WORTHINGTON — The youngest of five girls to be raised on a multi-generational dairy farm in Bigelow Township, DiDi Edwards had never really planned to return to that very homestead to begin a career in farming, but she did.
Now, as she and her husband, Jason, raise their two children just across the state line south of Bigelow, they can’t see raising their family anywhere else.
“When you have the kids riding in the tractor or taking them out to see the calves, and nieces and nephews enjoying the farm — doing things they don’t get to do at home — you realize how great you have it,” said Edwards.
It’s the little things — the joy and smile of a child — that can make all the difference to farming families who have been hampered by the weather, markets and politics these past few years.
Edwards recently wrote an article for Minnesota Farm Bureau’s monthly publication about the importance of finding balance at a time when agriculture can leave one feeling tired and frustrated. Times have changed from the days when her grandpa was farming — when social interaction with neighbors was commonplace. Now, people are more apt to connect through social media and less in face-to-face conversation in the farmyard.
Her message to farmers was of encouragement — to put a concerted effort into more socialization with their neighbors and quality time with family.
“Our children can reignite the spark we may have lost or we can ignite a spark in them to get started in an industry that we love,” Edwards wrote.
Season of discovery
When Edwards graduated from Worthington High School in 2002, her plan was to study biology in college with thoughts of pursuing a career in either the medical field or veterinary science. She started out at Minnesota West Community & Technical College in Worthington, but after transferring to the University of Minnesota, she saw the cutthroat attitude of students pursuing medical careers and decided that wasn’t her kind of crowd.
“I got involved in the Gopher Dairy Club and started taking classes with dairy production,” she said. “That was what I knew and what I was good at. I felt comfortable.”
Through her coursework, Edwards would join her classmates on visits to dairy farms, where they would evaluate the farms and offer ideas on ways they could improve their operation.
“Some asked if I wanted to come and work on their farm, and that makes you feel good as a person,” Edwards said.
When she graduated in 2007 with a degree in biology with an emphasis in dairy production science and pre-veterinary science, she knew she wanted to return to the family farm in southwest Minnesota.
“I think when I came back, you’re somewhat naive — you don’t understand the full business of farming,” she said. “Some kids love driving the tractor or working with livestock and you don’t realize the pressure of farming. You don’t understand the pressure of the markets.
“In agriculture, you have very uncontrollable things — you have weather, you have markets,” she added. “It’s challenging. It’s not always fun, but yet it’s enjoyable — it’s something new every day.”
Edwards said that after college, people say you should always work for other farmers or in a different job before returning to the family farm. For her, though, she feared the farm might not be there to come back to someday if she didn’t do so right away.
“At that time, it was questionable whether we were going to stay farming or not because it was difficult to find help,” she said. “I came back because I didn’t want that opportunity to be lost — of not being able to come back.”
Season of learning
When Edwards returned to the farm after college, it wasn’t with the idea that she was going to take over the operation. Rather, she viewed it as a learning opportunity.
“I didn’t necessarily have a job description,” she recalled. “It was do anything and everything, kind of what needed to be done.”
That meant feeding cows and calves, milking cows, picking rock, doing the artificial insemination work, keeping records and scraping manure. She also helped with hay baling, though she wasn’t much involved with the rest of field work and crop production.
“Driving tractor was kind of the guys’ club — that’s what hired hands wanted to do, and the women did the livestock stuff,” she said. “Now I’m starting to have to learn more of everything — planting and combining, all of it.
“The other day I was scooping out the front of our calf barn and taking it out one shovel at a time,” she added.
Farming is a profession filled with physical labor, seven days a week and every holiday, through winter snowstorms and summer rains.
“When you have nice days your hours are way, way longer, and when it’s 20-below, you try to do the work you need to do and then get inside,” Edwards said. “That’s sometimes hard for people to understand — outside of those who aren’t on the farm.”
The physically demanding labor of a farmer has led to an epidemic of opioid use — an issue that was brought to the light within the past couple of years and one Minnesota Farm Bureau is working to address.
Mental health among farmers has also been one of the focal points of Minnesota Farm Bureau within the past year.
“Farmers and farm families feel the weight of farm pressure,” said Edwards, who serves on the state’s Promotion and Education Committee for Farm Bureau. “It’s hard for (farmers) to ask for help.
“If farmers are feeling burdened, we have a farm hotline now,” she said. “It’s OK to ask for help — it’s OK to say that you’re struggling.”
Edwards said what gets her through the struggles of farming are prayer, being a mom and being a wife.
She and Jason married in 2016, and are parents to 2-year-old Josie and 11-month-old Easton. Jason works for O’Brien County Implement in Sheldon and grows crops on his family farm, in addition to helping DiDi’s parents, Dean and Carol Christopherson, with field work. He also serves as secretary-treasurer for Nobles County Farm Bureau.
Season of renewal
Edwards, and all of her sisters before her, served as a Nobles County Dairy Princess. She held the title for four years, and in 2006 was a finalist for Princess Kay of the Milky Way.
She still works to promote the dairy industry by serving on the Nobles County Dairy Association board and managing the malt stand during the Nobles County Fair.
“Any time you go anywhere, sit at a table and tell people you are in the dairy industry and was a dairy princess,” Edwards said. “That just opens up all kinds of questions.”
The public is interested in learning about agriculture — about where their food comes from — and Edwards said it’s up to farmers to tell their story. If they don’t, the story might be told for them.
“That’s where a lot of misperceptions come from,” she said. “We need to be the face for agriculture and not let other industries put faces out there.”
Edwards sees this as important not only for her future in agriculture, but for the future of her children.
“I want to have my kids involved in agriculture somehow,” she said. “I think growing up in agriculture instilled a lot of good things in me. I just pray the agriculture industry can stay moving forward and growing instead of shrinking and shrinking.”
Edwards recently did a project for Midwest Dairy and Minnesota Milk in which she called dairies across southwest Minnesota to see if they were still in business. What she found was that at least four dairy farms in Nobles County got out of the business within the last couple of years.
“I don’t really know how big some of the dairies were,” she said, noting they were all family farms.
It has been a tough few years for agriculture, and for dairy farmers in particular, but as all farmers know, the business of agriculture operates on a cycle of highs and lows. This season of challenges will one day turn into a season of renewal.