Episode 5: A Snapshot of Family Farming Amid Cycles of Modernization and Migration
Russ Torgerson: You got to be able to produce pretty cheap, you know, I mean. You got to justify owning your machinery, so you got to farm more land cause the machinery costs more and everything, your inputs, your fertilizer, your fuel, so you’ve gotta have enough land to warrant the machinery and then you’ve got to have a good backing, a good deep pocket so you can survive these low commodity prices, these drought years, these hail storms. It takes some backing to keep on.
Megan Torgerson (narrating): This is Reframing Rural the original podcast series that elevates unexplored stories from rural America. I’m the founder, editor and producer Megan Torgerson.
Russ: Nice, it’s nice that we can get her. Nice it doesn’t rain now for a few days, we’ll get all the durum anyway.
Megan (narrating): And that’s my Dad Russ.
Russ: I was really born to be a farmer.
Megan (narrating): In this episode you’ll hear from several Montana farmers and ranchers including my dear old Dad, my cousin Jacob Torgerson, my childhood friend and neighbor Thomas Ostby, and my Mom, Renny!
This story is a bit different than previous episodes. It features more voices and more of my own story growing up on a dry land wheat farm and black angus cattle ranch near Dagmar, Montana in the state’s extreme Northeast corner. This episode is made with family and it seeks to cultivate awareness and compassion surrounding the difficult, varied and fulfilling life of family farming.
Stu Torgerson: Sure odd what flew up and poked a damn whole in your trailer huh?
Russ: Yeah I can’t figure that out at all, but I thought about how a guy could patch it. A guy could put a little piece underneath of it and rivet it to it and then just weld it on top or else silicon, somethin’ that would be weather tight.
Stu: Right, right, that’s what I was thinking too. To pop rivet it.
Megan (narrating): That’s my Uncle Stu who my Dad’s talking to on the radio. They’re discussing how to fix a hole in Dad’s grain trailer that’s parked in the yard at home, as they drive past each other in their John Deere combines in the field. Right now they’re harvesting hard red spring wheat. Tanner, their hired hand for the summer is also in the field. He’s driving a tractor with a grain cart pulled behind it. And he’ll pull up beside us soon so that my Dad can unload the grain in his combine into Tanner’s grain cart while they continue driving south down the straight furrows of the wheat field.
They’re like synchronized swimmers the three of them driving two combines and a grain cart that together do the work of cutting the wheat head from the stem, threshing the grain to separate the kernels of wheat from the chaff, then moving the grain from combine to grain cart to a fleet of semis which my cousin Jacob hops in and out of. During harvest Jacob drives back and forth between the field and hopper bins where the grain is unloaded and stored until it’s ultimately hauled to the grain elevator in town.
Russ: Yeah, right there. Just like the tires picked up something and throwed it around.
Megan (narrating): If someone were to make a soundtrack to my childhood it would include me mimicking Shania Twain, [clip of Megan singing] or the Dixie Chicks [clip of Megan singing].
And in the background you’d hear my Dad, Stu and Grandpa Vic talking on the two-way radio.
Russ: There’s something that came loose under the suspension there of the trailer.
Megan (narrating): My family comes from a long line of farmers. The Torgersons, whose original surname, Drevdal, reflected the “dal” or valley they farmed in Norway, have farmed for as far back as we have record of, at least the 1500s. The Drevdals immigrated to the U.S. in 1853, during the largest exodus in Norway’s history.
The Norwegian emigration of the 19th century, was largely a rural exodus. With shipping and agricultural industries hard hit by an economic depression, rural residents left en masse for cities like Kristiania, now known as Oslo, or a bigger largely rural land, where they could break land, build a sod house and start a farm. [pause] The depression was only one reason why so many Norwegians left their homeland. Primogeniture, or the practice of passing down a family’s inheritance to the eldest son, limited which siblings received land to start their own farming operation. Another major factor was the proliferation of agricultural machines and an era of industrialization that began replacing the work of farm laborers. Between 1820 and 1920, nearly 1 million people left Norway for the promise of a better life in the United States.
Megan: I used to cross the four-wheeler somewhere around here.
Jacob Torgerson: Yeah?
Megan: Yeah further over there.
Jacob: I think a little bit down there’s kind of a rock trap.
Megan (narrating): That’s my cousin Jacob.
Jacob: They’re way tamer to the pickup. They’re kind of spooky some of them to the four-wheeler when they haven’t been around it.
Megan (narrating): We’re only a year a part so he’s kind of like a brother to me.
Jacob: But then some of my other cattle I use the four-wheeler to bring them out feed. Buckets of feed. So then they just see the four-wheeler and they come runnin’ because they think they’re getting’ a treat, you know.
Megan (narrating): Jacob is a fifth generation Montana farmer and rancher, and he’s the only one from our generation who farms today.
Jacob: Oh yeah, I think we can go through that. It gets pretty steep here. Well, we’re committed now [sound of pickup driving].
Megan: Whoo, not too bad.
Jacob: No geeze, I got all that salt in the back she barely had power to climb the hill. Well there’s only 240,000 miles on here.
Megan: Oh my god. You’ve had this since high school. That’s good.
Jacob: Yeah, I’ve taken care of it or whatever.
Megan: Yeah, that’s good.
Megan (narrating): Jacob’s life on the hard blowing high plains of Northeastern Montana is a bit different than our ancestors who homesteaded here. The plow and horse have been replaced by John Deere tractors, and while the population has steadily diminished since the Great Depression, the number of acres farmed by a single farmer has grown exponentially. One thing that has outlasted the waves of outmigration and industrialization is the pull of legacy and the desire to keep the family farm going, if not for another century than at least for another generation.
Megan: Did you always know you wanted to be a farmer?
Jacob: Yes, I always knew I wanted to be a farmer. Yep, ever since I was a little boy. Actually my Mom was showing me some papers from when I was a kid. I was looking back at em’ and everything I wrote about or drew or colored, it was all farm. It kind of made me think of my boys. How they do. Jace will draw me pictures and it will look like a big blob but he’s like “there’s your tractor Daddy and there’s a cow over there,” ya know? And I’m like that’s great Jace. “I drew it just for you he goes. “That’s awesome.” Even though it looks like a big blob ya know, but it’s pretty cool.
Megan: That’s the sweetest thing. What did it mean to grow up helping your Dad. Tell me about that relationship, when you were younger you know.
Jacob: Oh I always loved it. I lived with Mom in Williston you know so when I got to come out to the farm it was just. It was just heaven. It was work, but it was pure fun. I just enjoyed the heck out of it.
I’d go to school and come home during harvest and come home after school and then un combine til 10-11 o’clock at night come home, eat supper, go to bed and go back to school and come back out right after football practice and do it all over again every day.
Megan: When did you start driving combine?
Jacob: I was trying to think of that Tanner asked me that the other day. I think I was 13 or 14. I learned down at Grandpa’s place. I remember one time Dad had to work on the header, but the seat shuts the header off as soon as you get out of the seat, and I didn’t weigh enough so Dad set a brick on the seat and so I sat on top of that.
Megan: That’s funny. When did you learn to drive semi?
Jacob: I think I was about 12 when I started driving the semi in the hay field, but you know over the road, probably not until I was about 17. 16, 17 something like that.
Well I didn’t have a choice. They’d say you go do that and I’d have to do it.
Megan: Did your Dad teach you. Was he showing you how things worked?
Jacob: Yeah I rode with him all the time. You just watch and learn riding with him. So I basically knew what every button did. What everything did before I tried to try it. And I suppose I drove my Dad nuts just like my drive my boys do sometimes. “Daddy what’s that. What’s that button do.” That’s the break Jace. “What’s that do though. What is it. What is it.” He’ll just keep asking the same question.
Megan (narrating): Growing up I had less to do with the planting and harvesting of grain than my cousin did. This is typical among the gendered landscape of large scale wheat farming. My sisters and I were more involved with the ranching cycle than the farming operation which includes driving eight-wheeled tractors, semi-trucks that weigh 100,000 pounds when loaded with grain, and combines that if you drew a square around would total 1,764 feet. That is more than twice the square footage of my apartment in Seattle.
While I’ve always been a bit intimidated by the air brakes, double clutch transmissions and what seemed to me to be as many buttons and dials as in an airplane cockpit, I have always loved the ranch. Anything that involved cows and bulls, border collies and four-wheelers I was all in!
But my Dad retired from ranching when I was a junior in college and my parents were 57 and 58 years old. Dad was farming more acres of wheat than he ever had before, and with more and more to do within the limited hours of daylight, the time came to sell the cattle.
It was strange going back to the farm without them there. The corrals were eerily quiet, and the steel barn, cattle chute and hay yard were like abandoned buildings in a ghost town. Fragments of twine and a rogue round bail made me teary eyed as I remembered scaling hay bales as a kid and pitching sheets of hay into the manger beside my Dad as we worked together beneath the yard light and frigid starry sky.
Megan: Is there anything you miss about ranching?
Russ: Yeah, that was – I had the cows for 30 years.
Russ: Yeah, I had em’ from 1980 through 2010. I enjoyed the cattle when I had them. I never thought too much of the work, until later on, maybe the last five years I had the cows. It just got to be a little more work than I really wanted because it overlapped quite a bit from caving season into seeding season, you know you can’t be at two places at once. So then you have to get the cows out into pasture about the first week of June or so, and then you have to get the bulls turned into the cows for the next calf crop to be born on time. And then that overlapped into spraying season for the crop. And then at the end of the spraying season, you're going to start your haying season first week of July through July. You know and then you’ve got to get the combine ready for harvest in August, so you're haying up until August. Then you gotta haul the hay in. After harvest is over, let's say end of September, it might be a six-week harvest period, then you have to get the cows moved in again for fall. And in the meantime in there, in the early part of the summer, you gotta have your fences fixed up for summer grazing so they don't get out. And then after harvest, like I said get the cows home again and then you want to be hauling grain into the elevator and then probably do that up until freeze up, until the snow flies. Then once the snow flies then you've got to be feeding the cows, so it freed me up a lot to get rid of the cows, you know. They did bring us through financially several years. Our cattle were always paid for, they weren’t bankers cattle. And the price of cattle was pretty good you know it got even better after I sold mine, but that was the choice I made.
Megan: Mom was saying that too. If one year the price of wheat was bad the price of cattle would help out. So it was smart to have two things keeping you.
Russ: You’re more diversified with cattle, definitely, but, there comes a time.
Megan (narration): Calving, bailing, fixing fence, branding, breeding, herding, nursing an ailing calf, seeding, spraying, combining, marketing grain, hauling grain, overhauling an engine, welding a broken trailer. The agricultural world of my family exists at the intersection of commodity and culture, and the ancient embodied knowledge of animal husbandry and cultivating the Earth.
Now all of this demanding, do-it-yourself labor requires a strong support system. The work of child rearing, community building and helping elderly family members, along with assisting with farm tasks, is work that many women do, that sometimes goes unrecognized. My Mom Renny who raised country kids born in the 70s, 80s and 90s has some great perspective on work load and life as a farm wife.
Renny Torgerson: At the beginning when we were first married it was a lot easier. We might not have had the money but Dad had more time. The more cattle he got, the more land we bought, made Dad very busy and all of a sudden, especially when you were born then, we couldn’t do the things we did with the other girls. We couldn’t go away for the trips, or you had to be around if all of sudden the grasshoppers were eating the crop.
There was a lot of responsibility that Dad had and he would come in late at night leave early in the morning. You kids wouldn’t see much of him, and that was really hard. I remember when you were in fourth grade there was a new girl that moved into the school system, and you invited the girl to come and spend the night, but her Mom was worried about her spending the night with us because she didn’t know what kind of family we had because you hadn’t seen your Dad in days. Well it was harvest time of course and Dad would leave before you went to school and he came home after you were in bed. That example just tells it all. How busy he was, but they were not a farm family and they didn’t understand this at the time. I think that’s the hardest part of farming. That there just isn’t enough time for the family, and it’s important to go and take summer vacations sometimes, but you know Dad was always there for your school events, when you got into sports he would take the time for that. He would take the time for that, but it’s just hard and with the price of grain constantly changing, the price of the cattle constantly changing, the droughts the different things that happen, it’s not an easy life.
Dave Thompson on Prairie Public Radio: For tomorrow a chance of showers and thunderstorms. Highs in the upper 70s to mid 80s. Wednesday mostly cloudy chance of showers and thunderstorms lows upper 50s to mid-60s, highs in the 70s to low 80s. And then on Thursday mostly sunny, chance of showers and thunderstorms, lows will be in the 60s highs again in the low 80s. And that is the forecast from Prairie Public…
Megan (narrating): I agree, things weren’t always easy, and despite my tendency to look at the past through rose-colored glasses, there are things I miss about living in sync with the seasons and physically working beside my family. Back in the truck with Jacob we talk about what it is like to raise his kids on the farm today.
Megan: Yeah when Kaloni and I were butchering chickens your boys weren’t freaked out about it. They were just inquisitive and that they can see that process of this is the chicken that we’re gonna eat.
Jacob: Daddy died it. When I shot a deer he goes, Daddy died it.
Megan: That’s funny.
Jacob: I didn’t know how he was going to act.
Megan: Oh so he went out hunting with you too?
Jacob: Yeah he was with when I shot my deer last year. Yeah, just things like that. I’m not home with them much, but they get to come with me a lot. That is another very hard thing about life on the farm and ranch is sometimes there’s days I won’t see my family. I might see Kaloni for 20 minutes a day, but I might not see the boys for four or five days. That is very hard. That’s one thing I do not like about it, but then when you get to see them it’s so much more fun.
Megan: Yeah, I was just so excited when my Dad came home and I kind of feel bad for my Mom sometimes because she was a little like chopped liver because I saw her all the time.
Megan: But Dad was just this really special person to get to see.
Jacob: That’s kind of what it’s like with the boys right now. Yeah, I feel bad for Kaloni too when I’m gone so long. She puts in a lot of work to raise the boys, I mean I help when I can, but she basically raises the boys, you know.
Megan: Yeah and she’s like a super helper, like her garden is immaculate and all the moving. That’s great that she’s taking the boys to come and pick you up and to spend time with you out in the field too.
Jacob: Yeah I appreciate her help. I couldn’t do it without her.
Megan (narrating): I’ve been wondering lately if parallels could be drawn between the modernizing and global economic mechanisms that likely factored into my Nordic ancestors’ decision to migrate West, and the modernizing and global forces that contribute to the shrinking number of farmers and dwindling population of my home county today.
I know that long hard hours are part and parcel of farm life, but seeing just how hard my Dad, uncle and cousin work makes me feel like something about this system is broken.
Now the bigger machines may be able to cover more ground faster, but it doesn’t mean that farmers have more time on their hands, or that there are enough people in the community to play on a softball league. As my Dad said “you got to be able to produce pretty cheap,” which means you need to produce more to be a wheat farmer these days.
Now I’ve heard promising things about cover crops and rotational grazing practices that restore the soil, cut the cost of inputs like herbicides and increase crop yields, but I’ve never tested them out myself. I don’t live on a farm anymore, and I want to first learn about how things are being done right now at home. So I asked my childhood friend and neighbor Thomas Ostby who farms wheat and peas, and works for an international commodity market consulting firm, to characterize the business side of farming.
Thomas Ostby: I mean it’s challenging, you’ve got a big capital investment. It’s a business, but it’s a – people like to talk on the news all the time that small businesses are the heart of America and this and that, but in the modern world a small business is a little bigger in terms of just the financial exposure and the investment than some people think it is. It’s not to denigrate anything smaller it’s just that for a lot of operations particularly in farming the investment is significant.
Megan: And that increases the risk?
Thomas: Well I guess your investment doesn’t increase your risk but you definitely have much more exposure. So it absolutely increases the risk because you are taking a bigger punt, so and you’re at the mercy of the weather and lots of other factors involved, so it does, yeah make your risk a lot bigger, unless you’ve got the bank account to cash flow you through a bunch of really bad years, which for the most part most people don’t, especially if you’re just starting out.
Megan: Can you describe why the grain prices are so low?
Thomas: Too much grain. Well they say that low prices cure low prices it’s just painful while it happens. You’ve had years in which production is particularly for grains that we raise in this area, has been relatively positive on a global perspective. And then you’ve had years in which the demand and growth has been there but not necessarily as significant. It’s a self-solving situation to some degree, unfortunately, because when you have such massive production you keep the prices low and you disincentivize production, it’s just very slow and painful to get to that situation. And then also when you have low prices you tend to build demand over the years too, so not that we’d ever want to wish ill on any farmers around the world but ultimately, unless we’re able to find a massive demand in growth you need to have production problems somewhere.
Megan (narrating): As Thomas put it, we would never want to wish ill on any farmers around the world. So it’s unfortunate that if there are production problems in say Russia, Canada or Brazil than commodity futures for American farmers will be looking up. All this talk about the interconnected world economic system makes me think back on the Drevdals, my Scandinavian ancestors who amid the seismic shift from a localized to a global economy, had no alternative but to uproot themselves from their valley homeplace and try and make a new home, halfway around the world.
According to the Scandinavian Economic History Review, “Mass emigration occurred in the period of disruption when Norway was becoming part of a world economy, when industrialization was beginning, when new means of transport were creating a national market, when a money economy was transforming the old rural social order, when international competition in an age of free trade was causing Norwegian farmers to struggle for their lives, and when international migration reached unprecedented proportions.”
Over a century later free trade still doesn’t seem to be doing farmers many favors. Same could be said about the free market economy. As Kentucky farmer, poet and activist Wendell Berry stated in a 2018 interview with the New York Times “for small farms and small businesses, the ‘free market’ is not a ‘level playing field.’”
During the Nixon-administration Berry was famous for standing up against harmful policies of then Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz who told farmers to “get big or get out” of the ag industry. Butz’s policies contributed to the rise in major agribusiness corporations, industrialization, monocropping and the declining sustainability of the family farm.
47 years after Wendell Berry delivered a 40 minute speech at the Agriculture for a Small Planet Symposium in Spokane, Washington, where he called for an “ecologically sound farm-and-farmer-conserving agricultural economy,” I find myself sitting in a field with my cousin, wondering what he’s going to do next.
Megan: So what do you need to continue farming when our parents retire? When our dads are done farming, what do you need?
Jacob: Help. That’s the main thing. I need help, cause it’s just me. You know it was Grandpa and his brothers that was four of them, and then it was Dad and Russ, that was two of them and now it’s down to just me, that’s it. So that’s the main thing I’m gonna need is help. Hired help.
Megan (narrating): When our Grandpa and his brothers were farming there were 10,000 residents living in Sheridan County, Montana. Then when my Dad, Russ and Jacob’s Dad Stu started helping out on the farm, the population sat around 6,500 people. Today there are 3,500 residents living in Sheridan County. So, not only does Jacob not have family around his age to work beside, when it comes time for him to find hired help, it won’t be easy to come by.
I don’t know what the solution to all this is, but I’d like to think that shining a little light on these issues can make an impact, even if it’s just cultivating awareness and empathy. So I finished by asking Jacob, what he would want people outside of Northeastern Montana to know about the work that he does as a farmer and a rancher?
Jacob: Well, what I wish the general population could know about not just our area, about any farmer in America is how, how poor farming has gotten to where, you know when it was our grandparents there was a family on every quarter. Now around here there’s a family every five miles. Like you look at people my age, it’s about 18 miles to the closest couple in any direction that’s our age. I don’t know if it’s because of the way the government has handled it or just how, but the prices being so poor that you have to farm – you know it used to be 200 acres was a big farm and then it was 2,000 acres and now there’s 20,000 and 50,000 acre farms in our area, just to make it go. And I wish that somehow people were more educated on not just prices, but just on agriculture in general, where it all comes from just like what you’re trying to explain it to people. I really wish the country knew that more.
Megan (narrating): I hope this story does just that.
And no matter where you live, I hope the next time that you visit the grocery store, you consider the people who grew the grain inside the loaf of bread you’re putting into your cart. [Thomas: well we raise the best wheat in the world up here]
I hope you think about the folks who despite prairie fires [Russ: we helped move some cattle, cause the flames you could seem them up to the northwest there] or white-outs [Russ: hard to see, it was just like a white-out], cared faithfully for the cattle whose meat you eat. And I hope that if you are one of the families helping raise crops or livestock, that you know just how irreplaceable you are, and how grateful so many are to you.
Sincere gratitude to my family for allowing me to share some of your story. Thank you to Jacob, Russ, Renny and Stu Torgerson. Thank you to Thomas Ostby and Annie Ostby for sharing with me books and resources on rural America and the Northern Great Plains. Thank you to Andrew Drinnan for your great care in composing original music for this story, and to our friends Dan Sadomka and Ryan Manthey for helping us compose Reframing Rural’s theme music. Thanks also to Andrew Evans for mixing.
In the next episode we’re going to hear more from my parents Renny and Russ as well as our close family friend, Kay Brinkman, as we continue exploring central questions to this first season “Coming Home” about how the Dagmar community has changed over the years and what is the future of this place. Curious to see photos of Dagmar and my family’s farm? Visit reframingrural.org, where you’ll also find full transcripts and links to donate to the creation of this podcast.
And If you’ve been enjoying Reframing Rural thus far, then I think you would like Flyover Country, a podcast set in Oklahoma that shows just how insufficient the label flyover is. While exploring her new Heartland home, host Elizabeth Caldwell’s storytelling uncovers rattlesnake dens, flat grasslands, summer protests and the Oklahoma author who wrote Where the Red Fern Grows. Check out Flyover Country on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
This episode was made with support from the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture and the Story Hangar Network of which Reframing Rural is a proud member. I produced and edited this episode on Duwamish aboriginal territory with field recordings from the ancestral land of the Assiniboine.
Thank you for listening!
Host, creator, producer and editor: Megan Torgerson
Guests: Russ Torgerson, Jacob Torgerson, Renny Torgerson, Thomas Ostby
Episode Music: Andrew Drinnan
Theme Music: Andrew Drinnan, Dan Sodomka, Ryan Manthey and Megan Torgerson
Mixing: Andrew Evans