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Passing the torch: Gary and Debra Drost prepare to leave century farm to son

LUVERNE -- As the birds chirped, the cicadas buzzed and the wind blew across the new crops, Gary and Debra Drost sat on the back patio outside their home and talked about the family's farm in rural Luverne, in Kanaranzi Township. The Drost family...

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Debra and Gary Drost stand in front of their home, the only structure on the property that was built before the family owned the farm. (Roberta Fultz / The Globe)

LUVERNE - As the birds chirped, the cicadas buzzed and the wind blew across the new crops, Gary and Debra Drost sat on the back patio outside their home and talked about the family’s farm in rural Luverne, in Kanaranzi Township. The Drost family moved to the property and started the farm 100 years ago.

However, according to family history, they weren’t aiming for Luverne.

“This is the way the story goes, or so I’ve been told,” Gary Drost said, leaning back on a sofa on the back patio. “They moved from Grundy County, Iowa, out to the Parker/Marion S.D. area, and then there were the Indian uprisings.”

The growing tensions between several groups of Sioux people and the United States government erupted in the latter half of the 19th century in a long series of conflicts known as the Sioux Wars, with many of the major clashes taking place in South Dakota. The periods of peace between confrontations were rife with unrest.

“(My family) had to leave,” Gary said. “They came back this far east, and this is where they settled.”

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Gary’s great-grandfather, Albert Meester, originally founded the farm in 1917, which he later passed on to Frank Drost, his son-in-law.

“My grandfather was (an immigrant), my great-grandfather was not,” Gary explained. “My grandfather came over when he was 15, left Germany all by himself.”

Frank married Albert’s daughter, Sena Meester. They then passed it on to their son, Elmer.

“I did know (Albert),” Gary said. “He lived to be an old, old man, nearly 98; and my grandfather as well, that was on this farm - he (also) lived to be 98.”

After Elmer died, his wife, Frances, carried on the farm. Gary worked and lived on the farm, and inherited it from his mother in 2014.

Debra is from Old Ham, S.D., and moved to Luverne for employment as a social worker.

“I worked at the nursing home,” she said. “I hadn’t been there that long when Gary’s grandmother, Sena, was admitted as a resident. Eventually we started dating, and we married. It made the transition into the family easier: I knew the family because they’d been to visit his grandmother - the aunts and uncles and such.

“We’ve been married for over 36 years.”

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Gary and Debra have two children and three grandchildren. Their eldest, Andrea, is in the Army National Guard, currently living stateside with her daughter.

“She’s done two tours in the Middle East, but currently she’s in active guard reserve in the Twin Cities area,” Debra said. “She’s currently in public affairs, but she’s an artillery officer. She’s done well.”

Their second child, Timothy, lives nearby in Luverne. He works on the farm now, and he and his wife, Michelle, and their two children plan to move out to the farm after Gary and Debra retire.

Then and now Of all the buildings standing on the property, one was there when the family first moved in: the house.

“We think it was built in about 1912, and our grandparents moved here in about 1917,” Gary said. “It’s probably been remodeled several times over the years - we’ve pretty much done every room in the house. Windows, siding, roof, basement… but the house is the only building original to the century farm.”

“Buildings have changed a lot,” Debra commented. Frank’s old machine shed still stands on the property, and several buildings are new - notably the three hog barns.

“We primarily (farmed) corn and soybeans,” Gary said. “Some oats and alfalfa. We’ve had cattle and hogs - but not near the scale our son is doing now.”

The two know that farming has changed a lot since the early 1900s.

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“It’s less labor intensive,” said Gary. “That to me would be the biggest change. … My folks - a lot of their success came as a result of hard work, but today you have to approach it like a business.

“You aren’t going to do it with hard work anymore.”

“Business economics, really,” Debra added. “It’s run as a business.”

“The labor was just so intense,” Gary said. “Even as a child you had responsibilities. As a young teen, during the summer months you were expected to work as a man all day long.”

“Buildings had to be cleaned out, cows milked and the barn had to be cleaned and it was all by hand.”

The earliest memory Gary has of farming is learning to avoid the threshing machine.

“That was for oats,” he said. “On all farms, that was a big deal. My grandfather and uncle had a threshing machine together, and you had to stay away from the threshing machine. Probably because we’d get hurt, but we weren’t necessarily told that. You just stayed away from it, it was off limits.

“I actually drove a tractor when I was four years old, pulling a bundle rack,” he said, grinning. “It was an old John Deere with the hand clutch - it had the platform I could stand on.”

As farming has become more business-oriented, technology has changed the game.

“You don’t have to be at the elevator to check commodity prices, we can be riding along on a trip, and the cell phone has a specific sound for the market report,” Debra said.

“A computer, an iPad, an iPhone - you won’t survive without any one of the three,” Gary added.

“It’s a different busy,” he explained.

Farming is still more than a full-time job, but the Drosts have made time to rest.

“We take more time off during the summer than we used to,” Gary said. “We do some traveling. Last year, we fortunately went to Alaska for a week. It was beautiful - like this,” he said, gesturing at the clear June evening, sun setting across the farm. “A little cooler, but like this.”

Conservation In an effort to protect Minnesota’s water, a buffer law was passed last year, and the state continues to debate the best conservation practices. The law has impacted many farmers across the state - but not the Drosts.

“For us it wasn’t an issue at all, because most of those areas (requiring buffers) we’d already done it ourselves,” Gary said.

“For example, we purchased a quarter east three years ago,” Gary explained. “Before we ever started farming it, we noticed some erosion, so we sowed down a bunch of grass. It worked - the erosion stopped. … It’s a way of protecting the land, protecting the soil.”

Protecting the land and making it viable for future generations is important to the family.

“Gary’s been a wonderful steward of the ground,” Debra said. “He’s done a lot of terracing and has really initiated conservation practices on the land that he farms, and our son is conscientious the same way.

“They talk about conservation practices now,” she added, smiling. “I just anticipate that really, Timothy will be the next steward of the soil.”

“It’s our life, you know?” Gary said. “It’s been our livelihood for several generations. It’s just been about maintaining it, and trying to improve it, so it’s there for the next generation.”

Gary and Debra are looking toward retirement in the next year, moving off the farm so their son’s family can move in.

“Tim’s family is out here multiple times a week,” Debra said. “And we love it - they love it. Their dad spends so much time here - it’s a fun place to be, a chance to spend time with their dad.

“And simple pleasures - the cat had kittens, and only one of them survived, and they check the cat and the kitten every time they come out. They have a small garden that they check on. Hunting asparagus is a big deal. … Any chance they can ride with their dad in the tractor, they do it. It’s not uncommon to see them in a tractor cab, all four of them, getting ready to harvest - you know, it’s a family affair.”

The family has continued to add to the farm and expand it throughout the century.

“The original farm was a quarter, and I think each generation added to that. It’s time to pass the torch,” Debra said. “Tim and Michelle are ready to embrace that.

“We have pride in what we’ve accomplished in our generation,” she said. “We added to what was done by generations before us, and we look forward to seeing what our son will experience.

“It’s a great life. I’ll miss it. … I adore it - I love the open space. The city’s a great place to go and visit, but coming home is just wonderful.”

The two hope to travel after retirement, but may not end up going far.

“She doesn’t think the grandkids could live without her,” Gary teased.

“I can’t live without them,” Debra confessed.

“We’re ready to move on,” Gary added. “This farm has taken care of us, and now it’s time for it to take care of somebody else.

“It’s a good time to move on - year 100 - and let the next generation lead it into the next century,” he said.

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This recent drone photo of the Drost farm shows Timothy Drost's additions of hog barns to the property. (Special to The Globe)

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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