In 1869, Norwegian immigrant John Lee, freshly released from the Union Army, bought 280 acres of farmland in southeast Minnesota’s Yucatan Township and set about building a family legacy that has continued unabated for 150 years.
This year, the Minnesota Farm Bureau recognized the Lee Farm in Houston County as one of 47 new recipients of the Sesquicentennial Farm award, bringing the total to 371 farms statewide that meet the criteria of family farms of 50-plus acres in continuous operation for at least 150 years. The oldest were founded in 1848. The Farm Bureau, together with the Minnesota State Fair, also recognized 136 farms this year as Century Farms, pushing the total to 10,717.
“There is no value to it,” said David Lohmann, 89, a retired farmer whose family has worked the land in Zumbrota since 1891. “It’s merely a recognition of farms that have been in the same family.”
Even so, Lohmann is credited with recruiting longtime family farmers in Goodhue County to apply for the designation. The county has the most sesquicentennial farms in Minnesota at 47.
“I think the reason there are so many is because we’re so close to the river,” Lohmann said, adding that the county would have at least 10 more if he could just get the families to apply.
The families receive a certificate signed by the governor, the commissioner of agriculture and the president of the Farm Bureau. They also get a sign they can post. The award is generally bestowed at the county fair.
Ruth Meirick, foundation director of the Farm Bureau, said the Century Farm program began in 1976, piggybacking on the national bicentennial celebration to recognize families that persist through the trials and tribulations of farming. Many times, the applications are filed by the children of farmers, who are generally humble, she said.
“We are very, very excited about this honor,” Kari Lee Odenbrett said about the Lee Farm’s recognition as a sesquicentennial farm. “It’s in our roots. It’s in our blood.”
She pushed hard for the award this year, noting her father’s age. She said the family is proud of its heritage and was especially sad that her mom, “angel farmer” Judy Lee, died two years ahead of the milestone.
Her father, Jerry Lee, 81, bought the farm from his father, Gilbert Lee, Odenbrett said. Her parents built the farm up to 1,200 acres at its peak, though it’s currently operating at 700 acres. They also ran an insurance business. The two businesses kept one another going when hard times hit, she said.
Jerry Lee is retired, but rents the land for farming and hunting, Odenbrett said. An avid hunter, he once tied the state record for a wild turkey he shot on the land, she said.
“My dad lives and breathes this,” Odenbrett said. “This farm is part of him. He’s given his life to it.”
Dennis Dirkes, 67, has one of six sesquicentennial farms recognized in Albany this year, which brings the Stearns County total to 22. (Stearns County has the most Century Farms, at 375.) Dirkes attributed the Albany surge to a speaker who came through the Church of Seven Dolors, a Catholic parish, and urged farmers to apply. His 170-acre farm was founded in 1862.
Dirkes, a bachelor, ran a dairy farm by himself for 30 years but said after being tied down seven days a week, he switched to beef cattle and also grows corn and alfalfa. His mother, 86, still keeps house for him. Though Dirkes just had a knee replaced, he has no plans to retire.
“As long as I can do it yet, I’m going to keep doing it,” he said. “The way it looks, I’m probably the end of the line.”