There were people living here long before our family farm was established. The homesteaders encountered Dakota Indians from the north and west who routinely traveled along the Creek. There are also local landmarks that suggest there were Native Americans in the area from the south and east. For example, “Kanaranzi” translates to “place where the Kansa were killed”. The Kansa once lived a long way down into Iowa and Missouri, but this incident along the Creek happened well before our family landed in southwest Minnesota.
My great-grandparents, John and Hattie, homesteaded here in 1871 and built this house in 1874. We think that this is John and Hattie, but aren’t certain which baby is on Hattie’s lap. It was a subsistence farming operation that produced crops and livestock and babies. There were four girls and five boys; a subsistence farm in the late 1800s needed big families to do the work. Human muscles and animal muscles did all of the work and used locally-produced fuel. They grew or made what they needed and anything that was left over was sold locally. Lone Tree Farm wasn’t large enough to support the grown children and their families, so two of the sons moved to North Dakota to raise wheat. Son George stayed on the Farm.
My grandparents, George and Daisy, were married in 1904 a year after his homesteading parents retired. They’re shown here with the house that was remolded in 1912. The family was small, one girl and one boy, but the farming operation expanded using new machinery and tapping into distant markets. George shipped livestock by rail to Chicago and invested in land near his brothers in North Dakota as well as near the home place. The operation was probably based on the extractive approach that characterized “bonanza” farming in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, most of land was lost when the expanded operation collapsed during the drought years of the Great Depression. Son John was left to clean up the debts.
My parents, John and Bernita, were married in 1940 and Dad was thrust into the management role when Grandpa George died suddenly in 1943 while shelling corn. The folks lived in the same farmhouse shown in this painting done by a friend in 1978. Again, the family was small, two boys, but the excesses of the previous generation required that the ambitious operation be cut back to the original farm site. Following World War II, government programs did provide some technical expertise and conservation programs. For example, Dad used a five-year crop rotation that included both small grain and hay. However, markets became more dominated by large companies and industrial farming based on expanded use of agrichemicals was on the rise. Polluted water and depleted soil started to become problems.
The transfer of the farming operation to my generation was complicated by the Viet Nam War. My brother who was educated as a range manager and who was supposed to take over the Farm was killed in action in 1970. Dad continued managing the operation, but rented the pasture and crop ground to younger neighbors, as he got older. The renters generally followed the “progressive conventional” practices that relied on artificial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and seed genetics. Agronomists hired by agribusiness provided a lot of the technical assistance and incentive programs.
Margaret and I returned to live on the Farm in 1998. We built our own house and my parents continued to live in the original farmhouse through their eighties. When people asked Dad if he had lived on the farm all of his life, he always joked, “Not yet”. After they died in 2014, the old house has fallen into disrepair and is now mainly used to store artifacts and buffalo bones. Although I had no training or experience in agriculture, our renters did do some minimum tillage and initiated rotational grazing. These practices and others have become part of an emerging approach to farming that we are very interested in: sustainable agriculture. It’s not the small-scale alternative called organic farming and it’s not the extractive industrial model of corporate agribusiness. Sustainable agriculture is a “middle way” which recognizes that a successful farming operation not only depends on economic viability, but also on environmental responsibility and a strong neighborhood community.
This post is based in part on a talk that will be given at Augustana University’s Dakota Conference in early August. The theme of the conference is “Farming and Ranching and Sustainability on the Northern Plains”. Maybe some future post will look at how sustainable agriculture might be used on Lone Tree Farm.