What is it about an unplanned spontaneous visit with friends that can be so satisfying? We had our bags packed and our camper hooked to our truck. Originally we planned on preparing everything to be ready to leave the following morning to visit our daughter in Ft. Collins, Colorado.
“I bet Vance and Bonnie would let us park in their farm-yard,” I mentioned to my wife, Wendy. “We’d shave three hours off tomorrow’s leg of the trip; let’s give them a call.”
Three hours later we were bounding up a washboard-limestone road near Canton, Minnesota. It’s there where Bonnie and Vance’s grazing-based dairy farm is tucked in amongst the Driftless hills of southeastern Minnesota. With a trail of stark white dust rising from the road behind us we pulled into their drive. Vance greeted us, donning a mask.
“Swing right in over here and you can plug the camper in by the shed,” he told us.
No we didn’t remain masked as we spent a few hours visiting outside next to their house, but we did stay distanced from each other as we chatted. I slid a bottle of amber-colored Kentucky-based beverage toward Vance with my sandal and we shared a toast. I went back to my camper and grabbed my fleece as the evening mist settled into the valley around their farm.
Bonnie Haugen is currently the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship’s Minnesota education coordinator. Her husband Vance retired in 2018 from a career as the University of Wisconsin-Division of Extension agricultural agent in Crawford County. They’re currently transitioning their grass-based dairy operation to their son Olaf, who’s in charge of the day-to-day operation of the farm.
We’ve known Bonnie and Vance since the early days of the “grazing movement” – that period where some farmers were just beginning to adopt principles of Voisin-style rotational-grazing principles on their farms. It was an exciting time; that method of operating dairy farms was new and seemed to be working for folks. Part of Vance’s focus as a UW-Extension agent was advancing knowledge of reduced-cost parlors that fit grazing systems – and conventional systems also in many cases. His grazing-conference presentations were hands-on and spoke the language of a “real farmer” because he was one.
Another important part of those early conferences was the jam sessions. Vance had a good bit of experience working the fretboard of his guitar and was a natural leader of the sessions. Participants sat in a circle with their instruments, be it a fiddle, banjo or guitar. Vance would often begin the session by announcing a song and what key it was to be played in.
“This one’s in the key of … Dawg” he might say, meaning the key of D.
The songs were familiar. “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson comes to mind. Folks would take turns leading songs and playing along. My personal favorite that I was willing to croak out was always “The Weight,” a famous tune by The Band.
We didn’t play our guitars that recent night. I resisted the temptation to suggest it; I wanted to start early in the morning. And nothing will make one stay up past bedtime like adult beverages and two guys who really just want to be folk singers in their ideal world. At one point as we sat in the Haugen yard the lilacs bristled with sparrows in a familiar sound that instantly brought me back to our former farm.
“Oh my gosh,” I said. “I forgot all about that sound; this is fantastic.”
As we ended our visit and said goodnight Bonnie apologized for the sound of the milk pump in the background.
“Olaf should be done milking shortly,” she said.
“Are you kidding?” I answered. “There’s nothing better than the sound of a milk pump – as long as I’m not doing the milking.”
I slept soundly that night to the tune of the milk pump, crickets chirping and the distant bellow of a cow across the valley – a retired dairyman’s dream. The next day we’d head out across the pristine farms of southeast Minnesota – limiting ourselves to the confines of our truck and camper – to see our daughter. Modern-day migrants filled with hope …