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Why farm? 2 central Minnesota exhibits explain in photos

The current face of sustainable farming and the former face of family farms are two featured photo exhibits now on display in February in central Minnesota.

Three women stand in front of a silo.
Wendy Dornbusch, left, Carolyn Dornbusch and Annalee Beaver stand before a silo in February 2023, near Perham, Minnesota.
Contributed / Annalee Beaver

NEW YORK MILLS, Minn. — Two photo exhibits on display in Ottertail County, Minnesota, are digging into the “why” of farming, from two very different perspectives.

While one photographer captures the resiliency of small-scale production, another looks at the painful reality of family dairies disappearing from that same region.

In New York Mills, Minnesota, Jon Solinger , in collaboration with members of the Lake Agassiz chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association and MANNA Food Co-op, and with the support of West Central Initiative, created a gallery exhibit about life and work in sustainable food production in a region stretching from the Red River Valley into central Minnesota’s lakes country.

A man stands in front of a photo display.
Jon Solinger of Lida Township, Minnesota, talks about his exhibit on Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the New York Mills Cultural Center, in New York Mills, Minnesota. He has exhibited his photos throughout the region.
Michael Johnson / Agweek

His photos and stories of 13 different farmers are on display at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center from Feb 1 - March 4, with an artist reception set for 4-6 p.m., Friday, March 3.

Solinger’s displays look into the essential relationships between farmer and land, food producer and community, among farmers and within families.

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“As a photographic subject, visually, I’ve always loved photographing people’s work places, and I find these places really interesting because they are such an expression of who they are and what they do,” Solinger said at the Cultural Center in February.

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Farmers and their stories are on display at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center through March 4, 2023.
Michael Johnson / Agweek

The exhibit consists of photographic portraits of the people, animals and landscapes engaged in the work of sustainable farming and local food in a rural neighborhood.

Throughout all this project, Solinger asked his subjects why they were doing what they do.

“One of them I heard a few times is, ‘It sounds simple, but I just want to feed people.’ They just want to feed people because it is so basic to human quality of life, human life, you know,” Solinger said.

Another thing he kept hearing was how the producers just wanted to take care of the land. When he asked what sustainable farming meant to them, they said it meant being able to keep farming. Sometimes that meant improving soils that had been depleted or maintaining farming practices that would continue to improve the soil and the nutritional value of their products.

“I don’t think any of them are getting really rich off this, but they are all very intentional about how they got here — nobody just landed in this occupation by accident,” Solinger said.

When spring returns, Solinger plans to continue to visit with more farmers in the region to continue to share their stories and learn more about the "why" behind the lives of farmers.

Solinger has exhibited regionally, including the North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks, North Dakota; Rourke Art Museum, Moorhead, Minnesota; Plains Art Museum, Fargo, North Dakota; and galleries in Minneapolis, Fargo and Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

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Jon Solinger has created booklets that share the stories of farmers that he photographed during the summer of 2023.
Michael Johnson /Agweek

Silent silos

Across the county, in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, a family of women have embarked on a journey to share stories about the loss of small farms from the region. They count themselves as a lucky family that still has one of a few small dairy operations going strong near Perham, Minnesota.

Three women stand in front of a silo.
Wendy Dornbusch, left, Carolyn Dornbusch and Annalee Beaver stand before a silo in February 2023, near Perham, Minnesota.
Contributed by Annalee Beaver

Wendy Dornbusch poses the question with the exhibit, “Where have all the silos gone?” She explained that her husband remains one of the few dairy farmers in the area still active with a herd of about 50 cows. She can count off farm after farm that have instead turned to empty barns and silent silos.

“Everyday I think about how they (farmers) give their lives to this,” Wendy said.

The loss of that livelihood is hard to swallow. Changing times, and a lack in the change of prices for their goods has made many producers sell out. Wendy feels the public isn’t always supportive, either.

“The sentiment is that they should just stop. Just give up. It’s too hard,” Wendy laments. “To me that’s a gap in appreciation and understanding of why farmers choose to keep dairy farming even when their profit margin gets smaller every year and the workload doesn’t let up and their bodies wear out.”

This group of girls is ready to show some appreciation. They want to record the history of those who have farmed and those who, for whatever reason, have been forced to leave the way of life. She was helped in the project with daughters Annalee Beaver and Carolyn Dornbusch. Carolyn, age 16, has been involved in all chores on the farm, and while not all are pleasant, she has gained a long resume of skills brought on by the necessity of farm life.

“I loved growing up on the farm, but it wasn’t without sacrifices,” Carolyn said in her artist statement. “Play dates and sleepovers had to be canceled because the farm needed us. Family time is limited to only dinner at home together or working together on the farm.”

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Their work was on display at the Otter Tail County Historical Society in Fergus Falls through Feb. 17. It includes photos that show the daily imagery of life on the farm. Empty stanchions once filled by cows; an empty silo; worn out barns.

Wendy said with the exhibit fully prepared, they are looking for other venues to set it up in the near future. What’s more, they are looking for more farmers who have left the business in the region to interview, photograph and listen to.

“I really want to get out there and interview people,” Wendy said.

Annalee Beaver is the project photographer. Contact her to photograph your farm and family by following her on Instagram @annaleegracephotographymn and liking her Facebook page “ Annalee Grace Photography ” or by calling Wendy at 218-298-0579.

Michael Johnson is the news editor for Agweek. He lives in the city of Verndale, Minn., but is bent on making it as country as he can until he returns once more to the farm living he enjoys. Also living the dream are his two children and wife.
You can reach Michael at mjohnson@agweek.com or 218-640-2312.
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