The Hancock-Henderson Quill, Inc.

Natalie Schmitt: Thinking Out Loud - Monuments to the Past!

1-12-2011 column

There is nothing quite like a bright sunny January day to make even an old curmudgeon smile and ponder to possibilities of a great year ahead. The fresh sparkling snow dances with wonder and excitement of the possibilities of a new year. Past troubles are buried in the snow drifts, out of sight, out of mind until the snow melts. It seems like time is as frozen as the pond in the back lot. At least everything can be positive for a little while.

My biggest challenge right now is remembering to write 2011 on my checks. It usually takes me until mid-May before I can write the year without having to pause and think. It is so hard to convert a zero into a one without the clerk noticing my mistake.

Things have been relatively quiet around the farm. It has been nice having Jonathon home on college break. With the extra help we have been able to get a few extra projects done. Even with the work, he has found time to sneak in a little ice fishing with his buddies. It is great to be with friends and even better when the fish are biting. It is fun listening to the guys razz each other about the big one that got away because the hole was too small. The laughter warms the house as much as the sunshine filtering through the windows. Jonathon has made me promise not to say where their “hotspot” is located.

With a lull in the work load, we have started a new project for the new year. We are preserving the hip-roofed barn that stands as a sentry to our farm yard. It has been a struggle to decide the future of this barn. The barn has become a symbol of our family farm, but its usefulness is limited by today’s farming styles.

Mark’s grandfather built the barn before he moved the family to the new farm site in the 1930’s. The barn almost seems to have his character built into its lines. It was built stout, straight and solid like the proud German he was. It commanded attention as it was the centerpiece of the yard. It was a “modern” barn with stalls for all of the work animals, draft horses and milk cows. A silo was built into the southwest corner so the feed was close to the animals. The hay mound had a grappling hook to pull loose feed up for winter storage. It was the modern barn of its time.

Through the years, the barn has changed to keep up with the times. As the horses left, stalls were converted to house more milk cows. As Mark and Al grew, Ralph realized he needed to make more dramatic changes if the boys were going to help. Ralph wouldn’t let anyone else milk in the old barn. The stalls were too short and small for the larger animals. It was a very tight fit and he didn’t want anyone to get hurt. His cull rate was high because of smashed teats as the animals tried to maneuver in their small stalls. Today it is hard to imagine the barn was ever used for a milking facility. The stalls would even be too small for Jerseys let alone Holsteins.

In 1971 he built the “new” barn and moved the milking herd across the yard. The old barn was converted to house other animals. The silo was torn down and the hole was filled in to create a bull pen. The stalls were torn out and pens were created along the feed bunk for calves and young stock. The barn was solid and still useful.

Through the years the barn has continued to evolve with changes in our farming practices. The young stock and bulls were moved out as a new shed was built for them. Today the barn houses weaned calves and a maternity pen for winter calving. The hay mound is still packed to the peaks every year with small square bales of hay and straw, but time is a factor against the barn’s future. Even though the barn was “modern” for its time, new discoveries in ventilation, housing and big bales have made it antiquated. Our vet has suggested we find (or build) a new barn for calves with better ventilation to help fight against pneumonia and other respiratory conditions.

The future of the barn was at a crossroads. Do we reroof the barn and update the ventilation or tear it down? How many more years will we be able to stack small square bales in the hay mound? If we don’t use it for livestock, what do we use it for? If we tear it down, do we lose the character of the family farm? So many difficult questions, with very few easy answers.

My dad calls these old barns a “monument to the past”. He has one standing in the middle of his farm yard in Illinois too. He says he wants to tear it down, but my brother isn’t so sure about destroying a symbol of the farm’s past and a keeper of childhood memories. They are struggling with the same questions we are in Minnesota.

Most business professors teach that sound business decisions should be based on facts and logic, not emotions and history. I beg to differ in this case. Sometimes we need to preserve the past in order better the future. Who knows how we will use this old barn, but at least it will still be standing as a sentry to our yard adding character and history. It will have a chance to evolve with the times and survive. Kind of like us farmers. Here’s to the past and the future..may they go hand in hand in making things better.


As their 4 children pursue dairy careers off the farm, Natalie and Mark are starting a new adventure of milking registered Holsteins just because they like good cows on their Minnesota farm. (Natalie grew up in Stronghurst, the daughter of Becky and the late Larry Dowell.)