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Matt Benda is an Albert Lea Attorney and Community Advocate.  He lives with his family in Freeborn County and has written a six-part series for the Alden Advance entitled, “The Old Acres Way” which chronicles his attempts to apply his farm upbringing to life in today’s complicated world.

The Old Acres Way: Part I

“Old Acres” is the name of the family farm where I grew up and learned to live life.  My parents still live at Old Acres and two of my four other siblings still live with their families within 20 minutes of the home farm.  My other two siblings live states away but seem to find every excuse to venture back to enjoy Old Acres.

I live with my family a little over an hour away from home.  Close enough to still hear the dinner bell, but far enough away that we rarely get unannounced visits.

So much of who I am comes from my experiences at Old Acres, which I refer to as “The Old Acres Way”.  As the center of our family, Old Acres is like an old friend that I will not think about for weeks.  Then, a random event triggers some memory and I find my self reminiscing about some family event — or more often than not, some life lesson that I did not realize I had learned.

Now that I am raising a family of my own, I naturally want to instill these values into my children.  I also want to make sure that the Old Acres person that I was meant to be continues to evolve.  I want my life and my children’s lives to be our own, but filled with the knowledge and experience that radiated from life at Old Acres.

As the years have passed, many of the Old Acres stories have reached folklore status.  I often wonder if I really remember an event from when it happened or if I have just heard the story so many times, that it has imprinted on my brain.  The stories, however, are true to me and that is close enough to reality for the youngest of five siblings.

It is my hope that these stories will inspire my children and remind me of what I am meant to be.  These stories will sound familiar to many who grew up in a small town.  I do wonder, however, if these same stories are still happening today in small town America?  I am not a hopeless romantic who longs for the “good old days.”  Instead, I am a realist who wants to acknowledge that things are not what they used to be.

In many cases, change is good.  In others, not so much.  The important lesson that I try to remind myself of is to be aware that change occurs.  I believe that we can appreciate change while still embracing the past.

A simple acknowledgement that today we do not wake our families up at 5:00 am to walk beans may be in order.  Technology has developed amazingly efficient ways for us to feed the world.  Yet, what do our families miss by not having that horribly annoying experience of walking in waste-high, moisture laden soybeans with only a hand hoe to battle the milkweeds and cockleburs.

Formative events for formative years.  An I-hoe app cannot possibly be expected to replace that potion of exhaustion, hopelessness and “why do we botherness” oddly mixed with accomplishment. New technology cannot possibly replace the feeling “we conquered the cocklebur patch” comradery arising from the family tackling a bean field.

I hope it is possible to instill in my family the values that we learned at Old Acres.  Perhaps these lessons can be learned in places that do not have the same authentic texture as Old Acres.  God flourishes at Old Acres, why not elsewhere with the same appreciation?

To this day, my friends in the “Cities” will ask me when I am moving back to the big city.  I usually answer that I already moved to the “big enough” city of Albert Lea.  My wife and I always laugh at my old joke, but the big city folk just don’t seem to laugh.  They seem to love what they have and we appreciate it, but do not envy it.

Too often, they cannot comprehend why we “tough it out” and perceive our lack of envy as naivety.  I hope to continue to enjoy selective ignorance.  Perhaps I can marvel at what I do not know and  revel in what I have.

This is a story about one way of life.  Hopefully, the journey forward will be richer if we just remember and appreciate the journey already travelled.

The Old Acres Way: Part II

Perseverance

For years, I have pondered the question of what makes country kids better than city kids.  In my grade school, it was uncanny how much of our time was spent battling between these two factions.  Our class was split nearly down the middle in numbers and talent for various activities.  Even our gym coach would simple say, “Trench today, farm kids versus the city kids.”

This early distinction made it easy for me to be comfortable with the differences that were thrown at me when I left the farm.  I did not feel bad that my college friends laughed at my Levi’s, because I got to laugh at their late night debates of what cows ate — true story that I had to settle a late-night argument of whether cows ate hay!!

I have met many great people from all walks of life. Yet, most of my good friends are from small towns.  I couldn’t wait to get to the big city, spent two summers in Washington DC and was ready to conquer the world.  In the end, the spirit of Old Acres conquered me instead and I met the love of my life from a small(er) town in Southern Minnesota.  We now live in a bigger small town and thank God every day for what we have been given.

I continue to search for the answer of what is different about my upbringing from others.  A few Thanksgivings ago, my family was sitting around the table at Old Acres giving thanks for the previous year and sharing our goals for the next year.  My dad was quiet and did not give an answer.

My life-coach sister pressed him instead on another topic — what trait did you try to instill in your kids to make us who we are?  After a long pause, he answered, “Perseverance — when you start something, you should finish it.”

I initially thought, “one man’s (my dad’s) perseverance is another man’s stubbornness.”  Fortunately, I quickly awakened to the simplicity of what he said.  The Old Acres way is not flashy or shiny or rich.  Old Acres raised five kids through the farm crisis and a changing world.  One step at a time determination does not mean that every step had to be strong or straight forward.  Yet, a step is not a sit down and a step after a fall is the best step of all. As John Wayne (my dad’s favorite) would say, “Life is getting up one more time than you’ve been knocked down.”

Perseverance is honorable, but may not earn you honor.  Perseverance appears easy when you look back, but insurmountable when you look forward. Perseverance can be a sin one day and a saintly act the next.  It is often the right decision at the wrong time.  Anyone can find it on the internet, but many will never know what it means.

At Old Acres, Perseverance was learned the old fashioned way — by trial and stumbling error.  I may never find the answer to all of life’s questions, but I will continue to grasp in my search for them.  After all, that is the perseverance I learned the Old Acres Way.

The Old Acres Way: Part III

Cousins

Old Acres is a fourth-generation farm that has been in my family since 1901.  According to family lore, the deed to Old Acres was once a stake in card game and was lost by a local railroad man to another business owner from out of town.  Out of curiosity, I searched the entire recorded history of Old Acres with the Jackson County Recorder since Minnesota became a state in 1849.

I discovered that on December 13, 1881 a prominent banker in Jackson County deeded the property to a businessman from Waseca.  Upon review of the History of Jackson County (a publication prepared by their historical society), I found out that this banker had once worked for the railroad and in 1879 founded the Bank of Jackson.  Some family stories are true – assuming that banker liked to play cards!!

As the youngest of 23 cousins on my dad’s side, I experienced a constant flow of cousins that would stay at Old Acres.  As the youngest of five, no one ever bothered to ask my permission, nor give me an explanation of why they were there.  One day, a cousin would just appear for a few days or a few years only to as quickly disappear again.

Of the bits and pieces I was able to pick up, I always assumed it was some big city calamity that delivered them into exile on the farm — bad choices, bad friends or probably in their opinion just bad luck.  Like some type of rural witness protection program. My dad would always portray it as if they just needed to learn some hard work and independence to clear their heads.  Personally, I think it helped just for them to be able to see the stars.

I recall my dad’s disbelief that one of the cousins did not know how to open the trunk of a car and get out their own suitcase.  This type of knowledge gaps were quickly cleared up at Old Acres.

Later in life, I learned that most of the cousins actually came to Old Acres voluntarily to visit their country cousins.  This was probably something that I should have realized earlier as I always just assumed that they had done something wrong and were sent to the farm.  Each summer, I would just introduce the stream of cousins to my friends and they would invariably ask, “how many cousins do you have?”

In hind-site, I recognize that they also were able to draw upon spirit of Old Acres by finding some silence from the constant noise of the city.  How can you quantify a quiet afternoon as a kid with nothing to do but chase cats?

The cousins, however, were by no means just takers.  They were also generous givers of knowledge about the amazing things and treacherous pitfalls that existed outside the perimeter of Old Acres.  We would often visit their turf and be given opportunities to explore their worlds as well.

When the time came for me to go off to college, I had no fear of the big city.  I had cousins that were “near” and could tap their collective knowledge I had learned from them.  I still enjoy the big city, but also long for the simplicity of Old Acres.

Perhaps the Old Acres Way is more of a mixture of emotions and experiences that find their origin from that simple place.  I have observed most of my family and many cousins successfully graft a small piece of the Spirit of Old Acres and replant it in their own households.

I hope to do the same and we continue to send our kids back to the farm to spend as much time as possible with their farm cousins.  I should, however, probably explain to my nieces and nephews that we city kids are there out of choice, not because we are in hiding from some calamity.

The Old Acres Way: Part IV

Showing Cattle

Growing up, our family vacations consisted primarily of traveling around the Country going to steer shows.  My dad was a cattle guy and we were a cattle family.  I vividly remember my mom waking the family up at 4:00 am to drive all day to the steer show in Denver.

Other kids may stop at tourist sites and stay at hotels and swim.  My family, however, had better places to be — the cattle barns.  If we did stay at a hotel, we had to be up and on the road long before any swimming pools would be open.

One day recently, I asked my dad to retell an old family story about his dad — George Senior.  As the story goes, my grandfather (who passed before I was born) was quite a cattle guy in his time.  He would gather up the cattle from around Wisconsin Township (Jackson County) until he had a train car’s worth.  He would then take his horse and his dog and herd the cattle from Old Acres to the train station 4 1/2 mile into town.  He would load the cattle on the rail car to Chicago and give his horse a slap on the rear and the horse and dog knew their way home.

Then, with the cattle from Jackson County, George would ride the train to Chicago to find simple room and board and spend the time necessary to find buyers for the load of cattle.  That was the life of a cattleman and my family did it’s best to carry on the tradition.

Spending time at the County Fair, State Fair, Ak-Sar-Ben and other shows provided a tremendous amount of downtime with not much to do but spend time with other people. For me, it was more about the people than the cattle.  Once, early in my showing career, the judge asked me if I liked showing cattle and I honestly answered “kind-of.”  Well, that answer did not win me any showmanship awards and my family patiently explained that that level of brutal honesty would not win me any awards.

I am proud to say that my senior year at the Minnesota State Fair, I redeemed myself by winning Champion Showmanship.  My steer had been in the ring all day by the time the showmanship class was up.  The first half of the class, my steer would not sit still and I had no chance of getting him set-up.  I clearly remember deciding that I was going to walk out of the ring.  As I gathered up the courage to do so, the Judge started moving my way.  Miraculously, my steer (Jet) stood still long enough for the judge to ask me a few questions.

I remember answering confidently and gave the longest answer I had ever given in the show ring.  The truth is, that as the youngest of five cattle kids, I never really got a chance to learn the ropes on fitting, feeding or judging cattle.  In fact, what I knew about rate of gain and carcus grade was generally crammed into my head the five minutes prior to walking into the ring.  The fact that I gave an answer more than “yes” “no” or “kind-of” left my family speechless.  When the judge selected me as Champion Showman, the only one more surprised than me was probably my dad.

I was fortunate that the judge assumed I knew the answer to the production questions and he asked me an open-ended question, “identify the three largest challenges facing the beef industry.”  He hit my wheelhouse and my interest in the “politics of everything” paid off.

Important lessons were learned in these 4-H activities such as pride in work (herdsmanship), that kids from other parts of the County and State were pretty interesting, patience, time management, time filling during down time and failure.  No-one liked getting a red ribbon, but everyone deserved one at some point — and you certainly didn’t cry about it.

After law school, I was loitering around trying to decide what to do next to start my career.  One day, my dad called me up to talk about my job prospects and declared that he was going to find me a job.  In a classic Mark Twain moment, I thought, my dad doesn’t have a clue!  A few days later, he called me back and explained that he had an interview lined up for me with a steer guy he knew from Albert Lea — Henry Savelkoul.  When I later accepted the job, I realized my dad had sure learned a lot in the past few days!

Showing cattle was part of the Old Acres Way and elevated the farm life to the community-wide level.  Friendly competition in the ring, while laughing and swapping stories the rest of the time.  I hope my kids can learn to appreciate spending hours just sitting on the show box talking about nothing and everything.

The Old Acres Way: Part V

Accomplishment

There is something special about taking on a task, working hard at it and then looking back with a sense of pride.  In my current job as an attorney, it is too rare that a project has a clear start and end point.  Moreover, I often have so many things happen at once that even when a project is completed it is practically impossible to sit back and enjoy the accomplishment.

In contrast, my memories of Old Acres are filled with circumstances where I felt pride in completing a difficult task.  I wonder now if that was a feeling from my youth that wore off when I got older or whether it was just the Old Acres way that provided that supreme sense of accomplishment.  Others that left the farm in their youth, to later return probably have a better explanation than I do?

Yet, I suspect that it is a little of both — youthfulness combined with a defined set of tasks.  Planting, tending and harvest crops; birthing, fattening to market with livestock — the feeling of starting the cultivator in the morning and looking back on a “clean” field at the end of the day — these tasks definitely create an immense feeling of accomplishment.

Nearly every visit back to Old Acres, I visually inspect a fence that my sister and I built one summer.  Each morning, I would be left at a spot in the ground with a hand fence hold digger.  The task was simple, get as much dirt as possible out of the hole before noon.  I can’t imagine what I thought about during this time, but I know it was peaceful and life changing.

Towards the end of each day or two, my sister and I would set the railroad tie post and move on down the line to start all over again.  After all, this was no temporary fence!  Towards the end of that summer, we finished our fence and our steers had a new haven.  To this day, when I hit a bump in the road or feel like a project cannot be completed, I just think of digging that hole, one clump of dirt at a time.  Some days, you hit a rock that is just too big and you just move the hole a few inches to a new location.  Eventually, the fence gets completed not solely by brute force, but instead through patience and perseverance.

Too often, today’s world expects demonstrable results in prompt and measurable time frames. I calendar an event on my outlook calendar and “fail” when I miss this random deadline.  Most problems or challenges that we face, however, cannot be so easily packaged.  Good days, bad days, the weather and other life activities always get in the way.

Perhaps a realignment of defining accomplishment in our lives is in order? Often, the solution I am looking for refuses to reveal itself when I want it to.  Day by day, fence hole by fence hole, I reminded myself that that the fence wanted to be built, but not necessarily when I wanted it to.  After all, if it was meant to be easy, it may not be worth doing.

I continue to search for this sense of accomplishment in daily life to recapture the feeling of accomplishment that I felt at Old Acres. Setting proper expectations probably rules the day — a clearly defined objective with a realistic completion date.  Then again, perhaps it is best to move forward with a project and call it “good” for the day when you reach a good point, a clump of dirt at a time.

After all, accomplishment the Old Acres Way is a feeling, not just a check box on your task list.

The Old Acres Way: Part VI

Freedom v. Initiative

I recently found an old journal I wrote one summer that I was home from college.  My writing exposed the anxiety I was feeling trying to reconcile my new found freedom in college to the not so fast paced life at Old Acres.  As my brain was slowing down a bit from sensory overload, I was struggling to find other ways to satisfy my observatory needs.  In particular, I noticed and documented the experience of watching a storm form and roll across the plains of Minnesota.

This particular storm appeared on a hot and muggy day and took it’s time forming and blowing towards Old Acres.  The eye of the storm eventually hit and a twisting cloud passed over Old Acres, followed by a sheriff’s car tracking the storm.  In the end, the storm barely was enough to dampen the high humidity and did not cause any damage.

Watching the storm move in slow motion, however, gave my under-stimulated brain a chance to appreciate the beauty of it.  In particular, I noted the how the first rain drop to hit a dry gravel road actually caused the dust to explode into the air. I also marveled as the grey clouds try to drop their heavy rain drops at least 5 times without success.

Clearly, time passes differently at Old Acres.  I feel that my farm upbringing gave me an advantage by learning how to spend time alone. It was a mind developing and self-reflective experience to have only my thoughts to keep me company.  Of course, I did not have instant internet and unlimited dish TV.  Instead, I was the last of five kids at home, my parents were working hard and I learned how to look past the loneliness and boredom of life on the farm.

I learned that I needed to constantly balance freedom with initiative.  This balance is difficult to find even now.  Part of me wants to enjoy the now and obtain constant gratification, while my other half is goal driven and tied to my task list.

I see this same struggle developing in my kids as I ask them to complete a task around the house.  Currently, picking up sticks is the Old Acres task that I am trying to pass on to my kids.  Sticks never stop falling, like rocks never stop growing.  I learned to balance freedom and initiative when I was responsible for picking up sticks (and later mowing and picking rocks) at Old Acres.  I knew it was my job, but I was determined to pick up those sticks when and how I wanted it done.

If my parents pestered me, I was determined that it may just take me longer as they were stepping on my freedom.  in the end, the job always was finished — just under my terms.  A simple battle that probably made my parent smile, just as I smile over the give and take of my kids belly-aching over their simple chores.

In hindsight, I realize that I was learning how to pick battles similar to those I would face in real life.  My dad, could have easily been my boss who would ask once and his voice would just get louder each time he had to ask again.  My mom?  She had a special ‘sigh’ that she would use to always get her way:

Mom: ‘SIGH!’
Matt: What?
Mom: I didn’t say anything.
Matt: I’ll do it [insert task] soon.
Mom: That’s ok I’ll just take care of it [insert disappointed tone of voice]
Matt: [Freedom defeated] Fine, I’ll take care of it.

Old Acres provided a microcosm of the world.  I had to learn to not let freedom become stubbornness or laziness and avoid allowing initiative to become obsession.  To me, I think the Old Acres definition of time management could be defined as “knowing what needs to be done, but doing it your own way and in your own time.”  Efficient?  Perhaps not.  Rewarding for a lifetime?  Definitely!

In the end, my version of the Old Acres Way is still a work in progress.  As a parent, I continue to search for ways to upgrade my “Old Acres Way 1.0” to a newer version, “New Old Acres Way 2.0” that my family and I can use in navigating today’s world.  Not all lessons can be translated, but I am surprised how many actually can.

Thank for allowing me to share my thoughts and ruminations about how life then may actually be similar to life today.  I hope you will join me in embracing the past and looking forward to the future. Good luck finding your way – for me , I will keep trying the Old Acres Way.