The Larsen Farm:
A Commitment to Family and Tradition
Local Culture & Identity in the Upper Midwest
11 December 2006
Wisconsin agriculture generates more than $51.5 billion in economic activity every year. The importance of farming economics is crucial in understanding the significant role farming plays in Wisconsin. However, it is more important to understand what lies beneath the raw economics of farming. Of the estimated 76,500 farms in the state of Wisconsin, family farmers own over 99% of the state’s farms (American Farm Bureau Federation 2004). Therefore, this paper will concentrate on the family dynamics and decision-making process that takes place on family farms.
Working on a family farm is not as simple as one may think, as family farmers are constantly faced with difficult decisions that potentially impact their entire family. The changing times and the advancement of technology can lead to conflicting opinions among family members. For example, a survey of 500 Wisconsin farm families revealed that the decision-making structure of the contemporary farm family is multidimensional and individual family members often have different goals (Wilkening 2006). Children and women also play an important role on family farms. In fact, it has been shown that United States woman and children make significant labor contributions on a family farm (Jongsoog 2006). Most children raised on farms tend to stay on the farm for a significant part of their life. Therefore, the issue of safety becomes arguably one of the most critical aspects of working on a family farm. The importance of safety lends to the fact that nothing can ever come between a farmer and his family.
It is too often that articles are published about the economic impact of farming in Wisconsin, yet I find it ironic that money is not the most important thing to family farmers. While there are exceptions, most family farmers stress the importance of tradition and loyalty. Farmers on family owned farms express the hope of passing on land and knowledge to their family (Otto et al. 2006). The families that own and work on their own farm deserve to have their stories hear. Therefore, this paper strives to give glory to one farming family, while hopefully reflecting the stories of many other family farmers across the state of Wisconsin.
|The Larsen Men: Eugene, Howard, and Matt (pictured from left to right)|
A person would have to look no further than the Larsen farm, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, to find a family that epitomizes the importance of family on a family-owned farm. Howard Larsen, 74 years of age, has owned his farm in Baraboo, Wisconsin since 1969. Howard started off dairy farming like most farmers in Wisconsin. However, three years ago his family sold the dairy cows and started crop farming. Prior to Howard’s purchase of his Baraboo farm, he had been a tenant farmer or employee on many farms near Waukesha for much of his early career after his service in the Air Force.
While Howard still owns the farm in Baraboo, his son Eugene, 52 years of age, has taken over as the individual that ultimately makes important decisions around the farm. Eugene’s son, Matt, 33 years of age, is a third generation of Larsen men that is currently working on the Larsen farm. I traveled to their farm, and sat down with Howard, Eugene and Matt to learn about the family dynamics of being raised, working, and other issues associated with living one’s entire life on a farm. Eugene wished to speak on behalf of his family, while Howard and Matt were present for the interview and added their thoughts when they felt appropriate.
Eugene was born on November 10th, 1954 in an army hospital in Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri where Howard was in the Air Force. He explains the structure of his family; he has a sister that is a year older, a sister a year younger, a sister three years younger and a brother five years younger than him. His family’s ethnic background is mostly German. His mother, Lynn, was able to trace her lineage back to the Mayflower. But overall, he summarizes his ethnic background as what you would call a “mutt.” The Larsen family is mostly agnostic and does not practice any religion.
Eugene and his siblings were with Howard when he bought his farm in Baraboo in 1969. Eugene was 14 years old at this time; he explains what it was like for he and his siblings on the new farm, “All of us were here and worked on the farm. We all did, it was just expected and there were no questions asked. Growing up, we were expected to do whatever we could do as far as chores.” Work that needed to get finished around the farm tended to take priority over school. He recalls the first day of school when they lived there in October of 1969, “We didn’t go to school that first day because we were helping to get situated on the farm.” So, Eugene and his siblings went to school the second day of school that year, but school was only a slight break from the work that needed to be done upon their return home from school. “We all did chores in the evening when we got home, it was again just expected of us,” Eugene recalls. When Eugene was a senior in high school, Howard had kept a group of young calves that he raised and fed, so he did chores in the morning before school and after school at night. Most kids, especially those of today’s generation, would complain about this labor intensive schedule, but Eugene and his siblings looked at their situation as an opportunity to help the family succeed. In fact, he was always anxious to help out around the farm in whatever way he could.
Today, Eugene’s persistence to help out around the farm has not diminished since he was a young boy. However, much of the daily tasks that take place on the farm have changed since he was young due to their decision to change from dairy to crop farm about three years ago. Eugene explains the clear difference between dairy and crop farming, “With livestock, you had a certain set regime daily, actually we had a two-week calendar we followed. It was always the same two-week cycle. With crop farming now, it is completely different every time of the year and where you are in your progression during that time.” Tasks include various fieldwork, as well as working in the shop and preparing machinery for the fields in the winter and early spring. As the weather allows, you are able to do more and more fieldwork such as preparing for planting and related tasks. Compared to dairy farming, crop farming is much more dependent on weather as Matt explains, “In 2005, we planted all of our crops in 9 days, but in 2006 we started on April 26th and didn’t finish till June 6th because of the wet weather. You know, it all depends on the weather.” Much time and effort was put into drying the fields because planting into saturated soils decreases the yield potential and as the season progresses, the Larsen’s were outside the window of prime planting opportunity by 3-4 weeks, which hurt their yields this past fall.
While weather undeniably has dramatic impact on seasonal crop yields, technology advances have allowed farmers to decrease yield loses during unfortunate seasons. To get a better idea of how farming has changed in the past century, I asked Howard what has changed since he started farming with his dad. When Howard first started farming on his father’s farm (about 20 miles west of their Baraboo farm), his dad owned what he termed “a team of horses”. Howard’s dad bought a Ford tractor during World War II, but all the kids did was play with the tractor, so his dad sold the tractor and went back to the horses. Howard explains that “everything” has changed in the last ten years. For example, compare his dad’s “team of horses” to the satellite-guided tractor that the Larsen’s currently use on their Baraboo farm. The satellite-guided tractor is able to locate where it is on the field and turn around at field’s end. While a worker is still required to sit in the tractor, the driver is only required to push a button to get it started on the right track.
|Satellite-guided tractor navigating back towards the shed and silos|
However, it would be naive to assume that the Larsen’s progressive farming method is common to the rest of Wisconsin farms. Eugene makes it clear that his family’s farming technique is not extremely consistent with other farms surrounding their farm, “We have changed more than most people in this part of the country, partly because most people in this part of the country are not real progressive. We always tried to look at newer technologies and newer ways of doing things and tried to adapt to them as quickly as possible, if it made sense.”
Eugene, who currently lives four miles south of Howard’s farm, bought his own farm in 1978, and had his first crop year in 1979. He explains how he used to spend several weeks preparing and planting his field. But today on that same piece of ground, Eugene can plant his entire farm in a good afternoon. “I would say it’s due to technology. We used to plow and disk and pick rocks and cultivate and spay and cultivate some more, but now we use no-till technology. We make one pass to prepare a little strip of soil for the seeds to go in, and then go behind that a day or two later to plant. Before when we could maybe plant 50 acres a day, now we can plant 200-300 acres a day if things are going well. Part of this is because there is bigger machinery and there have also been dramatic changes in practices to grow the crops. By getting away from all this tillage and work, we are putting a lot less time and effort into each acre that we do, so then we can do more acres.” Everything has changed concerning farming techniques and decisions need to be made as to when it is appropriate to progress; however, on a family farm, the decision-maker must consider what is best economically as well as what is best for the family.
|Shed on Larsen Farm: Used to store hay produced on the farm|
Howard turned his farm over to Eugene about ten years ago and since then, Eugene has been the individual that makes important decisions on the farm. Twenty years prior to that were years of arguing and contentiousness between Howard and Eugene. Eugene called it “intergenerational strife” that took place between he and his father. Eugene explains what happens when him and his dad have differing opinions about when to progress, “There were some issues when I wanted to progress and he didn’t want to or he didn’t understand why I wanted to, but through persistence I usually got my way.” For example, in 1988 they added an extra free stall barn and Howard was dead set against it. However, a year later, Howard admitted that building the extra barn was the best thing they ever did. The extra barn made managing the cattle easier. Eugene points out how important it was that his father was able to acknowledge that something did work that he had previously not been in favor of. Everyone on the Larsen farm feels that their way is the best way, but sometimes other people do not see it that way. Eugene does not believe these issues come about by the inability to acknowledge change, rather he feels they come about due to differing opinions concerning attention to deals. The biggest issue is that different people have different things that they put emphasis on. This is clearly seen in the controversial decision as to when children should begin labor on a family farm.
Eugene explains that society today does not understand how competent a child can be with machinery, as his son Matt was while working on the farm at ten years of age. Eugene feels that children want to help out around the farm at a young age, “It’s frowned upon about child labor and working these kids to death, but I think a lot of farm kids grow up really wanting to pitch in and help; they want to be part of the family team. I can remember first driving a tractor when I was eight years old and Matt first drove a tractor when he was about five. As a matter of necessity around the farm, you need to keep having people do things as they are able to do them. As the kid grows confident and the parent or supervisor grows confident, you allow the kid to do more and more.” Eugene and his family had neighbors that worked their kids harder and longer than he did, but they turned out fine just like kids on the Larsen farm did. Eugene goes on to tell a joke about how it is legal for a child to drive a 20-foot wide combine down the road but it is illegal for the same child to drive a small pickup truck on the road. The idea is ironic, yet it adds to the capacity children actually have in accomplishing difficult tasks on a family farm.
But as parents, farmers often deal with a child that doesn’t feel he or she belongs on a farm. This was the case with Eugene’s daughter. His daughter is twenty-eight years old, and worked on the farm like everyone else. She was initially proud to be able to help, but as she grew older into her teens, she realized that she wanted to spend more time in leisure activities with her friends. This was not easy for Eugene to deal with, “As a parent, it’s hard to understand how the child’s enthusiasm to participate diminishes as they get a little older and have their own interests. It’s hard to allow them to do this. You kind of expect them to help you more and more and more as they grow older, and then all the sudden they tell you, ‘well I want to go do something else,’ and its like, where did that come from? Well, they are developing their own interests and personalities. It’s hard to allow them to have a personal life outside the farm, and it’s even harder to encourage it.” Some parents that own farms around the Larsen farm do not allow their kids to do anything at a young age. This takes place when parents are very fearful of accidents and inherent danger of doing anything. In these cases, it is very uncommon for children to stay and farm. On the contrary, these children were able to participate more in town, whether shopping, playing sports or going to the movies.
The wives of the farm play a crucial role in deciding how children should be raised, but they themselves must make adjustments if they are to join a farming family such as the Larsen’s. Eugene’s wife’s father sold milking equipment so she was familiar that it was not just a normal nine-to-five job. Women that marry into the family need to understand that working on the farm does not have a set schedule. When there is something that needs to be done, someone has to go do it. Matt discusses how his wife Lindy, who did not come from a farming family, has dealt with marrying into the Larsen family, “She maybe didn’t understand that [the atypical schedule] at first, but she has been really good about it. She has learned that and there is never a question now, hardly ever. When we’re working, we just work.” If the weather is pressing, one can work up to twenty-five hours straight; when they are really pushing to crop, sixteen-hour days can be a luxury. Crop farmers actually have a big advantage because they only have to work extended hours like that during short periods of the year. “When we milked cows, you would get up at five-o’clock in the morning to milk cows and then do crops all day and then milk cows at night, and then go off and do crops until God knows when. That was really hard. It took its toll when you had to really push to maintain the livestock and do the crops,” Eugene explains. Work on the family farm could be rough at times, but everyone is there for each other and everyone is together.
As you can see, the Larsen family puts family before everything. This is especially true when it comes to money. Howard talked about the importance of money in his life, “As long as I got enough [money] to last me until I decide to die, that’s all I really need. I’m not one to just keep hogging it up and hogging it up, I just don’t believe in that. I believe that if I want to do something, go ahead and do it. I don’t want to be in debt at my age, but if I want to spend some money, I don’t mind doing it.” Culturally, when Howard says, “spend some money,” he doesn’t mean he will buy a new car even though he could afford it. In fact, Howard hasn’t had a new car since he was 17 years old. Moreover, he is content with a lot less than most people would be. This attitude carries over to Howard’s method of purchasing used-machinery for the farm. It is very rare that they buy a brand new piece of equipment for the farm. They would prefer to rebuild and do their own mechanic work on a used piece of equipment rather than buying new equipment; even the satellite-guided tractor was bought used. Howard and his family take pride in their farm’s decisions to buy used equipment, but he is most proud of his ability to keep his family close to him.
While we have seen that living on a family farm does not guarantee an entire family all staying in one place, Howard is proud that a considerable amount of his family has decided to raise their families around his farm. Even more, Howard is proud of his family for the way in which they live their life, “We lived with what we had, not with what we were going to get. The most important thing of the whole operation is your family. You don’t have them, then you don’t have nothing,” he explains. Howard was recently in the hospital after getting into a rough tractor accident around his farm; he remembers what he told his family when he was in the hospital, “My family is the most important thing. I believe it.” But Eugene notes how hard it is sometimes to keep your family a priority, “It’s hard sometimes to keep that in focus when you are young and trying to push and trying to make a living and trying to make ends meet. It is hard to keep everything in focus and you need to be successful business-wise, but you can’t be two places at one time. A lot of small businesses are that way; you really need to commit yourselves to them in order to make them successful.” The Larsen family has proven that it is possible to succeed in business and keep family the number one priority.
Eugene feels as a father, the best aspect of raising a family on a farm is watching your kids grow up and having them be able to help you. The Larsen family is able to celebrate every victory and every accomplishment with each other. Every individual on the Larsen farm is able to be proud of what the family has accomplished together. Eugene expands upon this, “I’m looking forward to being able to work with my grandkids and accomplish things together again, just like my dad with my son.” The Larsen’s have a large nuclear family with a lot of overlap, and it is this family dynamic and intergenerational structure that makes their relationships so intriguing. Eugene feels lucky to have his entire family close to him, even with the ability these days to communicate via cell phones and computers. The positive aspects of working on a farm with one’s family are endless, and as I learned, the positive aspects of working with your family overshadow the negative ones. Howard explains that family issues come and go, just as normal family living together would have. He talks about how his family is able to work so well together, “The majority of it is that we don’t hang on forever with something. We let it go and move on to the next thing.” The Larsen family has the ability to focus on the important things and they understand what needs to be done in order to succeed.
The Larsen’s success is partly due to their commitment to safety. Since Howard started farming years ago, safety has always been in the back of his mind and he has instilled that within his family. Howard explains the precautions his family takes on their farm, “A lot of people throw their shields away. We always tried to have them on, such as covering the belts with a shield when it’s supposed to be. We tried to keep that stuff the way it was supposed to be.” Matt compared his family’s success to neighboring farms, “We got a lot of neighbors that got short fingers.” The Larsen’s precautions have paid off, as most farmers have at least a couple fingers that have been chopped or shortened over the years. Several months ago, Howard was involved in a serious accident and the Larsen’s were in a situation they were not used to: Howard was not on the farm and he was in the hospital. Matt reflected on what it was like to have Howard gone from the farm, “We automatically assume that he is going to be here everyday and I automatically assume that he is going to be here for my son just like he was here for me.” It is easy to take your family for granted and sometimes it takes an accident to put in perspective how important an individual is to your family. Accidents on this farm, especially Howard’s recent accident, bring the family closer together and have made the Larsen family appreciate each other more.
Howard’s family was not the only group of people affected by the accident, as the community had a strong reaction as well. During Howard’s six-month stay at the hospital, he was visited by many of his neighbors. The Larsen family was never especially close to their neighbors, “They were good neighbors as you could expect,” Howard says. The most intriguing aspect of Howard’s relationship with his neighbors was the mutual respect that they have for each other, “He has always been respected in this community. Nobody ever had a bad thing to say about him,” Eugene says of his dad. The neighbors’ care shined with a tremendous showing of concern from the community when Howard was in the hospital recovering from his accident. This outpour of community care even surprised Howard, “People me or my family didn’t talk to and didn’t keep in touch with actually came to my bedside and told me that they were thinking about me.” Howard expressed how interesting it was for people he didn’t even keep in touch with to call him and wish him luck in recovering. Eugene points out that this outcry from the community reminded him that his dad was a special person, not only to his family but to the surrounding community as well. With the help and support from the community, Howard is now living at home and waiting for the next time he could get back up on that tractor.
|The Larsen Farm: Sheds to the right and left & Silos straight ahead|
|Tractors stored inside machine shed|
|Used equipment sitting outside machine shed|
Driving up to the Larsen farm is a powerful experience as you pass 4 large blue silos on the edge of Highway U. As you turn into the driveway, about 50 meters past the silos, the entire farm is visible. Since Howard’s accident, he has been unable to drive and in turn, not been able to partake in his favorite activities. He explains, “My favorite aspect of living on a farm is pulling into my driveway. I miss being able to do that and I can’t wait to get in the truck and do that again.” I worked with Howard in the hospital when he was in rehabilitation, and I found it so fascinating that despite all the troubles that he had been through, he maintained a strong desire to get back out in to the fields and start farming again. He continued, “I also like walking to my shed. I like the dirty machine shed; and I didn’t want to be in the hospital, I wanted to be in my dirty shed.” It was these memories and images that Howard said kept him going throughout his stay in the hospital. The hospital told Howard that he would never walk again, but don’t remind him of that because he wants none of it. He believes that in the near future he will climb back on his tractor, as well as walk back into the hospital. It sounds to me like Howard is going to farm again in the near future. I wouldn’t bet against it and neither would anyone that knows him.
While you can tell that Howard, Eugene and Matt have different interests and priorities, they all seem to have one thing in common: a love for farming. Howard describes what he enjoys most about farming, “I like waking up and hearing the sound of quiet. I like to be able to take a leak when I want to without worrying about people seeing me. I like seeing different things and I believe I live a very interesting life. To me, it doesn’t matter that I had a very poor education because this is what I enjoy doing the most.” Eugene adds, “I just enjoy the contributions I am able to make everyday; but most importantly, I like sharing these accomplishments with my family. They are the most important part of my life.” Eugene has so many memories as well, and he clearly remembers when he was twelve years old and he was plowing in the fall; what he remembers most was his mom asking him if he wanted hot chocolate and he could almost remember what the hot chocolate tastes like today. Eugene goes on to explain that on a football team there is the “star quarterback” and then everybody else. On a family farm this does not exist. There is no “star quarterback” on a family farm because everyone works as a team and everyone gets to share in the celebrations accomplished by the family. Lastly, Matt expresses how lucky he was to grow up with his dad and grandpa at his side. He enjoyed growing up on a farm so much that he looks forward to raising his kids on a farm. He tells a story about raising his daughter on the farm, “Her favorite thing to do is go with me on my four-wheeler up in the woods. She likes to just go up there and look and the different types of fungus growing.” Like Howard and Eugene, Matt just enjoys being out in the country and enjoying the beautiful landscape.
I was most impressed with Eugene’s ability to remember details and dates associated with his favorite memories; hence I thought it was appropriate to conclude our interview by talking about Eugene’s favorite memories. He told a story that took place on a rainy day in 1974; he and Howard spent an entire day in the fields and it just was raining harder than he had ever seen it rain before. “We just got drenched and ended up having a wonderful day in the muddy fields. What made the day complete and memorable was coming home after the long day in the rain and going out to dinner with the entire family,” Eugene remembers. He expressed what a big deal this was for them because going out for a nice dinner was not a normal occasion. Another of Eugene’s favorite memories took place in 1968 when he was fourteen years old. “I had been riding a new tractor that my family had just bought. When the sun went down I started to see different colors in the sky. As the sun continued to go down, I realized that I was looking at the northern lights. It was just beautiful.” He spent that entire night plowing the fields looking at the northern lights as they lit up the sky all night long. This story reminds Eugene of one of the joys associated with growing up on a farm.
The Larsen’s understand the dangers of working on a farm, but its recollections like those above that inspire them to wake up every morning. On the Larsen farm, family is a priority and everything else in life follows. Howard’s passion is inspiring, Eugene’s knowledge is admirable and Matt’s endless hard work is remarkable. This family has gone through the best times as well as the worst, but through thick and thin they have stuck together. From horses to satellite-guided tractors, the Larsen family has not only progressed, but they have progressed together. Owning a farm is like running a small business, but to this family the farm is much more than a business: it’s their life.
American Farm Bureau Federation: “Farm Facts 2004”
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