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Voyageur's Best Features of 2002

Tad Walli

Fourth generation dairy farm
Wallis keep tradition alive on their farm near Wright
by Paul Webster  |  May 28, 2002

The milking parlor at Tad Walli's farm was humid and warm, smelling unmistakably of cows, feed with molasses, and clean machinery. "It was the first of its kind in the area, but now it's kind of antiquish," he says of his milking facility. The design includes a pit where the farmer stands to work the equipment so as to avoid most of the bending. The stuff is old, but still works well. The cows munch their sweet feed as the machine draws milk from the last three cows of the morning. The milk is piped to a temperature controlled bulk tank near by, where it will soon be picked up by a huge tanker truck. In the old days, farmers delivered their own cans of milk to local creameries. That has changed, but the rich aroma of fresh milk remains the same. After Tad shoos the last few cows out of their stalls, we move outside to continue the interview.

Conversation stops a moment as a flock of Canada geese come in for a soft landing on the small lake which borders the farm. Two loons fish further out. On this overcast day, birdsong is everywhere. When asked why he still farms dairy cattle, Tad laughs, smiles and calls it a good question. He gives much weight to being his own boss, to choosing his own hours. Also, he speaks of it as second nature and of having grown into it. Later, he sums it up as a kind of destiny. And of course, he gives credit to the surrounding environment. Pointing to the lake, he says, "If that were a field or a road or any other thing, I don't know if we would stay here doing this." We pause a while to take in the deep colors of lake and wetland, and breath in the scent of spring.

It was land like this that attracted Tad's great grandfather, Isaac Walli, and thousands of other Finns to Minnesota from Finland, a country which looks much like Minnesota. When he arrived at the land in 1892, there was nothing there but the land. By 1894, after having helped fight the Soo Line fire and with the help of a government loan, Isaac Walli had a farm. His wife Maria walked to the farm from the railroad in 1889 to make a real home among the tall birches and oaks. After years of farming, Isaac died fighting another wild fire in 1918. He had gone to meet the fire instead of letting it close in on his farm and others'. This time, against an older Isaac, the fire won.

By then, his son Jacob was ready to bring in the cows twice a day. Time passed with little change in farming by today's standards, and the farm passed to Tad's father Carl. These days, Carl helps Tad with the farm work as generations of farmers have helped other generations ease into the intense lifestyle that grows out of farming.

So here they are, living with milk prices beyond their control, and which favor larger operations using economies of scale. Days off are few and far between. There are also the massive physical and technical challenges. In response to a question about how he learned all the skills required to run a traditional farm, Tad takes on the tone of his father. "See that tractor over there? I want you to hitch it to the rake and rake that field over there..." Farmers all know, the first mechanized tasks kids are expected to do usually involve raking hay. Of course, Carl would offer any needed help, but after a farm kid has seen something done dozens of times, that kid is usually just itching to give it a try. And anyone who has made hay will remember the process for a long, long time.

The sheer wear and tear of that task alone will help put things in perspective. Carl says he and Tad put up 10,000 square bales, of which only 2,000 are left after the winter, not to mention several hundred large round bales. Those square bales offer the greatest physical challenge with each needing to be baled, hauled, stacked and fed one bale at a time to the Wallis' one hundred and fifteen head of cattle (give or take a heifer). Imagine yourself throwing and stacking 10,000 fifty pound bales. Many readers will remember such feats with varied mixtures of fondness and pain. Many will know that making hay is but one way to earn respect on a farm.

Other farm related tasks and skills include: plowing, disking, planting, manure management, planning, milking, feeding, marketing, rock removal and a lot of basic veterinary work. All these skills are perfected over time and with frequent repetition. More diversified farms require more skills. The machines themselves need constant repair and upkeep. Labor saving machines sometimes exact their price in flesh and bone or foreclosure. Murphy's law is in full force and there are days when the soil literally soaks up the blood, sweat and tears of those who bring food to our tables. The hardest part may be that on many such days, quitting is not an option, because if you do, animals may die before their times or the farm may fail.

So what are the good answers to the good question? Why do it? Each farmer has a different version. Tad's is easy to understand.

Governed only by the laws of nature and a few odd state and federal agencies, a farmer has great control of time and space on a traditional farm. They commune with life on their own terms, set their own hours and don't have to wear suits. They can make a goal and be the one to see it reached. There is no such thing as office politics on the farm, and most bull feces can be seen and avoided. Human beings thrive when they have a sense of control over their lives. This combination of freedom and self direction is hard to find in the nine-to-five world. There is little family tradition of work passed on to future generations as there is in the history of the Walli farm. Also hard to find is a good view.

We are silenced on several occasions by the surroundings. The lake draws our eyes again and again. The gray sky brings out the vibrant purples, reds and browns of lowlands before the green of summer. The land has a deep texture, and Tad, his wife Nancy and their two children know it like a member of their family. And while most folks associate bad smells with farms, the Walli farm is no feed lot, so wilderness scents prevail most of the time. Tad likes to balance give and take on his farm, leaving wild spaces, spreading manure on the land and making sure he doesn't take too much and kill the soil.

In speculating on the future of the more traditional farm, Tad shakes his head. He sees some hope for favorable changes in farm policy, but sees little financial incentive to drive such change. Hobby farming will play a role in keeping old breeds and varieties alive. Distrust of mass food production industries has led to more interest in that, as well as growth in organic produce and other niche markets. Another hopeful sign is that there are still several viable farms intact in the area needing only someone to farm them. His own kids don't seem likely to carry on the tradition, so he shakes his head. Farmers live on hope and hard work. The farming tradition requires those values as well, and a love of the land.

This article first appeared in the May 28, 2002 issue of the Voyageur Press.