The centenarian farmer: MN ag producer still going strong
OSLO, Minn. — Earl Mallinger's 2017 harvest will begin later this summer — the 96th or 97th in which he's been involved in some way.
Yes, you read that right.
"Well, I've been interested in what happens on the farm since I was 3 or 4," says Mallinger, who turns 100 on Aug. 14.
His remarkable life includes a still-active role on the farm, 60 grandchildren and great-grandchildren (no great-greats yet), and physical and mental vigor that many much-younger people would envy.
"Sometimes I have trouble keeping up with him. I tell people that maybe he's going to need a younger girlfriend pretty soon," says Debbie Hanson, his 63-year-old girlfriend. Yes, you read that right, too.
Though Mallinger is an extreme example, older farmers and ranchers are increasingly common. The average age of U.S. farmers in 2012, the last year for which reliable nationwide information is available, was 58.3 years, up from 55.3 a decade earlier. Whether it's on the tractor, in the barn, bringing parts or meals to the field, providing sage advice from the sidelines or in countless other roles, senior farmers play a major part in modern agriculture.
Agweek visited Mallinger and Hanson on a cool, drizzly late-June morning in Oslo, Minn., a small northwest Minnesota farm town where Mallinger has farmed all his life and and still has a home. He has a residence in nearby Grand Forks, N.D., too, and spends part of the winter in Weslaco, Texas. The southeast Texas city attracts many retired farmers/snowbirds from the Upper Midwest and Canada.
His physical energy is reflected in his seldom-an-idle-moment daily routine: mornings, afternoons and evenings are filled with golf, card-playing and meals eaten out, among other things.
"I golfed 42 times in Texas in three months" this past winter, he says.
Mallinger's mental sharpness shows when he quickly and repeatedly mentions dates, names and occurrences spread over nearly 100 years. The years family members were born or died, the first or last year he grew a particular crop, descriptions of farm machinery he's used — he plucks them from memory with speed and accuracy.
Hanson says Mallinger stays mentally active, in part, by subscribing to and reading numerous magazines, ranging from Agweek to the Atlantic.
Ag still big to him
Agriculture remains huge in his life. Though he no longer does field work himself — he hires others to do that for him — he makes all the farming decisions, including planting and marketing, on his 1,000 acres of wheat, soybeans and sugar beets. He also has equipment of his own.
"He still goes out to the field and gives them advice. He drives his Cadillac through the field," Hanson says. "I can tell where he's been by the color of dirt on his car. If he's just been on the (gravel or dirt) road, it's a light brown. If he's been in the field, it's a darker color."
And Mallinger pays close attention to the tile drainage being installed on some of his fields. Typically, tiling land is considered a long-term proposition that appeals to people taking the long view — and Mallinger, pushing 100, still fits that description.
His three daughters, who will inherit the land, benefit from the tiling, he says.
The Mallinger family has a century-old connection to agriculture.
Mallinger's father, Peter, was born in Luxembourg and came to America, where he operated an Oslo butcher shop. Earl was born above the shop, a strapping 13-plus-pound baby.
"His dad took one look at him and said, 'He's going to be a farmer,'" Nelson says with a smile.
Mallinger was the middle of seven children. One of his sisters, who will turn 97 in November, lives in Moorhead, Minn., and is "still pretty active," he says.
In 1917, the year of Earl's birth, Peter built a house in rural Oslo that had running water and electricity, both of which were highly unusual, especially in rural areas, at the time.
"My dad was very progressive," Earl says with pride.
Peter began farming in 1918 on land that he cleared from timber.
Peter quit farming in 1937. Earl began on his own that same year, when he turned 21.
Earl farmed with his brother, Felix, nine years Earl's senior, for 32 years. Earl bought out Felix in 1970. "He was 62 and he didn't like farming as much as I did," Earl says.
Though Earl has raised many different crops through the years, potatoes hold a special appeal for him.
Peter Mallinger first planted spuds in 1926 and the family grew them until 2001, when increasingly wet conditions in the Oslo area made raising potatoes too difficult.
One of Earl's favorite memories is being named 1992 North American Potato Grower of the Year, an award he received in December of that year. Though other annual recipients typically said "thank you" and sat down, Mallinger decided to give a speech, which he spent all summer practicing. His 20-minute speech draw a standing ovation from the 500 people at the ceremony.
Justin Dagen, a Karlstad, Minn., potato farmer, has known Mallinger for many years.
"He's a humble, generous man," Dagen ways. "And he had an excellent reputation in the potato industry."
Mallinger's energy and ongoing interest in agriculture "is inspirational," Dagen says.
Popular man, great memory
When Mallinger raised potatoes, he often hired local young people to help with the extensive manual labor the spuds required. Many of those people, now with children and grandchildren of their own, still live in the area.
As Hanson recalls, "When I started dating him, I'd come in here (the Oslo cafe) and have coffee and guys would sidle up to the booth and say, 'So, you're hanging with Earl. You know, I used to work for him and he's really a nice guy. He's always smiling and positive. He always helped me.'"
"And there was this implicit (though unspoken), 'If you hurt this man, we will come after you,'" she says. ''Person after person, two or three guys, would stand there and tell me, 'You do good by this guy because he did good by us.'"
When Mallinger and Hanson eat out, former employees often come up and ask if Mallinger remembers them.
"Over 95 percent of the time, he will," Nelson says. "He'll talk about them and their parents and their grandparents."
Mallinger has been married twice. Both his former wives passed away.
He first met Hanson, now a semi-retired minister, in 2001, when she began serving his Oslo church.
Eleven years later, when Hanson was serving a different congregation, "He asked me out for lunch and the rest is history. It's gone from once a week to twice a week to seven times a week," she says. "So we've known each other (since 1992) and been hanging around pretty strong for almost five years now."
"Though he's considerably older than me, he's younger at heart and has a ton of energy," she says. "Earl is unique and different. He acts like he's in his 70s and with all the activities he does, he could be in his 50s and have retired early. People don't believe what he's like until they've met him and been around him."
Earl says he's "been lucky going the road. I'm pretty sure God is with me, helping me along the way."
'A good life'
But Mallinger helps himself, too, by staying active.
"In the mornings when I get up, it's not that easy to start moving. It would be easier to go back to bed. But the more I stay up, the better I feel," he says.
And he works with seven doctors, including an optometrist and dentist. "I like to be on top of things," he says.
Mallinger says there's no particular age he's trying to reach.
"I just take it day to day, month to month at most," he says.
He shrugs when asked what he would done in life if he hadn't farmed.
"Well, I wasn't interested in being a butcher like my dad was," he says. "I just know I've sure enjoyed farming. It's been a good life."
Earl Mallinger's 100th Birthday Party
— Sunday, Aug. 13
— 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., program at 2 p.m.
— Gorecki Alumni Center, 3501 University Ave., Grand Forks, N.D.
— No gifts requested
Biggest changes in past century
Earl Mallinger, a semi-retired Oslo, Minn., farmer who turns 100 in August, has seen many technological changes in his life. Here's his list of the 10 biggest and most important:
— The national Superhighway System.
— Rural electrification.
— Rural water systems.
— Cell phones.
— Tractors replacing houses.
— Air travel.
— Improved health, longer lives.
To read about talking to talking to older agriculturalists about safety, click here.
To read about resources, click here.
To read about other older farmers and ranchers in Agweek Country, click here.