Family shares lessons from 150-year-old Minnesota farm
Ed Terry of Northfield, Minnesota, has celebrated major milestones in the past year. In addition to his family farm reaching its sesquicentennial, Terry retired after 51 years teaching agriculture and serving as an FFA advisor.
He has had a formative role in many legacies. “I’m in my third generation of teaching, and in more than one case, I’ve known five generations of the same family in this community,” Terry says. “Ourselves being recognized with the Century and Sesquicentennial Farm program, we realize the importance and tradition of agriculture as a family business.”
Many of Terry’s former students came from family farms and some now operate their own 500-cow dairies and large crop operations. Others have secured positions in ag finance, the energy sector, and other agribusiness careers.
“I always say I don’t have students; instead, they are extended family,” he says. “I like to think my most important crop was raising leaders.”
Terry’s teaching career began in 1968 in Farmington, Minnesota. He had earned a degree in agricultural education because the family farm wasn’t expanding at that time. During his six years teaching in Farmington, he helped the ag program to grow so much a second teaching position was added.
In 1974, Terry’s father, Chester, retired from farming. Terry, his wife, Carol, and his brother David formed a 50/50 partnership to take over the farm that had been in the Terry family since 1871.
Carol and Ed Terry.
Terry Family Farm
After returning from four years with the Minnesota regiment in the Civil War, Terry’s great-grandfather George traded half his interest in a local lumber company to purchase 160 acres and pursue his passion of farming.
In the trade, George arranged for enough lumber to build a farmhouse, which still stands on the property. The original barn held eight cows and four horses. There were dairy cattle on the farm from 1871 to 2004. The Terrys raised pigs and chickens and grew clover, corn, and wheat. The wheat was sent to Archibald Mill in Dundas, just a few miles south of Northfield.
The farm was passed down generation to generation, but Terry says there were always two requirements for the next owner to follow.
“Number one, make sure you get your payments made to the previous generation. And number two, it’s your responsibility to leave the farm and the land better than when you acquired it,” he says. “When we sell to the next generation, that will be part of the deal too.”
Since 1974, the Terrys have incorporated grass waterways and sediment basins. The current crop rotation includes corn, soybeans, and alfalfa, and has been minimum-till for 35 years.
In 2004, they made the difficult decision to exit the dairy business as it made more financial sense to liquidate than reinvest. They transitioned to a small beef cow herd, which they still maintain, in addition to raising Holstein steers.
The family has sustained the farm and weathered many storms over the past 151 years.
During the Depression, Terry’s grandparents had to manage with corn at a nickel per bushel price. This was a time when it seemed that burning corn for heat was better than selling it.
His parents in the 1950s faced devastation from army worms. His father would cut oats even before they were ripe simply to avoid the pest.
“In agriculture, you have to believe in yourself and your own ability to deal with the challenges,” he says. “For my grandparents and parents, having a rainy-day fund was very important. Many farmers buying land before the Depression lost it if it was financed by insurance companies or banks and they couldn’t make the payments. So, owning land was important.”
Ed, Carol, and David have had to manage wild market swings and the farm crisis in the 1980s. They’ve seen increasingly volatile weather, battled Canada thistle and waterhemp, encountered new diseases such as tar spot, and most recently, faced supply issues and high input prices as a result of the pandemic. His advice to others is to be conservatively optimistic.
“The sun always comes up in the east. Some days you just have to hope that the next day is better,” Terry says. “Farmers are competitive by nature. If we didn’t like a challenge, we wouldn’t be in the business. Some things can be devastating, but you have to be able to recover and trust in your beliefs. Because of the nature of the business, you work hand in hand with the good Lord.”
Farmer and Educator
While it was always Terry’s ultimate goal to farm full-time, he couldn’t quite escape the pull to serve the community and its students. In the summer of 1977, the nearby Randolph school district called to ask if he could advise the administration on its new ag program and FFA.
“They wanted me to teach, and I kept saying no because we were milking a lot of cows and running the land,” he says. “That summer I was the open class cattle superintendent at the Dakota County Fair where the son of the school board chairman was showing dairy cattle. While I was clerking the show, I could see him in the outdoor ring talking to people and pointing at me telling them I was the new ag teacher. That kind of sealed the deal.”
At the end of his first year teaching at Randolph, the school couldn’t find a replacement and Terry agreed to one more year. “I did the second year, same problem, and then the next 43 years were history,” he says.
Terry started with only 15 ag students and FFA members. He retired with 163. During his career, he started a co-op program with Northfield for those students to participate. He also began an outreach program that served eight schools in the area without ag education or FFA.
“When I started back at Randolph 45 years ago, Carol picked up my slack as part of the operation. This is a family farm, and Carol, David, my kids all stepped up and helped with things when I needed to be gone for school and FFA. It’s not very often that families are involved in a teacher’s job, so that’s been very important to me to say the least,” Terry says.
Ed Terry with son Michael and grandson Callan, the fifth and sixth generations to build a future on the farm.
Lessons for the Future
His son Michael is the next generation with a future on the farm. Terry’s wish is that the farm will remain in the family for many more years.
“We’ve been lucky because in every generation, there has been someone in the family willing to step up and take the challenge, love the land, and love farming,” he says.
He recognizes, though, that if more land isn’t added to the 160 acres, it may become a hobby farm. As farms get bigger, so does equipment, and costs increase as well. Terry says the farm will have to be more productive and that can only be done by continuing to improve soil health and by using technology.
“As farmers, we have a love for what we do, even through the tough times. We have a commitment to the land, the livestock, to our families, and to our communities,” he says.
The future of farming is in the hands of the next generation, the young people that Terry has taught.
His advice to them and young farmers anywhere is to get involved in the community. Every generation of the Terry family has had someone serving on a board for the township, church, school, or ag group.
He says, “I think that to be successful, you can’t just get done with your farming day and say, ‘Well, I’m done for the day.’ You need to get out there and be involved.”