she was to get off at our house.

Now, it was a completely blameless situation. The little boy was her brother and they had gotten on and off the bus at our house before. So when the bus driver saw the note giving the brother permission to get off at our farm, it made sense when the little girl, we'll call her Izzi, said she was to stick with her brother. And Izzi herself was quite convincing to the bus driver that she was to go to our farm with her brother.

But what an unexpected treat for me! My own Alma and I got to walk down the driveway with little Izzi - "1, 2, 3! SWINGing" Izzi up into the sunny sky. And once at home it was "Raise High the Roof Beams! Break out the Candy Land and Dust off the Barbies!" Can you imagine such luck and fun on a Friday afternoon out on the wide open prairie? Now Izzi's home is the absolute other side of the 40+ mile wide school district, so we had a nice block of time to play before someone came to pick her up.

So I invite you to try living in a world where the little things, the bag you get your groceries in, can bring such simple pleasure and invoke such sweet memories. A place where a child's hand crafted artful bag can make its way into your home and your life--occasionally accompanied by the child themselves (both on purpose and on 'accident'). To experience the delight of reading the names of each precious child on the bottom of your bag can bring smiles and a cry of delight.

And remember these messages from the children of Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley Elementary
• Recycle or your ecosystem will fall apart (reduce, reuse, recycle. Save me for Christmas)
• Recycle- Batman does
• When you toss out paper, you're killing trees. DO NOT toss out paper.... RECYCLE
• Go Green, Recycle, Recycle, Recycle

Maybe the Happiest Place on Earth isn't a place, or if it is a place, it might be a place that is small enough to care about. But wherever it is, it is about noticing and appreciating the small things.

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Rising from the Praire- Abbey of the Hills

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Stained glass window in the small chapel

Last weekend the kids and I went to the open house at the former Blue Cloud Abbey, now Abbey of the Hills, near Marvin South Dakota. This place is a gem upon the prairie. It somehow captures so much about this place and its prairie beauty and foreshadows some of the past century of this place.

Abbey of the Hills rises up out of the Prairie Coteau. You can see the Prairie Coteau rising up out of the prairie from where we live, on a crisp clear day. The first time I drove west from our farm, with my mom and kids to buy vegetable from the Hutterite Colony, my mom said "what's that rising up out of the prairie." "Must be a bank of clouds," I said, because I hadn't heard of any hills or mountains on the other side of Big Stone County, MN. But I was wrong. The Prairie Coteau is hauntingly lovely "Alps of prairie" as described by the early 1800's explorer Joseph Nicollet.

It is in these hills that a group of Benedictine monks built their Blue Cloud Abbey in 1950. This place is just 40-some miles from our farm. A refuge.

I'm not Catholic and so won't claim to know the heart and spirit that went into these monks, whose stained glass window says "Pray, Read, Work", finding and building this place. There's a good story (click here) about how they found this piece of land on their way from one place to the next.

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And they built this place both simple and glorious. An Abbey in the Prairie Coteau- a place of subtle and astounding beauty in which to seek G-d under blue skies. They built it, really, at the peak of its population and maybe hopefulness. Or before we even knew we needed to be hopeful. Because family farming was still thriving all around them out on the prairie and there were still young men and women inspired to live lives of "Pray, Read, and Work."

But things have changed since 1950, haven't they? The independent farms that dotted every section of land have been consolidated and the homesteads are coming down. The number of young people going into full time religious life has plummeted. And both of those demographics meet out here on the prairie.

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And so it was exciting news that after more than a year and a half of looking for people to buy the Abbey, that a group of 6 local families decided to buy it. It was bitter sweet news to learn that our inspiring grape growing and biodynamic farming neighbors were among the visionaries stepping up for this great adventure. They have relocated there are applying their skills and innovation to this place.

Here's the kayak that Dan built as a fundraiser for the Abbey. Now imagine that kind of craftsmanship and heart going into a place.

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What's remarkable to me is that Abbey of the Hills is being remastered, in part, on a hope for this place that is a palpable hope for so many rural and family farm advocates--that we can find a way to thrive out in the country. What is that way? Well, for one thing, that is by having a healthy and local food system that nourishes our bodies, souls, and communities. Because when we lost those family farms, we lost the small town creameries, butcher shops, as well as the kids who attended schools, and the Masons who built sturdy and lovely brick buildings on Main Street. So those folks at Abbey of the Hills are looking at their sustainable farming operations, their greenhouse, their wood shop, art lofts. They are baking bread in their commercial kitchen and selling it in local grocery stores. They are hoping for a rural renaissance that includes a people landscape with good food and satisfied souls.

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I found this butterfly on one corner of a wall of stained glass. It spoke to me of that transformation that I hope for our rural places and prayers for the success of Abbey of the Hills. The chapel was completely full of well-wishers for last Sunday's prayers and hymn.

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On the way out, I had to wait for my kids. They'd met up with their friends and were having a great time catching up and exploring. I was standing in the concrete hall, the working part of the Abbey, between the greenhouse and the mechanic shop. I lingered there wondering where the heck my kids were. And then I looked up at the ceiling with the exposed pipes. And what did I see?

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Even this 'industrial' corridor of the Abbey was touched by the spirit, where some Brother had discreetly put Leonardo da Vinci's Creation of Adam and the hand of G-d reaching towards humanity in between the electrical conduit.

Saving our Small Town Grocery Stores

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There's an epidemic of losing small town grocery stores across Minnesota and surrounding states. Shuttering the grocery store knocks the wind out of a community. It's like losing a part of the lifeblood of what keeps our small towns vital. To say nothing of losing the access to healthy food, which is the core purpose of these independent businesses.

In the past few days Kerkhoven, MN (nearly twice the size of Clinton) lost its grocery store. That loss means one less place to practically purchase good food to nurture our families but also the loss of a community gathering place and outlet for locally grown food. I'd bought locally grown squash in that Kerkhoven store.

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We are lucky to have a grocery store on Main Street in Clinton, Minnesota. Did you know that Clinton is one of the smallest towns in Minnesota that has a full service grocery store? It says a lot about community loyalty and shows that people support their local businesses. But it also says a lot about the "stick-to-it-ness" of store owner, Bonnie.

What's right about small town grocery?


  • -access to healthy food for people in our community- everyday and in times of need

  • -outlet for locally grown food

  • -responsive to our requests for specialty foods (gluten free, etc...) and organic food

  • -keeping Main Street and small towns lively and alive

  • -having a gathering place with a purpose in the middle of our town

Once a town loses its grocery store it is very difficult or impossible to find the people and the financial backing to run such a low margin enterprise. In this day and age, having a rural grocery store in your small town requires support from the whole community.

What does having the support of the community mean?

1) Shopping for your groceries at that local store. Please 'vote' with your food dollars and help keep your local small town grocery store thriving. ** see below** for shopping from the circular.

2) Show up for the community fund raiser dinner from 5-7pm on Wednesday October 30th at the Clinton Memorial Building. There will be a community dinner to help purchase energy efficient freezers for Bonnie's Hometown Grocery.

So please come tomorrow night. Our grocery store in Clinton, Minnesota is what would be called a mom and pop shop. And yes, it is a private business, but it is run also for the public good of our community. Our town would be a lot quieter and sadder without the grocery store.

Having those new energy efficient freezers will go a long way towards keeping the lights on and the doors open on Main Street for years to come.

Not Just a Minnesota Issue:
The plight of small town or rural grocery stores is not limited to Minnesota. The loss of these important parts of the rural infrastructure is occurring across the Great Plains. In Kansas, this epidemic was hitting rural communities so hard, that Kansas State University started The Rural Grocery Initiative to research and support efforts to help small town grocery stores thrive. You can follow the Rural Grocery Initiative on Facebook, Twitter and see their website here: http://www.ruralgrocery.org/

One recent finding they published is the 70.6% of small town grocery stores sold locally produced food- produce and meats. So for those of us interested helping farmers diversify and have other profitable outlets for locally grown food, we need to support the rural grocery as an important part of that equation. Frankly, having a local grocery store is an important part of community food security and improved access to food of all sorts. In the event of any crisis, we will be grateful to have grocery store throughout all corners of our state to help keep our food supply stable and running.

I believe that Minnesota could really benefit from having the Rural Grocery Initiative work in our state and instead of reinventing the wheel, I'd like to see K-States good work put to use here. There is a lot of attention and support that our Main Street small grocery stores could use and here's a source of some good ideas.

Shopping at Small Town Stores--or how to save money by buying off of the circular!

Bonnies Hometown Grocery store in Clinton, MN runs a weekly ad of specials that many times cost less than large superstore prices. The circular that lists the specials arrives in the Valley Shopper and the Northern Star newspaper and can be found on line here. I plan my weekly grocery shopping around the circular and buy those items on special in large quantities.

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For example, it is now the time of the year for big pots of chili, a favorite in our house. The Chili beans are on sale at Bonnie's and so I would purchase a case of 12 cans. I know that we use 2 cans per month and the case will last our family 6 months. Since the expiration date is 2 years out, this is a good investment in food that my family will enjoy. You can do this with many items on the circular. We make homemade pizzas on Friday nights, so I buy mozzarella cheese by the case (12 packages) when it is on sale and then freeze it. Shredded mozzarella freezes perfectly fine.

Likewise, when Tuna Fish is on sale I will buy a case of that as we eat tuna melts a couple Sunday's a month. Now that is a large case, 48 cans, but we use 4 cans a month so we go through a case a year. Tuna has a long shelf life, so I've never had an issue with them expiring.

Now of course you don't have to buy in case lots- you can just shop off the circular to stock your cupboards a few cans at a time.

In a small town store, like Bonnie's, I feel like I have a personal grocer! When the shopper is full of good ads, I text Bonnie and order cases of everything from toilet paper to coffee to spaghetti sauce.
• I save money on my groceries
• Save money on gas by shopping locally
• Feel good that I'm helping keep a Main Street business open and running

One issue that is a tougher nut to crack is getting fresh produce. It's hard for our small town store to carry fresh produce if people are not buying it regularly. This is how it works- the more we purchase, the fresher and more produce Bonnie can carry. And thank you to Bonnie who orders special request organic produce to stock on the shelves- items like organic carrots and kale. And there are frozen and canned fruits and vegetables available- all of which are healthy alternatives to fresh produce.

So friends, in these times it takes a whole community to keep your local grocery store doors open. Please shop and buy locally. And while you are shopping locally, you can save money from the circular, say hello to old friends, make new ones, and feel good about keeping your local community healthy and thriving.

Big Stone County Agri-Tourism

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On Saturday, September 28th, a group of 30 people from Fargo-Moorhead area toured some of the small farms and local foods highlights of northern Big Stone County, thanks in part to a mini-grant from Minnesota's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program of the USDA. I think that this might be a first for our county. Even some local folks were surprised that the roads go both ways from Fargo and that a busload of people would spend an entire day checking out our small farms and local foods. It was a great day- organized by the tireless farmer Noreen Thomas from Doubting Thomas Farms in the Moorhead area.

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The tour began at the Russ and Theresa Swenson farm just east of the Big Stone County line. The Swenson's grow garlic on a market scale as well as raising both milk and meat goats. They make a variety of goat cheeses on their farm including mozzarella, garlic and chive flavored hard cheeses, and soft ricotta type cheese. In Minnesota you can produce and sell cheese from your farm, but the only way to purchase it is to take a trip to the Swenson's farm. From our experience, it is worth the drive!

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From there the tour went to The Cabin Café where Doreen Winston provide a lunch of homemade barbeque pork sandwiches and salads made from local produce- cabbage for coleslaw, fruit, local tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers. The lunch was served as a picnic at The Apple Ranch on Big Stone Lake, where the group had the opportunity to tour the orchard and buy locally grown apples, namely the Honeycrisps and Haralsons that are currently ripe.

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From there the tour went to the Dan and Michelle Moberg vineyard, named Juanita's Vineyard after Dan's mother the late Nita Moberg. The delicious and cold-hardy Marquette grapes (from the University of Minnesota) are at perfect ripeness and the group had the opportunity to spend time walking in the vineyard and harvesting grapes to eat on the spot and to take back home with them. In addition, the Mobergs had samples of the wines they have made as well as grape jellies.

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The final stop was the Mike Jorgenson family farm. The Jorgenson's have put a portion of their farm into pasture and are raising grass-fed beef, both Irish Dexters and Lowline Angus. They also have a University of Minnesota organic edible bean variety trial on their farm that includes both market classes like kidney and pinto beans, and specialty beans like cranberry and eagle's eye. Two U of M graduate students were there to both explain the field experiment and to begin harvesting some of the plots. The trial is to help select heirloom bean varieties that grow well in Minnesota conditions.

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One aside from this trip, noted by this author, is the role of the University of Minnesota in the crops on these farms. Bette Johnson, owner of the apple ranch, made a point of telling the crowd that all of the nine varieties of apples in her orchard were developed by the University of Minnesota (though she did note that the more recent varieties that the U has released are not as accessible as past varieties). Likewise, the Moberg's noted in describing their vineyard operation that the three grape varieties they grow were develop at the U of M. The Jogenson's demonstrated first hand how the U of M continues to work with farmers to develop new crop and hopefully new markets.

Overall, the day was a success and many in the group hope to return. Already some have asked the Moberg's to invite them to help harvest grapes next year. They found the vineyard peaceful and the work "therapeutic" and would like to volunteer. Upon leaving, the group asked if there were places in Big Stone County where they could hold retreats and stay for more than a day. With places like the Beardsley Lodge open, it is hoped that more tourists will discover the hidden and not hidden treasures of Big Stone County. It is gratifying to see outsiders appreciate the beauty and the local foods that our area has to offer.

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Photo courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society, 1899

It's already the end of August. Summer passed by too fast ~~ a few wafts of regret. I didn't make enough time for swimming and gardening and family. Today, however, was a beautiful day despite life threatening heat indexes and the increasingly severe drought conditions. It looks like this lovely day that will end with our family of five sleeping in the living and dining rooms--the only rooms with air conditioning. That's fine. We've lived here six years next month and this is the first time the heat has driven us out of the upstairs.

Mike noticed the cattle getting heat stressed in our western paddock. The grass is high and deep, but there is no shade out on the open prairie. One of our low-line Angus had gotten herself into the water tank and the other Angus cattle were panting (Note: Mike has observed that our Dexter cattle seem to handle the extreme weather better than the Angus).

So the two of us left Sunday dinner and herded the cattle back around the farm and into the paddock by the barn that has a watering pond surrounded by trees that Mike and his dad dug out years ago. Today I didn't have the camera with me and missed capturing the most strikingly beautiful scenes. As I closed the last gate behind Mike and the herd, I saw a view that I want imprinted in my mind for the rest of my days: Mike walking in his Australian sun hat, white t-shirt, blue jeans leading his herd of cattle across a bright green, neat and clean pasture. The sky was blue, a few white clouds. 30 brown and black cows followed trustingly despite the painful heat. When we got through the last paddock the cows took off at a run!! They raced through the green grass (it will be brown soon without rain- which is not in the long term forecast). They ran to the shady pond and every last one of them waded into the water--some went in over their backs-- their noses touching and drinking the water-their panting subsiding as they cooled off in the water. Happy cows.

We stood and watched them for a while; basking in their relief. We make plans to deepen that pond in the fall, just in case this drought continues. Then we returned to our Sunday dinner with Mike's mom, dad, uncles, and an aunt. An all around good day.

Let me tell you about this Sunday dinner, brought to us by the farms and farmers of Big Stone County. We had a grilled leg of lamb (thanks to Radamachers), cucumber salad (Shumachers), greens, spuds, and an Aronia (choke berry) pie.

There are a few different stories around that Chokeberry pie- stories about community, family, health, and soil conservation. The journey to getting this pie on the table started at the café where I stopped to get a cup of coffee on Friday morning. There were a group of beautiful, elegant, and kind local matriarchs enjoying a coffee gathering. As a result, I was invited to pick berries at Marge's farm. Izzy was at the café and also interested in some berries. So Saturday morning my kids, Izzy and I drove to Marge's- a nice multi-generational farm with a variety of animals and crops including the first mature, full fruit bearing Aronia bushes I have had the delight to encounter.

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Aronia, also known as choke berry (not choke cherry, which people are more familiar with), is native to our region and produces seedless berries, larger than blueberries. Aronia is touted as the next "superfruit" because it is full of healthy nutrients and is attributed with all kinds of health benefits.

Whooo hoo!!! I was just giddy to have a chance at these berries. Izzy, Marge, the kids and I picked berries for about ½ hour and harvested about 8 gallons of berries. The berries are in clusters, about eye level, come off without stems attached. Easy, easy, easy!

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At home we processed them into pie filling, jelly, syrup, and juice. A number of fun hours and a huge mess- as these projects usually are. When each batch was finished the kids descended upon the kitchen to lick the pans and spoons.

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How did this great stand of Aronia berries come about? Well, they were planted with the advice and assistance of a United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service program called EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program). This program provides cost share to plant wind breaks and implement on the ground conservation practices, like grassed waterways, pastures, cover crops and even organic farming. The NRCS and their close colleagues the Soil and Water Conservation Districts (in every Minnesota county) are really where the rubber hits the road in getting conservation practices onto the landscape. These are the guys with the equipment (like tree planters and native seed drill presses, the plant material (thousands of trees, grass mixes, etc...) and manpower to lay down the landscape fabric, plant the trees and the prairie grasses.

Now, here's the deal. You can buy any tree imaginable from the SWCD for the EQIP program- the point is to hold the soil in place. The "ah-ha!" is that we can select trees and bushes that also provide human and wildlife food. There are a whole lot of folks interested in growing and others interested buying locally grown food. And here's a chance to do double and triple duty on the land- soil conservation AND food and food ventures. On our farm, with the help of NRCS and the SWCD, we've planted our windbreaks with 400 fruit and nut trees including:
Aronia (chokeberry)
Prairie Red Plum
Chokecherry
Hazelnuts
Mulberry
Black Walnut
Hackberry
Chestnuts
Gooseberries

It's a cool idea to have an edible windbreak as a conservation practice, but there's still work to be done to catalog and promote these multipurpose tree plantings to include fruits and nuts. There are all kinds of reasons this is a good idea including increasing access to healthy foods in rural places, like Big Stone County, which is a USDA designated "Rural Food Desert." So it's win-win-win: keep your soil in place, grow some pie and jam berries, and if the harvest is good enough you can even sell those berries. What is needed is to get the information together on the how's and why's of growing these trees as part of the EQIP program and then get the word out that you can plant your windbreak with fruits and nuts.

By the way, the pie was an absolute hit across three generation. With a good cup of coffee, some more stories about barn building and how the electricity came to these parts in 1941, I'd say it is just about the most satisfying piece of pie I've ever enjoyed.

What stories did you take part of or hear lately? Do you have or remember ground cherries and gooseberries?

A few good hours of farming

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There were about 24 giddy hours where we felt like we had finally done something right on the organic portion of our farm (about 40 of the 320 acres). We've had a few trials and errors compounded by both floods and droughts. Seems like if we are committed to any particular thing, it is a commitment to experimenting. Problem is we got skunked a few times with our experiments. The tillage radish was good, but no income. We gave organic corn a shot, but ended up plowing it under. So this year, lo and behold, we got our first crop off the 40 acres.

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Alfalfa bales

It's an absolutely gorgeous crop of lush, green, alfalfa. One heck-uv-a yield. I kinda get that whole "waiting to exhale" idea. We've been holding our breathe on so many of our farm ventures and finally one of them turned out well. Sigh.......

The other precious thing about this hay crop is that part of it was harvested with a lot of family and neighbor hands at work. The kids and I drove in from an evening of roller skating to find a couple haying efforts underway-- though it was growing dark. The kids ran down and pitched in with Mike, Russ, Theresa, and kids. Pumping out small square bales and putting them on a hayrack. Just a couple hundred that way, but still-- a perfectly wholesome farm and family night.

Last night, we jumped in the car and went to the street dance in Clinton, MN. When asked how the farming was going, we beamed. "Great!" "Excellent!" "The alfalfa crop was great and it's baled!"

We had a solid 24 hours of farming we could brag about.

And then the phone rang over breakfast-- cattle out of their paddock on the US Fish and Wildlife land. Mike has spent the last few weeks toiling to fix 50 year old fences so that we could graze our cattle on the adjoining federal land (we've worked out a lease with the US Govt).

As it turns out, our cows can swim. Even the little babies it appears. They swam around the fences that went up to the edge of the slough. So we geared up with waders, fence post, wire and headed out to separate our cattle from another herd they had decided to 'mingle' with and set up fence into the slough.

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Getting fence post set so the cattle will stay put

It was 94 degrees, hot and buggy. But we got the job done- new fence up, cattle herded back. That's a good feeling.

All in all, it is a joy to see this farm in grass. The cattle barely visible in a sea of shoulder high, tall grass prairie grass. And it looks like we now have enough hay to get this herd and a few more through the winter. Plus, we're going to butcher our first two steers- Trouble and Bill (yes, they have names). So stay tuned to order some grassfed beef from us. We're going to try it before we start to sell any.

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I'll be back in the coming days with more cattle tales. In the meantime there are community celebrations to attend and fireworks tonight in Clinton, Minnesota. I am grateful for these days and this place. And I'll savor those hours when the farming is good, the grass is green, and we are living in the lushness and abundance of life on the tallgrass prairie.

Today my family paused to remember those who came before us and those who served. Maybe you did too. If so, please add a comment and share where and how you remembered.

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Parade starts in front of the Clinton Memorial Building at 9:15am


Being part of a small town requires us to be a part of the activities- Alma in the band and the boys riding bike in the parade (the latter was voluntary). Also being part of an immigrant farming community brought us to our ancestor's church- open one day per year--to remember.

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Parade ends at the elementary school. This woman stands and watches the parade each year- each year it moves me

It's a healthy exercise to be grateful for others' sacrifices and to remember our own mortality as we spend time in ceremony and cemeteries on this Memorial Day. That's what took place today in Big Stone County, Minnesota and many other places.

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I liked the patriotic seed cap

It's a somber day and feeling. Not lightened by the cool, gray weather, the decaying buildings, the people remembered in death this year who were with us in life last year.

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Heads bowed as the name of each deceased service man and woman from our community is read aloud and followed by a drum roll.

2nd Lt. Jacob Lillehaug talked to us about remembering the people- the individuals who serve and served their country. A good boy from our small town, invited home. Asked to be wise as age 22, maybe 23. And we are grateful, grateful for him going out into the world- with our blessings and on our behalf. And remembering those from the Baatan Death March- for touching them, few that remain, as they touch him. Godspeed Lt. Lillehaug.

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A deserted and lovely Main Street- as we leave early for the next service we will attend

From Clinton, we head to rural Long Lake Church. This is the church of my mother-in-law's family. A church of immigrants- largely Norwegian and Danish.

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Long Lake Lutheran Church- established 1872 and built in 1890

They hold one church service and potluck dinner here each year- on Memorial Day. My mother-in-law plays the pump pedal organ that still sounds lovely after all these years and dozens upon dozen unheated winters.


We sing from the 1913 copyright, 1927 published Lutheran Hynmary.
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Enjoy a real Lutheran potluck dinner- complete with an amazing rhubarb custard pie and an exquisite tatertot hotdish.

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Lutheran church potluck dinner

And then we walk through the cemetery and remember the family members buried there. For us, it is Mike's grandpa and grandma. The Brustuens.

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On the last Brustuen grave we visited were the words "Ikke tabt, men gaaet forud." None of us knew what that meant. Thanks to Google translator we know it means

"Not Lost, but Gone Before."

Some things are lost. Those first generation immigrants tongue and their language is, in fact, lost to us. Their legacy continues on. It is a good, wholesome, respectful legacy of family, community and farming. It comes from and leads to honorable service. Humbling and honorable service. I suspect my husband left with the hope and maybe a promise to come back and help fix the shingles on the roof of that old church.

Thanks you to those who brought us to this place and for those, known and unknown, who have defended our freedoms these many years so that rural Minnesota can be a peaceful place.

Minnesota Traveler

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Have you had enough of this long winter? It starts to wear on a person. Minnesotans have winter travel weather tales. And this has been a good winter to accumulate more- it's been a long, some might say brutish, winter. My work involves a lot of travel and I try to arrange it between winter storms. That didn't quite work out this week. But, obviously, I made it home alive and so all is well.

It hadn't been a good day at work in St. Paul; I was vexed, largely because of my own doings, and just wanted to be home. I had calculated that I'd have about 78 hours at home before I needed to leave for another 5 day trip. So I pointed my car west and headed heedlessly into the storm in the midafternoon. The schools had all closed like dominos ahead of me and many places of work, including some offices of my own organization in greater MN, had shut down and sent people home early.


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Thanks to Alma, my road crew, who kept updating me on the MNDOT 511 road conditions the entire time (via hands free car phone, mom). All of which were "hazardous" and "no travel advised", with the occasional "difficult" to look forward to.


And it was an exciting trip those first 150 miles. When I stopped in Glenwood to pry my white knuckles off the steering wheel (now 5+ hours into what normally is 2.5 hours of travel), a guy at the gas station looked at my frozen and ice packed car and said "wow- what have you been driving through?" "HA!" I said- "hope you aren't heading east! It's brutal." There were cars all over in the ditches- on the MNDOT road condition map (above) all those purple diamonds are spin outs. In just the five miles before Morris, there were 3 cars newly in the ditch. How did I know they were "newly"? By the surprised and still faces of people still sitting behind their steering wheels.


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Found my car iced over when I pulled into Glenwood


But the real excitement- the kind that makes you forgot all of your troubles- started when I turned south onto the Chokio road. I heard this "crrrrrrrrrr" sound under my car and realized that the snow on the road was up to my bumper and my chassis was pushing it down as I drove through it. If I slowed down now I would be stranded- 16 miles from home.

Note: This whole trip had a sound track and it was loud and thumping. I don't know about you, but Public Radio was not what kept me sharp and confident to keep my foot to the pedal. It was a Phillip Phillips HOME kinda trip, with some Mumford and Sons for emphasis.


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View on the main road- between Sauk and Glenwood


Maybe it's kinda, you know, sick to enjoy this. But I did. Those last 16 miles were pure white out blizzard driving through snow that was up to and above my bumper. As I crashed through, the snow came up my hood and over the windshield so that I couldn't even see. I had to open my window and put my head out. It's almost sensual with the mist of the blowing snow pelting my skin, melting on my face and my hands on the steering wheel. Every sense is alert- with time slowing down intensely. There are no curves on this road, I couldn't see the edges of it on the prairie and in the white out- so I pointed straight and kept my foot firmly on the gas pedal. If I had met a single other car those last 16 miles and had had to slow down, I would have been stuck in that snow overnight. There was still just barely enough light that I could see apart from my headlights.

And then -- a flashback to an earlier trip Mike and I had taken in with his brother and sister, home from Arizona. Same deal- we drove from the Cities in a blizzard, turned south on the Chokio road, but it was night. We pointed the car south and gunned it. But this time we veered ever so slightly to the west and got sucked into the 10 foot deep snow of the ditch. Buried. After some time another car came along, luckily, and we waved them down. They stopped and took the five of us into Chokio where we were put up for the night by a big hearted older couple. And this is the part of the story that makes me laugh every time. Mike and I were put up in the 'doll' room, which displayed the many dolls made and collected by the woman of the house. Mike's brother, being the single guy, got put in the Cuckoo Clock room. So all night long, every 30 and 60 minutes, more than 100 Cuckoo Clocks went off. See, I'm laughing again. We got the car pulled out of the ditch and made it to the farm the next day.

Back to this most recent adventure. I had to turn west off the Chokio road now - keeping enough speed to bust through the snow, but not so much as to slide through the turn and into the ditch. It was close and like spinning a wheeley on purpose. It was 100% white out as I climbed the glacial moraine past where I knew the township hall would be sitting, could I have seen it. By the way, during this entire last 16 miles I'm driving in the middle of the road as there are no lanes, no line, and barely any distinguishable road out on the flatland prairie.


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Note: this picture was taken close to home, AFTER I was through the worst of the driving


And the tale might have just ended like this. "Kathy made it home safe into the arms of her loving family." And, in fact, that is precisely what happened. But there's something else. Honest to G_d- as I closed in on home, a pair of swans flew up from the side of the road- nearly hovering as they were trying to take off into the 30+mph wind. Two white swans hovering just in front of my car. And as I drove over the slight hill, I broke through the actual edge of this blizzard and into a pink sunset on the horizon. Have you have ever felt that G-d or the universe is sending you a message? It was the Welcome Home for my soul. I had been wiped clean of any cares while I just focused every cell on surviving and then BOOF! You break through into beauty, peace, nature.


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The trip wasn't done- I still had the final four (miles). And I'm happy to report that I burst through the last drifts on our ½ mile long driveway and made it to within 10 feet of the garage when I hit the final drift hard enough to basically, as Mike told me the next morning, lift the car off of the ground and set it on top of the drift so that the wheels didn't touch the ground.

And (back to the happy ending) then she made it home into the loving arms of her family. The table set with a glass of Dandelion wine; roast chicken and potatoes held warm in the oven.


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Note: I actually have three children, but only one which throws himself in front of every camera. So while there are a disproportional number of pictures, there is proportional amount of love for all.


I made that dandelion wine with one purpose- to drink it after a couple snow days when I needed to remember and hope for lush, green, flowering spring. Back in 2011, Jens and I sat outside one spring day picking the abundant crop of dandelions growing in our 'organic' yard. Buckets of bright yellow flowers, my boy in the green grass, sunshine, and blue sky over endless prairie. I have now finished off the last bottle and I'm ready. For spring.


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Mike pulling my car out yesterday morning


I hope this note finds you well and hopeful for spring. What are your winter stories?

Everything that is Good and Right with the World

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One of the songs sung at the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society meetings by a group of young girls

Tonight everything that is good and right with the world can be found in Aberdeen South Dakota. Just so you know, I'm sure it's not the only place. But this minute I'm sitting with hundreds of farmers and farm families. Not just any old farmers, but that creative, passionate and talented group that makes up the self-proclaimed 'sustainable' farmers at the Saturday night banquet of the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society meetings. Looks like it will be a record year with over 500 people attending.

I'm sitting among old men who still carry hankies and young guys wiping tears from their faces as a 20-something year old man sings the song he wrote for the farmer dad he lost at age 13. A lament for the father he wishes could take him around the field to plow a couple more times and teach him more about how to run the tractor- the hum of which is like a hymn. And, ultimately, how his faith comforts him in his bereavement. And then you should see the smile and joy that come when our kids, from toddlers to teens, put on a show for us singing and marching and then ending with the call out:

"Sustainability for the Future!
Sustainability for the Future!
We are the Future!"

These talented and unselfconscious kids stand up there with a confident based on scooping up chickens in their arms, milking cows, driving tractors, and in general being a needed and helpful part of running a family farm.

This is the Home Grown music event and these farmers have basically just pulled together a show in a couple days. Poetry, fiddles, harmonica, singers of all ages, a bass and a couple electric guitars. I said to my daughter "what do you think these families do for fun?" "They play music and sing together." So not only do these folks farm their own counter-industrial way, but they are raising their kids differently and in some ways better than I am able. Music- it is just woven, woven, woven into these children. We should all be thankful that these kids are being raised to farm independently and entertain themselves, their families and their communities independently. Here they are singing:


I'll Fly Away, sung by Home Grown Music at the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society

What I love about these farmers is that they thrive on being creative, innovative, poetic and spiritual. I was at the Grain Breeding Roundtable break out session for the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society's Farm Breeding Club on Saturday morning. Farmer extraordinaire David Podoll placed in our hands a bag of oats that he had been growing out for a dozen plus years. The remarkable part of that bag of oats is that it is a collection of 1200 oat varieties that had been selected by farmers (and more recently agronomists/scientists) over the past 7,000+ years. It's called a landrace and it is a rich, diverse set of genetics. In a time when the gene pool is getting more and more narrow, having a keeper of this range of diversity is invaluable. It is exactly the level of diversity needed to adapt to a changing climate- wetter, dryer, hotter, more erratic.

Let me tell you something about that Grain Breeding Round table, which was attended by farmers, PhD Agronomists, and more. We talked about the usual grain breeding stuff- like what is needed for grains in organic systems, things like a fast growing canopy that can shade out and out compete weeds; more straw/taller plants; and a good root system to withstand drought. But then the tones got hushed. David passed around the 1200 variety mix of oats- which we held in our hands- then we talked about how it feels to run your hand through your harvested crop. What it feels like to have the grains run between your fingers- and how all farmer do that. That there is a spirit in some plants/seed- like a certain variety of flint corn--there is something else there. David says it is the choosing of beauty--not just the needed traits but the beauty that draws us to certain plants and their seeds. There are farmers and plant breeders that, in our long evolution of crops, have put their life force into their plants. And so we have an obligation to make sure it is not lost--that spirit, passion, and (I'll say) the loving attention. An attention that comes from doing one thing and doing it season after season- farming.

Then our conversation turned to not just the loss of genetic diversity, but that greatest tragedy of the last 20-30 years- the loss of knowledge and skills in cropping systems. There is a dependence that grows, after just a few years, on the packaged farm input that expert advisors provide and GPS guided tractors plant .

Do you have a sense of how precarious our 14,000 year evolution of farming has been and on whose shoulders it rests? We have such a fervent belief in progress, science and technology that we forget all the subtle skills and knowing that have successfully brought humans to the year 2013. I believe that there is a balance- that the scientific understanding of the world has brought us tremendous good and prosperity. But not at the expense of losing 100's of generations of built knowledge, skills, and connection with the natural world that got us to this point. Now, I don't think that everyone should be farmers- it is a calling like other callings. Some people who farm were simply never meant to farm- there were people who were thrilled to leave the land and become accountants. But there are also people for whom the connection and work of farming is in their blood- they can feel it in their bones (in a good sense). Those are the folks who attend the NPSAS winter conference.

There was a speaker at the conference that I was surprised to find that I really loved and
enjoyed--Amanda Brumfield, Mrs. North Dakota. Mrs. North Dakota spoke of her experience representing rural women at a national pageant. She is a domestic violence nurse educator who works with children. One story that she told is especially important to repeat. The loss of young adults from our rural communities is something that many people would like to reverse. One day she was talking to a group of 8th graders and asked them to anonymously write down whether or not they would want to back to their small rural town. 18 of the kids said 'no.' Amanda asked the crowd to guess the reasons that the kids gave for not moving back. The crowd shouted out "jobs" "entertainment".... But those weren't the answers--15 of the 18 kids said "gossip" was the reason they wouldn't move back.

Gossip.

The kids she surveyed had seen and heard the adults in their community tear each other apart. Because of that, they wanted to live safe away from prying eyes and harsh tongues- someplace where their foibles, weakness, shortcomings, and mistakes would be anonymous. That is an important message for those of us in small communities. We should demonstrate to our kids, over the supper table and in our conversations, a generosity of spirit towards those around us and a gentleness of words toward our neighbors.

Back to the Home Grown music entertainment and the farmer poet. I'm hoping the folks
at NPSAS can post his poems on their website. Each poem ended with a twist and with the poet a sparkle in his eye and a grin on his face- poems on bulls, -30 degree weather, the intelligent and strong women in his life who understand compassion, beauty and creativity. To which I say "back at'cha farmer poet." And ending with the abundance that comes from a jersey cow milked for a family and neighbors- and how you reach that balance between what you need and what you get.

I could go on for pages on what I learned, enjoyed and felt. But I will end with a simple "Thank you" to the staff, board, and members of the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society. See you next January in Aberdeen South Dakota.

A Counter Cyclical Investment

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New fence posts on the farm

I've said this before, but it bears repeating. Our neighbors think we are idiots. Not all of them.

The price of corn is so high that it can tempt a good man, a farmer, to not only plow up humble farmsteads (see entry below) but to turn over graves and bury the tombstones in pits. In the face of this gold rush, we took 100+ perfectly good, fertile, flat land out of corn production and are put it into pastures. Yeah, I'll tell you that it's not just the neighbors who think we are idiots, but Mike and I sometimes look deep into each other's eyes and say "what the hell are we doing this for?" We could just rent this land out for an exorbitant price and get rich the easy way. No... we have to do this the poor and hard way.

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Watering station piped in. Boys chasing backhoe to next station.

Here's where we're going. We are looking to be grass farmers. This is the rainfed, tallgrass prairie after all and so we know that for most of the past 10,000 years this place has done really well as grassland. The plan, as much as it is, is to raise entirely grassfed beef using what is called intensive rotational grazing and probably mob grazing.

I just paused to ask Mike if we'll be doing mob grazing and he said "yes- depending on the weather" (meaning enough rain to green up the paddocks). Without knowing what I was writing about he said "yeah- that will mean more work, but we can get more cattle on per acre." I started laughing at the "more work" comments. And he said- but we can have the kids do that.

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Playing on corner posts.

More work. Less money. For what? For an abstract security for us and for our community. What kind of security? Well, if monopolized seed and input companies decide to jack up the price of seed, fertilizer, pesticides then farmers gotta pay. Can't say the same thing about our 28 species pasture mix. What we're hoping (praying) for is that some of those 28 warm and cool season plant species will thrive in the variety of weather events we've seen on this farm. In just the five growing seasons I have lived here we've seen nearly ½ of our farm under flood water and been land locked because our roads were underwater to the extreme drought we're under now where the soil profile is dry as a bone 15 feet down (by the way 'bone dry' is a figure of speech). The land is under remarkable dryness that is startling even to the old timers.

I ask again--what kind of security are we looking for? What kind of advantage? What kind of return on the investment of our time and our money?

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Speaking of money- very unMinnesotan of me- the 3.5+ miles of fence and pipe we installed on the farm this fall cost just over $34,000. Now if you add the minimum we could have received for cash rent for that land ($15,000) that comes to a $49,000 cost with $0 return on investment. Investment... Ha! We've divested in all those ephemeral virtual digital spreadsheets that you can see on your computer screen- you know- those things like college funds for our kids, retirement accounts for us, and bank balances in the black. Our plan for our kids' education (off farm) is selling a few of those cows in the pasture each semester to pay tuition.

You need us for security too. Why? Because any good portfolio is diversified. Just ask any Wall Street investment guy and he'll tell you "Diversity is Good." It's their credo. You need stock, bonds, large cap, small cap, international etc... You don't put all your eggs in one basket. Likewise, there is a need for diversity in farming and farmers too. In case things don't go as planned in Algerian oil fields or we find out the Bakken Oil Play costs us 1 barrel of oil to extract 1 barrel of shale oil, you'll be glad there are oases of farmers and food production across the landscape that have a range of skills and practices to jump start the agricultural system. Diversity is good- especially in something as critical as producing food.

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Frankly, I think a huge part of the local foods movement is our instinctual knowledge that having food production (real food- not Hot Pockets and Mountain Dew) that is recognizable and understandable and close by is absolutely connected to our well being and maybe even our survival. The global food supply brings untold pleasures (read coffee and cinnamon to name two), but a local food supply bring daily sustenance. I digress.

We are making this counter cyclical investment for another reason -- we want to be the change that we seek in the world. We've put our family on the front line of sustaining happy, healthy, family farms and the rural communities that they are bound up with. Now there are plenty of good folks down this path in front of us- Audrey, Laverne, Richard, Mary Jo and many more. But it sure feels like the front line from my kitchen table.

I'll quote one of my living folk heroes, John Michael Greer, in his recent column

...any meaningful response to the crisis of our time has to begin on the individual level, with changes in our own lives. To say that it should begin there doesn't mean that it should end there; what it does mean is that without the foundation of personal change, neither activism nor community building nor anything else is going to do much. We've already seen what happens when climate activists go around insisting that other people ought to decrease their carbon footprint, while refusing to do so themselves, and the results have not exactly been good [kjd notes: the result is that people don't take climate change seriously and even stop thinking that it is really happening]. Equally, if none of the members of a community are willing to make the changes necessary to decrease their own dependence on a failing industrial system, just what good is the community as a whole supposed to do?

So we are rolling the dice that we need to have a diversified, labor intensive farming system in place so that over time whatever trajectories we are on-- you name it--the end of petroleum era, the consequences of leaving the gold currency standard, a flu pandemic, climate change, the zombie apocalypse (I've trained my children to "repeat after me 'the zombie apocalypse is a metaphor for what happens to humans in the collapse of civilization'") or a dust bowl.

Be the change you hope to see in the world. What do we - what do I--want to see in the world?


  • Meadowlarks on my farm

  • Green fields for months on end

  • Vital, thriving rural communities

  • Wholesome food that feeds our bodies without making us fat and feeds our souls in its production

  • Animals that thrive in healthy, real environments until they become our food (note: our baby calves dance, jump, run and play through the green grass. And I don't ever recall calves frolicking in dense, dirt feedlots)

  • Soils that are protected and regenerated and held in place for generation of farmers to come

  • Trees, orchards, windbreaks

  • Clean energy

  • The sense of pride of meal on your table that comes from your land, your labor and G-d's goodness.

  • Raising children who know the value of hard work and actual 'fruits' of their labors

  • Needing to pay attention to the natural world every day and throughout the day for the well-being of the animals in your care and for the crops you are tending.

Along with these earnest hopes for my world, I hope that I am gaining the street cred to promote this path. Voluntary simplicity. Voluntary labor. Investment.

Just tonight Mike and I noodled over the numbers to get our John Deere 4440 fixed--a cool $7,000 in repairs. If we fix it we could still get the money back if we needed to, cuz' we could sell if for more than the cost of the repairs. Let me say, there's a lot of that kinda reckoning going on around our farm.

Political activism, community building, and a great many other proposed responses to the crisis of our time are entirely valid and workable approaches if those who pursue them start by making the changes in their own lives they expect other people to make in turn. Lacking that foundation, they go nowhere. It's not even worth arguing any more about what happens when people try to get other people to do the things they won't do themselves; we've had decades of that, it hasn't helped, and it's high time that the obvious lessons get drawn from that fact. (John Michael Greer again)

Oh, and did I mention that we saw the first Meadow Lark on our farm since we moved back? Priceless.

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