Farm Family of the Year
Willard Kreitlow, daughter, Marienne Kreitlow, and her husband, Jerry Ford, honored for conservation practices and exploring a crop that is new in this area
By Ed DuBois
The 2017 Wright County Farm Family of the Year is probably not what you would call a typical recipient of the honor. However, Willard Kreitlow, his daughter, Marienne Kreitlow, and her husband, Jerry Ford, are representative of changes in this part of the state. People are adapting as a gradual shift takes place from traditional dairy farming to a variety of agricultural activities on smaller farms.
Ford expressed an appreciation for the Wright County Extension's willingness to recognize the expanding types of farming taking place in the county by presenting the Farm Family of the Year Award to the Kreitlow-Ford farm.
"I was taken aback. We are not a typical farm family. We have no kids here," he commented.
Texas college instructor
Originally from South Carolina, Jerry said his dad was a minister. Most of Jerry's adult life was spent in Texas, where he worked in theatrical design and teaching. He has two degrees from the University of Houston, and he taught lighting and sound 23 years, he said. Jerry still freelances a little, including some work with the Buffalo Community Theater.
Jerry met Marienne at a folk music festival in Kerrville, Texas. For many years, Marienne was a professional singer and songwriter, and she remains involved with music and the arts to this day.
"I heard her perform, and I wanted to meet her," Jerry recalled.
He managed to get to know her when she joined a conversation Jerry was having with another person. After a while, Jerry asked to book Marienne for performances at the college where he taught.
"On the third day she was at the college, I asked her to marry me," Jerry said with a big smile.
Fell in love with the farm
Jerry started visiting the Kreitlow farm in Minnesota. He said he fell in love with the farm.
"I hadn't been in Minnesota at all. My first visit was during a very cold winter, and I loved it!" Jerry declared.
He asked Willard for his daughter's hand. Jerry and Marienne were married in 2002.
Willard joked that he never traveled as far as Jerry. Willard was born in a farmhouse about 94 feet from his present home. At 94 years old, he said he moved about a foot a year.
He was just kidding, of course. Actually, he traveled a long way during a People to People agricultural exchange trip to Sweden, Poland, Russia, and Switzerland in about 1971.
Willard is a third-generation farmer. The homestead was established by his grandparents, August and Pauline Kreitlow. His parents were William and Esther Kreitlow.
Willard had a brother who lived on the North Shore near Grand Marais, and that's where Jerry and Marienne were married. The occasion was both happy and sad. At the time, Marienne's mother, Dorothy, was very ill with Parkinson's disease. She passed away two years later.
Back at the farm, fundamental conservation practices remained the same, whether it was corn and soybeans in the fields or organic garlic and potatoes, Jerry mentioned.
They worked cooperatively with a neighbor, Kevin Stokes and his wife, Kelly, who rent some of the Kreitlow-Ford land.
"Kevin has carried on the farm practices he learned long ago from Willard," Jerry said.
Some of those farm practices include terracing, contouring and buffers. Willard said he started using conservation practices on the farm in 1944. He is well known for his involvement with conservation.
Willard had experienced the Dust Bowl period in the 1930s, and it made an impression on him. He became a champion of conservation practices and was much involved with the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) 43 years. He was on the Wright County Parks Board (now called Parks Commission) 42 years (from 1960 to 2002).
Jerry commented that conservation stewardship has helped enhance the diversity of wildlife in the county.
One unfortunate aspect of enhanced wildlife is that you cannot choose the types of wildlife that show up.
"We lost some pastured chickens to coyotes," Jerry said.
Several different types of chickens live harmoniously in an area on the farm and produce brown eggs.
The roosters include a Rhode Island Red (King Richard), a Lacewing Wyandotte (Gustav), and an Austorlorp (Simian). The hen breeds include: White Rock, Barred Rock, Rhode Island Red, Autralorp, Lacewing Wyandotte, and Buff Orpington.
Jerry mentioned the chickens have grass in their diet, and the nutrients from the grass make the yoke of the eggs a little more orange than the eggs you can buy at the store. The added nutrients are good for you, he said.
Marienne enjoys watching the animals on the farm. She says they are very entertaining.
Their beef cattle are a mixture of Scottish Highlanders, Texas Longhorns, Herefords, and Pinzgauers. They are all crossed to produce calves, which Jerry calls 'my babies."
He is impressed with those who perform the artificial inseminations on the farm.
"We are located between really rural farms and smaller farms. The breeding service is excellent," Jerry said.
He added, "We have found our niche."
Heifer boarding school
About nine head of cattle is the ideal herd size for the farm.
"We could not do it without Kevin Stokes and farming cooperatively with him," Jerry commented.
"He sends his heifers over here to our 'boarding school.' When they fall in love and pay the consequences, they go back to Kevin," Jerry said.
The Kreitlow-Ford farm has large pastures, which are managed through a process called rotational grazing. Light electric fence lines can be set up relatively fast to keep the cattle in a particular section of pasture.
"We move the cattle a lot to small spaces. It's good for conservation ... and for the pastures," Jerry said.
After a section is used, it is given time to recover.
Jerry mentioned the hooves of the cattle soften the soil and improves it.
Tipped over water tank
Marienne recalled an entertaining episode in the pasture a while ago. She noticed a water tank was on its side, and she asked Jerry, "Is that water tank supposed to be on its side?"
Jerry investigated and discovered one of the large animals had tipped the tank, which weighs close to 800 pounds when holding water, onto its side. It was tipped once, and then it was tipped again. Apparently, the tank was being used as a back scratcher.
"I put the tank up against a fencepost to solve the problem," Jerry said.
Accidental garlic farming
He was asked how they decided to grow garlic on the farm, and he said it happened by accident.
Marienne had a friend who suggested growing garlic and then selling it in the Twin Cities. After some discussion, some garlic seeds were ordered from a supplier in Wisconsin and planted in the fall. Jerry said the planting was done all wrong, but plants came up anyway the following spring.
They had two varieties from the original seed stock, and now they have three varieties. They chose varieties that are among the best and hardiest. They are originally from Siberia and are a northern crop.
Jerry said a grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is being used by the Sustainable Farming Association (SFA) to promote and research garlic growing.
"It's a great extra crop, especially on a small farm, for an extra income stream ... plus, it's fun," he said.
Jerry and Marienne helped get the Minnesota Garlic Festival going. During the first three years, the event took place at the Wright County Fairgrounds in Howard Lake. Now in its 12th year, the Minnesota Garlic Festival takes place at the McLeod County Fairgrounds in Hutchinson. The 2017 event is on Aug. 12.
Jerry helps provide education about garlic by writing "The Stinking News" online for the SFA. He also writes a tongue-in-cheek edition called "Stinky Leaks."
Jerry became involved with the SFA after Willard recommended it. Willard was an SFA member 27 years.
Sustainable farming is a philosophy, Jerry said, and it has three components. One, it involves working toward environmental stewardship in harmony with nature. Two, it involves community and being a vital part of it and also being supported by it. Three, it involves profitability and economic resilience, "while loving what you do."
"The SFA is not against stuff," Jerry mentioned. "We like to do farming this way, and if others like it, welcome aboard."
Using cover crops rather than plowing is a good example of sustainable farming.
"It's good for the air, water, soil ... and the bottom line," Jerry said.
Marienne enjoys her husband's love of farming and the fact they are both living with her dad on his farm. She said the Farm Family of the Year honor is a fortunate circumstance after moving back home with her dad and marrying a college instructor.
She had lived on the East Coast when her professional music career was developing. Today, she continues to enjoy music. She has performed often at the Buffalo United Methodist Church in the Saturday Awakenings series.
Lately, Marienne has been working on a musical called "Yours, Thrognog." Her uncle in Grand Marais, Burton Kreitlow, had a nickname, Thrognog, and the musical is based on letters he wrote to his future wife while he served in North Africa and Italy as an aircraft mechanic during World War II. A first reading of the musical took place recently, and a second reading is scheduled on Aug. 6 in St. Paul. A third reading is planned at Western Illinois University.
Marienne picked an abundance of strawberries in the garden while Jerry was showing a visitor from the newspaper the chickens in their enclosure and the cattle in a section of pasture. Evening light was reflecting off many well-established tree stands, as well as off the pasture grass of the rolling Middleville Township countryside. Tatanya, a border collie, was leading the way.
The surroundings were familiar. They are similar to countless other farms in this part of the world.
But those who own and operate the Kreitlow-Ford farm are not quite as typical as most Farm Family of the Year recipients. You won't find a huge herd of Holsteins. You won't see automated milking machines. No young sons and daughters will be helping with the chores.
What you will find is a love for the land, for the animals and for a stewardship Willard started way back in 1944.
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