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Voyageur's Best Features of 2005

Kenny Peterson

Farming longevity
Interview with Mel Johnson and Kenny Peterson
by The Voyageur Press Staff  |  October 11, 2005

Mel Johnson

Voyageur Press: Talk about the early years when the farm was homesteaded.

Mel: My father, Elmer Johnson, immigrated from Sweden in 1915. He settled on 40 acres: at the current home place located two miles east of Tamarack on Highway 210. My father later purchased an additional 120 acres.

Voyageur Press: Describe the early challenges of settling in the area.

Mel: Before my dad even got settled he lost everything in the 1918 fire. He wasn’t married yet and he was away in the service during World War I. When he returned, he married Gertrud (Geving) and began rebuilding. He built a house similar to the one currently standing here and that burned. In 1929 my dad built a barn, and in 1931 it, too, burned: lightning struck the barn. I can still remember the day, when I was a little kid. It knocked us right out of bed. There was hay in the loft and it burned for quite a while.

Again, my family was forced to rebuild. We poured another six inches of concrete this time around. That’s why the current barn stands so perfect.

My parents had two children, my brother, Lester, and me. My dad had a number of skills which included logging, blacksmithing, and farming. He also drove bus for the Tamarack School District. Back then, he had to furnish his own bus, drive the bus and put gas in it for 85 dollars per month. I remember a brainstorming session a bit later, if he furnished a snowplow on the bus, they would pay him 15 dollars extra. He bought the plow.

My dad was a very hard worker and well respected in the community. Some of the older folks who remember him driving school bus, talk about how he would sing to the kids in Swede on the way to school.

Voyageur Press: Share the dynamics that took place when you took over the farm.

Mel: We made the agreement in November of 1951. My wife, Rosie, and I married in 1948 after I got out of the service. Farming was an interest of mine and Rosie’s.

As for Lester, he was not interested in farming. He moved out to Fargo/Moorhead where he attended North Dakota State University. There he attained a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering.

Rosie was born and raised on a farm near Aitkin. She was a part of it right from the beginning. I started taking agriculture classes, kept logging and slowly built a herd. She did a lot of the milking.

Voyageur Press: Describe what it was like to raise a second generation family on a dairy farm.

Mel: The primary source of income those days was the dairy. My dad had received a Grade A rating in 1949 which was very important. We were the very first farm in Aitkin County to receive the Grade A rating.

The herd grew to as many as 30 milking cows. We also had about 10-15 replacement heifers for sale and about 10-15 calves. At times we had around 60 head of cattle.

Over the years, we raised three children: Kel, Kerry and Kris. All three were very intregal to the success of the farm. I am very proud of my children. There was no forcing them to work. They wanted to work to pay for their motorcycles and snowmobiles. I have really good kids.

Our success of the farm was readily recognized by people who knew us, but we really got a surprise in 1985 when we were named the ‘Outstanding Farm.’ The achievement award was for a perfect score during the interstate milk shippers survey. We were the only farm named in Northeastern Minnesota that year.

It wasn’t until 1988 that we began to slow down a bit. At that point, we switched over to raising beef cattle and I continued to do that until two years ago. Now, at the age of 78, I still farm, but my income comes from pasture rental, hay sales, timber sales and an occasional land sale.

Voyageur Press: Share some of the things that have defined you as a person over the years.

Mel: I’ve spent a lot of time volunteering. I met a lot of wonderful people... I love where I live... I love the outdoors and the four seasons.

I have a long history with the community. I have been on the Clark Township board for 31 years, (21 of those as the clerk and nine as a supervisor); I spent 15 years on the school board; I was on the Aitkin County board for 12 years; Rose and I were instrumental in starting and maintaining Tamarack’s city celebration, Hey Day; I was involved with the beginning stages of the McGregor Clinic; I have been active in the Tamarack Sno-Flyers snowmobile club since its inception in 1972; and various other committees and boards.

One of my favorite contributions is my work with the Sno-Flyers Snowmobile Club and their efforts to develop trails and maintain them. I recognized that my position on the Aitkin County Board and my land superintendant job with the Lowery Corporation were a perfect fit when it came time to develop trails.

Now, the biggest challenge is to hang on to the trail systems. For me, this is important. One of my favorite hobbies continues to be snowmobiling.

I am quite happy with how things turned out over the years. People ask me why I don’t move to town. What would I do in town?

Kenny Peterson

Voyageur Press: Talk about the early years when the farm was homesteaded.

Kenny: My folks, Lee and Helmi Peterson moved here in 1932 and purchased 120 acres. My dad worked in the mines and the tunnels for most of his life in the Crosby-Ironton area. When they moved here, they had to clear enough trees to build a house.

My mother was born in Tamarack and my father was born in Michigan.

Voyageur Press: Describe the early challenges of settling in the area.

Kenny: My dad had to work outside of farming most of the time. He still worked in the mines in the 30s and he was also a handyman. He dug most of the wells and numerous ditches in the area. By 1939 we were up to 10 cows. He was a hard worker.

The farm next door (Mel’s) had more open land and our land used to be the big White Pine forest. We had pine stumps in our pasture which were five to six feet around. We did most of our clearing in the late 1950s and 1960s.

I had two brothers Pete and Jerry, two sisters, Dorothy and Delores and one stepsister, Lauralee. She and I are the only ones left. The others have all passed away.

Voyageur Press: Share the dynamics which took place when you took over the farm.

Kenny: Pete and Jerry were both carpenters and I was in the Army at the time. My dad had been working at the elevator in Tamarack when he developed pneumonia from the dust and wasn’t able to farm anymore.

If I hadn’t joined the Army, I don’t know if we would have ended up here. I married Ina and we started a family while I was in the service. I guess I wanted to be my own boss. Ina questioned that. She says I’ve let the cows run my life for 50 years.

Voyageur Press: Describe what it was like to raise a second generation family on a dairy farm.

Kenny: I raised six children. Deb is the oldest. She was six months old when I went into the Army. Lynn was born in Alabama and became an Army brat. She married someone in the military and stayed an Army brat. Sandy was the third daughter. She lives in Kettle River. Then there was Jeff, Scott and Lori.

The farm only had five cows when we took over and I worked elsewhere just about every winter, but was home for the summers. It was a family affair. We only had about 15 acres of open land when we moved here. Then we bulldozed and used dynamite on the rocks and stumps. The kids picked the rocks.

We built the barn in 1957. It was 34 feet by 60 feet. Ina mixed all of the cement and we cut logs on the property to build the barn. My brothers were carpenters and they helped. We added 40 feet to the barn in 1969.

We were up to 125 cows by 1976. We put up two big silos, and at that time we were getting three or four crops of hay. With 125 cows, there was a lot of liquid manure. That year, we celebrated our youngest daughter’s wedding and we experienced a tremendous tragedy. It was terrible. We had the high of Lori’s wedding, but Jeff drowned that same night. Jeff died two weeks before his 21st birthday.

In 1987 we lost our son Scott in a construction accident. At the time, Deb was farming with us and we decided to get out of the dairy business. It gave Deb a chance to do something else.

I worked at the Carlton County Extension service for the next 10 years. I coordinated the by-products program. It’s been incredible. It has allowed people to continue farming.

Voyageur Press: Share some of the things which have defined you as a person over the years.

Kenny: The thing which shaped my life more than anything was an experience in the Army in Alabama. I was in Montgomery and I was headed to Fort Benning. I remember being the first one on the bus. As a good Lutheran, I went to the back of the bus and sat down. The driver took off and got about half way down the block, looked in the rear view mirror and slammed on the brakes. He said, ‘The back of the bus is for niggers.’ Then Martin Luther King came along and what he believed, I believed.

In 1974, I became the delegate for our National Church Convention. This was the year we started a hunger program. We had the first ever hunger event at our church in Wright. We had 95 people come and it was 30 years ago.

In the beginning I was naive. Being a farmer, I thought it would be easy to solve the world’s hunger problems. We ought to be able to produce enough food to feed this hungry world. It doesn’t work that way. As the hunger coordinator, I have traveled around the world and have spoken to churches in Northern Minnesota. It’s been an incredible experience.

I’ve had the neatest life a person can have. You just can’t beat it. I have 13 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.

Now I raise chemical and hormone free, grass fed beef. I haven’t used chemicals or commercial fertilizers in many years.

Over the years, it seemed like we never had anything while we were farming…but we had everything.

Editor’s note: Kenny was recently recognized with the Farmer’s Voice 2005 award by the Sustainable Farming Association. The award is for ongoing and tireless dedication to farming, for helping farmers have a choice, for showing an understanding of how farming benefits both farmers and consumers, and for living the ideals and values embodied by sustainability. See the left column for the complete story.

This article first appeared in the October 11, 2005 issue of the Voyageur Press.