2022 Century Farm: Olives, ice cream and carrot-raisin salad are Perkins family traditions
Rural Worthington farm celebrates sustainability for over a century
WORTHINGTON — The Perkins family totally digs their roots.
And why not? Those roots are deep and strong, extending back well over a century on the same 160 Elk Township acres a scant five miles north of Worthington.
And more than 40 years of agricultural conservation practices culminated in Jerry and Terry Perkins, along with their daughter Julie Perkins Lopez, being named Nobles County’s Outstanding Conservationists in 2016.
“I guess our contribution to the legacy of the farm was the conservation of its main resource: the soil,” said Jerry, 82.
“We’ve been committed to protecting the air and water and improving and maintaining the soil resource for a long time.”
Newly designated in 2022 as a Minnesota Century Farm, the Perkins family plot has technically been a part of their heritage for considerably longer than 100 years.
The first known owner, George Backer, was born in Hesse, Germany, and purchased the land from the Sioux City-St. Paul Railroad in March of 1888 for the then-princely sum of $10 an acre.
George’s brother, Rudolf, inherited the property when George passed in 1899, but due to a series of unfortunate events — mainly attributed to a lack of modern transportation and technology — it wasn’t until 1911 that Rudolf and his wife Katie Berlet Backer (Jerry’s second- great-aunt) were recorded as being in official possession of the farm.
“It took some trips between Nobles County and Chatsworth, Ill., to straighten it all out because they didn’t have the right documentation,” said Jerry.
In 1922, Katie Berlet Backer’s niece, Amelia, and her husband Gilbert Perkins assumed the farm’s ownership. Wallace, the son of Amelia and Gilbert, was Jerry’s father.
“Wallace was born in Chatsworth, Ill., and he met my mother Maurine in Worthington,” said Jerry, adding that his father — a smart and clever man who was a mechanical innovator with several inventions to his credit — was the couple’s first-born child. That meant his formal education ended after the eighth grade so he could help out full-time on the farmstead.
“He probably went to the same country school that my brother Jim and I attended, about a mile and half northwest of our place,” Jerry said, mentioning that Wallace’s younger siblings all attended high school and a few went on to college.
Jerry and Jim sometimes rode a Shetland pony bareback to school; walking and biking were additional modes of transport. Jerry fondly remembers camping, playing games and splashing in the creek (technically County Judicial Ditch No. 8, a rerouted south branch of Elk Creek) with Jim and their younger siblings Daniel and Karen during their childhoods.
“The ditch was dug in the early 1900s at a pretty hefty price, and that stressed many farms financially and caused some bankruptcies, which was not atypical at the time,” said Jerry.
Flax, oats, corn and hay, along with milk cows, chickens and pigs, were raised on the Perkins’ farm, with soybeans added to the mix around 1950, according to Jerry.
“It was good farmland and we had a rotating pasture model,” Jerry said. “I enjoyed going out on a horse and bringing the cattle in for the night or to be milked — and I didn’t know it at the time, but I did not like getting up early (around 6 a.m.) to help with the chores.”
Around the world and back again
Jerry graduated from Worthington High School in 1958, having moved with his classmates into the existing Clary Street building midway through his senior year.
“We transferred to the new building over Christmas vacation,” Jerry recalled.
All four of Wallace and Maurine’s children went on to college; Jerry and James attended South Dakota State University (James later worked in Bolivia as an agricultural missionary), Daniel graduated from the University of Minnesota and taught vocational agriculture at the high school level before farming with his father-in-law, and Karen is an alumna of St. Cloud State University.
After pursuing a graduate degree for a time, Jerry was hired as an agricultural advisor to the Peace Corps. He met his wife of 57 years, Terry, when they were both in Peace Corps training at the University of Notre Dame; work in Chile and Bolivia followed.
“Because of our work globally and later in Montana, Terry and I have a great appreciation of diversity and a broader perspective of what community means,” said Jerry. Therefore, the Perkins family has volunteered and led in many capacities in the Worthington area over the years, aided by their Spanish fluency. Notably, Maurine was a founding member of the committee that established the Worthington International Festival in the late 1990s.
The younger Perkins family, which by then included daughter Julie and son Michael, returned to the family farm in 1974, taking up residence in the circa 1923 house where Jerry was raised; Wallace and Maurine then moved into the city of Worthington.
Terry’s upbringing on a northeastern Minnesota dairy farm was a definite plus.
“My farming background facilitated me being a farm partner, not just a farm wife,” said Terry. “I had wonderful in-laws who were supportive and helpful, and my main focus was trying to help the farm function and succeed.”
Confirmed Jerry, “Terry has been a good and full partner in this, and my mother used to say the farm was successful because of Terry.
“I think my mother liked Terry better than me,” he joked.
While Jerry retains happy childhood memories of selecting a favorite birthday meal — usually steak, carrot-raisin salad and spinach, a choice his siblings often mimicked — his children established their own memorable Perkins farm moments.
“At first, I loved living on the farm,” said Julie. “We had a pony, and with my brother we had so many adventures — catching crawfish in the creek, exploring the older out-buildings and acting out ‘Little House on the Prairie’ scenes.
“Everyone wanted to come over all the time because it was a fun place to be.”
But as Julie grew, her friends came to prefer spending summer days at the city pool rather than bean-walking.
“Doing farm chores wasn’t as exciting as going to the pool, and I went off to college never expecting to return to the farm,” Julie admitted.
Julie attended college, met and married her husband Jorge Lopez and started her own family (which includes daughter Ari and son Ben) in Wisconsin. When her brother Michael, who had begun farming with Jerry and Terry, sadly died at age 34 in early 2004, the time seemed right for Julie to return.
Initially the Lopez family lived in town. Within a year, they decided the Perkins farm was the place for them. They completed major renovations and an addition to the 1923 farmhouse to preserve it and make it their own.
“The farm was an excellent place to raise our kids, and I love that they’re the fifth generation to have lived here,” said Julie.
For the last 15 years, Tim and Susan Hansberger have rented the bulk of the Perkins’ farmland. Jerry insists he is now fully retiring from farming, having rented their entire parcel to the Hansbergers this season.
“Their involvement has been fantastic, and the Hansbergers have embraced and enhanced the conservation efforts here,” said Julie.
Admitted Jerry, “I failed at retirement the first time, but I’m trying it again this year.”
Family reunion, Century Farm celebration
With their official Century Farm designation now secured, the extended Perkins clan is planning a celebration and family reunion in late July. Over four dozen people are expected to gather at the farm.
“It’s been really fun to work with my dad and Uncle Jim, pulling together different artifacts from the farm and hearing them tell the stories they know,” said Julie, who has served as treasurer of the Elk Township board since 2016.
Jerry’s grandson Ben plans to video record the artifacts presentation in order to preserve those stories and memories for future generations, and other family traditions — some honoring Maurine Perkins, who died just shy of her 99th birthday in July 2010, and Wallace Perkins, who passed in 1983 at age 73 — will be observed during the two-day celebration.
“We’ll make homemade ice cream because Grandma Maurine always did that, and Grandpa Wallace — a very funny man — smashed the ice for the ice cream maker,” said Julie. “We’re distributing the family ice cream recipe to everyone, and we’re excited to recreate some of those memories.”
Grandma Maurine’s famed carrot-raisin salad is also expected to be on the menu.
Because of the Perkins family’s conservation practices, a discussion of sustainable agriculture will be part of the fun. And another tradition — an olive scavenger hunt — is something everyone is eagerly anticipating.
“We’re all a bunch of olive fanatics — black, green, you name it,” said Julie, explaining that at numerous past gatherings, a jar of green olives has been hidden on the acreage and a wild hunt ensues to find it.
“My cousin Michaela is designing an ‘amazing race-style’ scavenger hunt this time around.”
Sunday morning attendance at Worthington’s First United Methodist Church is a can’t-miss, as the Perkins family (dating back to Gilbert and Amelia’s era) has been involved with that faith community for over 100 years.
“And then, following another tradition, we’ll all go to Chatauqua Park and have a picnic,” said Julie. “It will be a wonderful celebration.”
Surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins will certainly be grand, agrees Jerry. But also worth celebrating is the hope that representatives of the Perkins family expect to remain rooted with the farm going forward, in one fashion or another.
Said Jerry, “Who knows what the future will hold? Yet somehow this place seems to give a sense of permanence, even to our grandchildren — and to our surprise that’s manifesting itself now.”