From English teacher to cutting-edge farmer

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Farming was not Carmen Fernholz’s first career choice.
In fact, even though he grew up on a farm, he did not consider working in agriculture until after he graduated from college.
Prior to farming, Fernholz taught English for five years. He said he believes his liberal arts education broadened his world view and stoked an internal curiosity that has led him to be open to new ideas and experimentation in the way he grows crops.
Fernholz, of rural Madison, is one of nine southwestern Minnesota farmers who took part in a 2018 soil health case study conducted by the University of Minnesota Extension’s Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota and the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management at the U of M. The research project was completed by Kathy Dooley, research assistant through the U of M’s Center for Urban and Rural Affairs. Fernholz also served as a member of the case study advisory team.
Fernholz farms 450 acres near Madison. He grows corn, soybeans, small grains and alfalfa.
Among the soil health practices he employs on his ground are cover crops, certified organic growth, minimum tillage, small grain rotation and residue. He said he chose these practices primarily based on their ability to improve the health of his soil.
Fernholz said he uses alfalfa to minimize perennial weed pressure. He eliminated deep tillage to prevent erosion and promote organic matter, and he leaves crop reside in the field to protect against wind and rain. Additionally, he said the roots of his cover crops reduce soil compaction and enhance soil microbes.
Fernholz said incorporating these practices has not affected yields, all while allowing him to reduce inputs. An additional economic benefit is the ability to enroll in an expanded array of assistance programs, he said.
Although Fernholz uses soil tests to monitor changes in the health of his soil, he said visual inspection is just as important.
“Going out and looking is a practice that needs to be incorporated a lot more,” he said.
He said he can see the roots of his pea plants full of nitrogen nodules, which he knows are helping keep his land fertile. He said he has also noticed an increase in earthworm activity and enhanced soil texture.
Fernholz said each farm is unique, and added finding the right mixture of cover crops and other specific practices requires time and experimentation. He recommends farmers seek information and ideas from a variety of sources, including publications, workshops and experts, and trying out various options before deciding which is best for each individual farm.
Theresa Keaveny, executive director of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, said Fernholz’s case study — along with the others included in the soil health research project — is a valuable resource for farmers across southwestern Minnesota.
“These case studies should be a real help to farmers who are new to soil health practices, cover crops and livestock,” she said.
The soil health case studies report is available online at z.umn.edu/SoilHealthCaseStudies.

 

Female farmer continues family’s legacy

Nestled in rural Lincoln County between Ivanhoe, Taunton and Marshall is a midwestern farmer who in many ways is like any other farmer you will find –– humble, hard-working, busy and always looking forward to the next challenge and the end of harvest.
But this farmer is a ‘she’ and, as a woman, Paula Sterzinger is unlike at least 91 percent of all other principal farm operators in Minnesota. Women principally operated 6,370 farms, or 9 percent of all Minnesota farms, according to the latest agricultural census data from 2015 from the Minnesota State Demographic Center. This figure does not account for women who worked as “second” operators on farms, as farm hands or by helping their husbands who principally operated a farm.
Sterzinger started out like many of her male peers by helping her father out on the family farm. Back then, she was Paula Vlaminck, the farmer’s daughter who could usually be found out in a barn or in a tractor after school. After she had graduated in 1986, Paula went to Minnesota West in Canby and graduated with a Legal Secretary diploma in 1987. Although she has never regretted taking the time to work for her diploma, Paula knew that spending the majority of her day in an office behind a desk was not the perfect fit for her. So she asked her father if there was room for her to help out on the farm and in 1991, he started her out with a quarter of land (roughly 160 acres) and his blessing.
“He thought it was great that someone wanted to take over the family farm,” said Sterzinger, who out of five children –– two boys and three girls –– was the one who would ensure the farm stayed in the family.
Presently, Sterzinger has around 900 acres with about 120 acres designated as pasture. Her diverse portfolio is made up of corn, beans, wheat and some alfalfa she grows to feed her own livestock. In addition to working with grains she raises around 50 to 55 stock cows each year along with a few lambs, goats and horses.
In 1992, Paula met her husband, Tom Sterzinger, and the pair married in 1995. While running Tom’s business, Sterzinger Crushing, Inc. and Paula’s farm, together they raised four children, the youngest currently in the sixth grade. Being a mother, wife and farmer presents its own challenges, but none that were too big for Sterzinger to tackle.
“It was difficult but I’m glad I did it,” Sterzinger said. “For the first few years they’d go off to daycare but once they were a little older around five or so Id have them with me out in the tractor or in the barn. It was great to be able to do that, to teach them lessons and show them everything. That’s something I couldn’t have done working in town or in an office.”
As a woman in a male-dominated industry, Sterzinger has had her share of looks of disbelief when she tells people what she does for a living.
“You know sometimes I’ll get a funny look or a response like ‘You don’t look like a farmer,’” Sterzinger said. “So I just laugh and say, ‘Well, what’s a farmer supposed to look like?’ Sometimes they’ll think it’s my husband’s farm and I just help him on it but that’s not the case.”
For now, Paula is content to continue working on her farm, with the hope that she will be able to pass it on to one of her children.
“One of my sons wants to go to college for agricultural production and then come back home and farm,” she said. “When that time comes I will be happy to pass it on to the next generation and know it is staying in the family. I will always come back and help them because I enjoy what I do.”
 

Wet year meant good year for local beekeeper

Though last year was a challenging year for local farmers, it was a downright great year for beekeepers.
That’s according to Merrill Eggestein of rural Jackson, anyway.
“There was plenty of rain,” Eggestein said, “so plenty of flowers.”
That made the job of Eggestein’s worker bees — which are capable of traveling up to six miles from the hive in search of nectar when needed — a lot easier, and the quantity of honey Eggestein was able to pull from his hives a lot greater.
The rain fell early and often last spring and summer, Eggestein said, making the sweet spot of honey production in this part of the state even sweeter.
“In southwestern Minnesota, May 15 to Aug. 15 is the honey-flow period,” he said, adding peak flow is right around the Fourth of July.
A productive hive will produce around 300 pounds of honey each year, Eggestein said.
Eggestein, who lives north of Jackson, has been in the beekeeping business for nearly a half-century — the first 40 years or so in northern Minnesota, and the last five in Jackson County. He said he’s long been fascinated by the insect and the sweet treat it is able to produce.
 

The artist among us

In the middle of the midwestern prairie now covered in a blanket of snow resides an almost unknown hidden cultural treasure who happens to be a neighbor to those who live in the rural Chandler area of southwest Minnesota.
Primitiva Monteiga, who goes by the artist name of Primi Monteiga, has been living in the area since 2010. Her art is well known in her native country of Venezuela, but she and her story may be a mystery to those who have driven by her acreage on Highway 91 and appreciated the statue of an angel sculpted from cement that kneels at the end of her driveway.
Visiting the inside of her home is to be greeted by an oasis of South American culture, charm and hospitality. As she is not fluent in English, her daughter, Marcia Carrera-Fernandez, translated from Spanish.
Born in Spain on April 24, 1940 at the beginning of World War II, Monteiga and her family were no strangers to hardship. In 1957, over 10 years after the war had ended, Primi’s father sent her to live with family in Venezuela in hopes of a better life for her. Little did they know that years later, Venezuela would also become a country that would suffer hardship under President Hugo Chavez, and that the country would be in the world spotlight today for its continued tumultuous political climate long after Chavez’s death.
 According to Monteiga, her father also sent her to Venezuela hoping that she would forget about her then-boyfriend, Jose Fernandez, of whom her father did not approve. Her father’s plan did not work and Jose eventually followed Monteiga to Venezuela where the two were married in 1962 and had two children, Marcia and Alejandro.
Although Monteiga had an interest in art from a young age, it was during her adult years she received much of her formal education. She studied in Caracas, Venezuela under famous artists such as J.A. Aranaz and Dr. Pedro Centeno Vallenilla, working within many different mediums, such as oil paint, wood, bronze, stone, cement and stained glass.
Art has been a part of Monteiga’s life for 45 years and it is one of the most important things to her.
“It is something that has filled my life even though I have never been able to devote as much time as I wanted,” she said.
In Venezuela, Monteiga is most notably known for her oil paintings of the indigenous tribes of the country. She extensively researched each tribe in order to accurately portray their culture in her work and she was the first artist to ever paint them in Venezuela.
“I felt I had to paint them because I felt like I was one of them,” she said. “I painted the entire collection of 47 Chiefs of Venezuela, and it is the only one that exists.”
The fact that it was the only collection in existence, the government classified Monteiga’s art as a national treasure. So when she and her family decided they had to leave in 2010 due to economic and political crisis, she faced great opposition from the government who would not allow her to take her art with her.
“The government would not allow anything of value to leave the country and that included all of her art work,” said Carrera-Fernandez, Monteiga’s daughter. “They would not allow Venezuelan bolivar [the country’s currency] to be exchanged for American dollars and shipped out, which is what we needed for my parents to leave.”
Not willing to part with her life’s work, Monteiga had to devise a plan to smuggle her own art out of Venezuela. Piece-by-piece she removed each painting from its frame, gently rolled them up and sent them one-by-one as “gifts” to family members over the years.
“There are two things in my life: art and family,” Monteiga said. “I could not leave the family for art, and I could not leave the art either because it fills me a lot and everything I saw and felt I wanted to capture in the canvases.”
Monteiga and her family had to leave behind much of what they had in order to come to the United States. Her husband Jose stayed behind for four years to try to sell his business, but in the end he had to let it go for a very cheap price so he could join the rest of the family. To this day, the Monteiga-Fernandez family have yet to recover all of their family’s financial assets from the country.
Originally, Monteiga’s son was attending college in California in 1982 while the rest of the family was back in Venezuela. Monteiga’s daughter, Marcia, first came to stay with her brother in 2004. It was then that Marcia met her husband, Jose Carrera, who had a sister who lived in Chandler. Marcia had concerns about living in a fast-paced, crime-ridden California environment, so she told her husband that she wanted to move to Chandler where he had family. In 2010, Monteiga was able to join her daughter in Chandler. After living in a house in town for some time, they were able to move to the acreage that they call home today.
For Monteiga, leaving Venezuela so many years ago was a difficult choice.
“For me it was very sad to leave Venezuela because I had lived many years there and I left all my friends,” she said. “It was very sad for me to leave everything, it was very hard. I came to a strange country, my children were here, and thank you God, now I feel happy. I love living in this rural area of Minnesota because people are very kind and special like family. They treat everyone very well. One is calm, one breathes pure air. I feel at home. I feel very good.”
Even at the age of 78, Monteiga continues to create art in her rural studio, with some of her work appearing locally, like the painting of a fish she did for Lonnie Clark, the president of the State Bank of Chandler, and the stained glass art that can be found in Saint Mary’s Church in Worthington.
Her artistic accomplishments go beyond painting and sculpture. In the past, the Venezuelan government commissioned her five times to have her work printed as stamps for the country. A limited number of stamps were printed, and only 120 collector’s books were produced. At the present time, Monteiga is working to have a book of her work published.
Monteiga would like for all of her neighbors to know that they are welcome to pay her a visit.
“I want my neighbors to know that they are welcome to come and meet me and see my art,” she said. “I want to share it with them. I would be pleased to meet you and share with you my work and the joy that it brings me.”

 

Trimont Farmer Pursues Ag Leadership Opportunities

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Trimont farmer Haley Ammann has been selected as an American Soybean Association Corteva Agriscience’s Young Leader for 2018-2019.
“I hear a lot of talk about baby boomers trying to find millennials to get involved, but it doesn’t scare me to get involved,” said Ammann, 24, who is also a member of the Martin County Corn and Soybean Growers Association. “I’m always looking to grow myself and become more involved.”
Ammann was raised on a cattle farm in Trimont. The farm grew into a cow-calf operation about 15 years ago, and her family rotates more than 100 acres of corn and soybeans. Ammann has been active in FFA programs, and currently sells Cenex branded products in the energy department at NuWay Cooperative.
“I work with farmers all day and then go home to my operation,” said Ammann, who is marrying her fiancé, Levi, in August. “It’s exciting to see all the different people you can meet and take you places.”
The ASA position isn’t the first time Ammann has pursued a soybean leadership opportunity. In January 2018, Ammann was accepted into the National Biodiesel Board’s See for Yourself trip to Fort Worth, Texas.
“I want to take these opportunities to my advantage and bring it back to my farm,” Amman said. “I’m eager to revamp how I do things on my farm.”
The Young Leader Program is a two-phase educational program for actively farming individuals and couples who are passionate about the future possibilities of agriculture.
Phase I of the 2018-19 Young Leader program took place in Johnston, Iowa, this past November. The second and final phase of the program continues Feb. 26 to March 2 in Orlando, Fla., in conjunction with the annual Commodity Classic Convention and Trade Show.
Minnesota couldn’t have picked a better farmer to represent the state at the national level, said Martin County farmer Lawrence Sukalski.
“Haley will be a good one,” he said. “She’s one of those people — you give her something to do, she’ll be there. She comes through quickly.”