I grew up on a dairy farm in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. My father worked with his father milking 80 cows twice a day. My grandmother, who had grown up on a poultry farm, raised chickens every year.

I grew up picking wild blackberries on the farm, strawberries, blueberries and cherries at nearby locations, and I had the opportunity to learn the maple syrup business from one of our neighbors and the annual Maple Sugar Festival held in Marathon, N.Y. We had our own apple trees on the farm and would make apple cider in the fall. I grew up in an agriculture area that grew mostly corn for the cows and sweet corn for the people.

My grandmother couldn’t stop us from sneaking fresh peas and green beans from the garden. Watching and learning to can with my grandmother is a memory I cherish. To this day fresh, raw vegetables are my favorite, but I love to can, too.

In 2016, I was asked to be a volunteer for the Renville County sixth-grade ag tour. Since I was unfamiliar with the soybean and sugar beet crops grown in the area, I appreciated the education.

In 2018, I had the opportunity to attend the “I Met a Farmer Tour” (sponsored by the Redwood County Farm Bureau) via an invitation by fellow Toastmaster, Bruce Tiffany. The experience was so memorable that when I received an e-mail from the Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom about a two-day ag tour of Redwood and Renville counties, I couldn’t sign up fast enough. It was another opportunity to learn about the farming that goes on in my backyard.

Minnesota Ag in the Classroom (MAITC) provides free curriculum, educational resources, grants, outreach and professional development opportunities to train the trainers (educators and ag advocates) in Minnesota to increase ag literacy through K-12 education.

I was introduced to this organization through another fellow Toastmaster, Ann Vote, who is the MAITC regional curriculum specialist. Ann Vote and Sue Knott, state staff education specialist, led day one which started at Redwood Valley High School with a presentation on how MAITC works.

This included six different hands-on, standard-based ag activities. The activity I participated in was on the Earth’s soil resources, a few others included dairy tools of yesterday and today, seed matching and plant propagation. Each of the six hands-on activities had all the tools you needed to teach K-12 students.

We were introduced to the MAITC’s Web site which contains 500 standard-based curriculums. As an educator (or historian in my case), you can sign-up for the site and integrate the standard-based ag activities into your classroom for free. There are also grant opportunities to assist in paying for the supplies for the activities.

Knott introduced the “Ag Mag,” a free bi-annual magazine for three different age levels, that teachers can request for their classrooms. Be sure to visit its Web site at mn.agclassroom.org if you are interested in more information.

The group had the opportunity to tour the new Orrin S. Estebo Career Development and Technical Training Center located in the high school. The center is multi-faceted for all learning avenues including agriculture, medical, trades and more. They have a growing room, various shop areas and a training area for nursing. This center is a gem for Redwood area students. Day one continued with lunch at Gilfillan Estates and a farm technology presentation. 

I enjoyed peeking into one of the Gilfillan Estates sheds and comparing the technology of today with yesterday.

As we traveled to Tiffany Farms, we stopped just outside of Redwood Falls (down the road from the Thielen Coaches home office) and we were invited to try some fresh sweet peas from the field by our step-on guide. The rain and weather have been tough on the pea crops (and many of the other crops). As many people know, I am not a fan of cooked peas, but I could eat a bucket of fresh peas any day.

As Troy Krause did a fantastic job reviewing his involvement with the “I Met a Farmer” tour in Monday’s newspaper, I’ll keep the remainder of the Day 1 tour brief.

We arrived at Tiffany Farms with Bruce Tiffany leading a great discussion on the conservation-minded practices he uses on his farm.

The next stop was to Stoney Creek Farm and then on to the Goblirsch Dairy. In between stops, we were educated on crop enterprise analysis, crop insurance and the variations of organic farming terminologies and techniques. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the steak supper and discussion at the end of Day One.

Stoney Creek Farm had its beef for sale that evening, and I was so happy when I saw Cody sitting by their trailer in front of O’Reilly’s last Tuesday. I bought a package of t-bones and New York strip. I can’t wait to try them.

Day One started with a hard rain and lightning storm, and Day Two arrived with a blue sky and sunshine.

We headed straight for our first stop, Hill Top Harvest Strawberry Farm outside of Redwood Falls. Darwin Pless toured us on the farm and explained the varieties that work well in the area that include Jewel, Annapolis, Wendy and Sparkle. Sparkle is perfect for making jam as it has its own pectin. The smaller the strawberry, the juicier the strawberry.

Darwin explained, “That’s the thing about us old farmers, we are adaptable.” Darwin has created a triangle-blade to turn the runners back to grow in the right direction, it picks them up and swings them back into the plant. He adjusts it out to about two inches a week and he doesn’t let the plates get past 24” wide. They use the tractors he grew up with.

The current weather conditions have been hard on the strawberry crops. The crops are covered as soon as they go dormant in the late fall. He and his brother modified the straw spreader to pack down the straw as it is spread. The group was able to pick their own strawberries and had some samples. This brought back many great memories picking with my grandparents. Hilltop is the closest strawberry farm in a 60-plus mile radius.

The Rigge family starting growing grapes in 2008 and opened for business June 7, 2012. Besides their wines, they have a variety of locally brewed beers and delicious pizza. Nestled in the beautiful Minnesota River Valley, Grandview Winery has had a tough season, as they lost most of their grape crop due to the heavy rains and now are having to start over.

John Rigge, co-owner, toured the group through the dead grapevines and showed the vines that had recently been replanted by hand. The equipment to help harvest arrived around the same time they found out their grape crops were dead. This expensive equipment will have to wait another two years before it will be used to harvest their next crop. The Rigges are keeping their chin up and moving forward.

Grandview Winery is truly a family business. Laura, John’s wife, and his mother, Kari, assisted the group sampling their varieties of wine. Each wine has a unique label, designed by a local artist, and name. A few I enjoyed were Buffalo, Rockin’ Coyote, Cougar and of course my favorite, Squirrelly. John’s dad, Wayne, was serving up the pizza and taking orders. You can even visit their Web site to see the local off-sale stores that sell their wine. Be sure to check out their gift store too. The group was treated to a glass of wine and pizza for lunch while we sat in on the annual meeting for the MAITC. Joel Mathiowetz of Morgan is the MAITC Foundation executive director.

The final stop was to The Shrimp Shop outside of Danube. Becky Bruns, a third generation pullet farmer, decided she wanted to try a new endeavor, and, with the support of her mother, she decided to start raising white pacific shrimp. In 2018 they converted one of the pullet barns to a shrimp raising facility.

The pools were sitting waiting for the PLs (baby shrimp) to arrive July 2. These shrimp should be ready in November, perfect timing for holiday meals. Becky is working with Paul Damhof of Simply Shrimp located outside of Blomkest. When the PLs arrive, they are the size of an eyelash. It is so exciting to see new businesses arrive in the southwest Minnesota area. We have a lot of unique farming operations going on in our backyard. I told Becky I want to be one of her first customers.

Inside our MAITC packet, there were lesson plan ideas for each of the stops we did on both days for grades K-12, with great activities to take back to the classroom or, in my case, to share with our student visitors. Garden in a Glove will be one of the hands-on activities I will share with the students in the spring.

I encourage other locals to take the “I Met a Farmer” tour in 2020 and check out the MAITC Web site.

– Nicole Elzenga serves as the executive director for the Renville County Historical Society and its museum located in Morton