By Jennifer Von Ohlen
COKATO, MN If there is one thing on which the Niemela family tends to agree, it’s that nothing compares to growing up on a farm especially when it’s been in the family for 100 years.
Resting on 120 acres a few miles north of Cokato, Paul “Mike” and Cheryl Niemela are wrapping up their farm’s centennial year, and have been reminiscing about the farm’s history and happenings.
Mike and his family are the third generation of Niemelas to live on the farm; his grandfather Charlie was the first.
After emigrating from Finland, Charlie settled in Cokato in the early 1900s, and his first child was born there.
Sometime later, the family moved to Atlantic Mine, MI, where many other Finnish families were located. They stayed a few years before returning to Cokato, and buying what would become the family farm in 1918.
“It would have been the ‘Old MacDonald’ farm when Grandpa was here,” Cheryl stated. “They would have had pigs, hens, cows, and then he raised everything to feed his livestock.”
Keeping the farm running came with its own sorts of challenges, but a whole new set of hardships arrived with drought and the Great Depression.
“It was so dry that there wasn’t enough hay to feed the cows,” shard Cheryl, adding that it was only because of a large slough nearby which Charlie owned with other families close by that enough resources could be salvaged.
“The slough had shrunk so much that they were able to cut and bail whatever was green, and that was how they were able to feed their livestock,” she said.
Despite his efforts, Charlie fell behind in his payments, as had many farmers across the nation. A short time later, the farm was up for a foreclosure and auction sale (also known as a sheriff sale).
“They would auction these farms off (or parcels, or whatever) on the steps of the courthouse,” Cheryl explained; many families lost their farms this way.
While the time of the Niemela auction drew near, it never actually went on the auction block as the acting governor at the time, Hjalmar Peterson of the Farmer-Labor party, ceased all sales.
“Because just about everybody would have lost their farms,” shared Cheryl, “and some already had. But they stopped those right before Grandpa’s was up for auction; so, he didn’t lose it.”
She added, “I know there’s probably other farms we’ve heard of that lost their farm and then they bought it back later.” Because of that break in ownership, however, they have yet to become century farms.
The Niemela legacy continued when Charlie’s youngest of nine children, Paul, took over the family farm around 1957. He and his wife, Louise, had 10 children, and started taking up conventional farming in the 1960s.
“One time, the bull got out of the barn and Dad dominated it back in,” recalled Paul’s son (and Mike’s brother) Nathan Niemela. “I thought Dad was over-the-top brave.”
Paul kept the farm going for several years, before he and Louise decided to sell it and move to Michigan in 1970.
Before the sale was finalized, however, Paul suddenly passed away from a heart attack at the age of 54.
Following the death of her husband, Louise choose to stay on the farm and rent out the land surrounding it.
Cheryl noted that Louise having seven boys probably played a role in her decision to remain in the country rather than move into town.
While their responsibility for farm work had passed along with their dad, the farm provided plenty of opportunities for the children to explore.
“I remember walking to the woods behind the cows,” shared Larry Niemela, another brother of Mike’s. “I also remember drinking cool, clear water from a tile which we thought was a natural spring (no wonder we had worms). We had a huge garden to take care of during summer. Mom would can a lot of different fruits and vegetables that we would eat during the year. We also raised broiler chickens, and I remember butchering chickens every summer. A lot of good memories on the ol’ farm, regardless of some hard work.”
He continued, “We actually used to ‘fish’ for rats in the corn crib. [And] we used to tick off ‘Dale the Milkman’ by filling the milk can covers with water, [and] some of our toys were old farm machinery.”
Mike shared that he and Nathan used to bring washtubs out to the hay fields and would practically fill them with all the frogs they caught.
When they got older, they would stuff the frogs into the exhaust pipe of a ‘50 Ford pickup, and then put the pedal to the metal until all the frogs were forced out of it.
“Pretty cheap entertainment for a couple country boys,” he commented.
Paul’s eldest daughter, Maria, also has several memories of growing up on the farm, from walking a mile to the country school, learning how to cook and bake (something she still likes to do), to starting the sauna almost every Saturday evening for company.
“It was a great life on the farm,” she said. “So many memories filled with happiness and heartbreak.”
Welcome to Mike and Cheryl’s
Mike and his bride moved onto the farm in 1981, and lived in the same house as Mike’s father and grandfather for about 15 years. They were in the dairy cow business until about 1993, and then turned to managing some pigs and steers. Cheryl also had a few chickens and “huge gardens,” which she loved tending.
“One of our meal staples was a BLT with bacon from our pigs, lettuce and tomato from the garden, and fresh bread made from wheat that my mom ground herself,” recalled Anna Niemela, one of Mike and Cheryl’s daughters. “There’s something about getting on your hands and knees and planting something, watching it grow, harvesting, and enjoying it knowing exactly where it came from.”
Today, the Niemelas continue to do pasture-raised pork, and have harvested black beans, wheat, oats, barley, hay, corn, and even tried peas this past year.
Because the Niemelas had already been eating organically through their gardens, they took a real interest in the organic movement around 2003, and wanted to start shifting in that direction.
“We were already feeding our family that way, ” said Cheryl. “We grew everything in our gardens organically. Our meat was homegrown (we were very conscious of that). So, then we said ‘let’s take this step and help the farm; see if we could have the farm go back to how it [was] originally.’”
Some of Mike’s cousins had already been organically farming, and played a significant role in helping Mike get started. He and Cheryl also attended classes that identified what they should look for when treating the land, such as how to tell healthy from unhealthy soil.
“It really changed [Mike’s] whole outlook on farming, because now [he’s] just much more intuned with the seasons, the land, [the weather],” Cheryl stated.
“He’s loving it now more than ever, once he went organic,” she continued. “Like I said, you really have to tune in, and you really start to pay attention, and you really start to notice things that you hadn’t before.”
One of Cheryl’s favorite memories of their kids growing up occurred about 10 years ago, when Mike was out of town and their 20 pigs broke out of the pen two days in a row.
Her daughters, Jenny and Megan, hadn’t departed for school yet the morning of the second break out, and spent the first few hours of the day rounding up the escapees.
When they found the fencer to not be working properly, Cheryl sent the two girls into town to pick up a replacement.
“When they came home from town with the new fencer, they informed me that they had just experienced the most embarrassing moment of their entire lives upon going to buy the fencer,” Cheryl recounted in her blog, 33 Barefoot Lane. “It seems a male worker came up to them, sniffed, and said loudly, ‘Have you girls been chasing pigs?’ They were absolutely mortified to think that they smelled like pigs, and I absolutely loved it; it was the best laugh I had all week.”
Part of what made this incident so humorous to Cheryl was that she had called the store ahead of time to ask for fencer sizes and prices. So, the worker had already known what had happened, and was giving Jenny and Megan a hard time.
Of course, Cheryl wasn’t going to tell the girls this not right away, at least.
“When I went to write Jenny and Megan’s absence notes for school, I was given strict instructions: ‘Do not write that we were chasing pigs!’ Oh my, so embarrassing.”
Celebrating the centennial
To commemorate the Niemela farm, its history, and family, Mike, Cheryl, and their relatives decided the farm’s centennial year would be the perfect opportunity to bring everyone together again.
“We hadn’t had a Niemela family reunion in 18 years,” Cheryl noted, adding that the only time the family really got together was for funerals.
So, they were prepared to go all out.
The celebration took place mid-July, and relatives from all over the US Washington, California, Colorado, Montana, Michigan were able to attend.
Everybody was so excited,” Cheryl commented. “It’s like, everybody knows their roots come from here, and just all the cousins being able to see each other and connected. It was just really, really awesome.”
The event lasted three days, with the main attraction happening the second day; golfing, a bonfire, and some low-key visiting bookended the occasion.
Some of the highlights from the gathering included taking Ranger rides all along the property, live music performed by some of the Niemelas, farm-themed decorations (made from old children’s books, farm playsets, farm puzzles, crops from the Niemelas’ fields, vintage tablecloths, etc.), and a hog roast of one of the pasture-raised pigs.
“The guys had never done that, but they’re always up for a challenge. Nobody really knew what they were doing,” Cheryl stated, laughing, “but, they were Googling and researching. It roasted a good, good part of the day. It was just kinda really special to share something off of the farm.”
Another special item on display was an old door that used to reside in the original farm house. It was covered with notes Paul and his siblings had written while growing up there. Now, when the door’s flipped to its other side, one can see the signatures of those who were there for the centennial.
As is customary at family gatherings, many family stories were recounted some of them somewhat embellished, but still memorable.
“One of my favorite ones,” recalled Cheryl, “is about this story of Mike and Nate, and they were going somewhere and Mike had just gotten his license. So, he thought he was really cool, and they’re driving down the driveway, and Mike decides he’s going to be even cooler and he’s going to light a cigarette. So, he proceeds to light up this cigarette, and drives right into the ditch. But, then, he just drives out, still trying to pretend he was really cool.”
All in all, while there was plenty of work to do, Cheryl believes her kids wouldn’t have wanted to grow up any other way.
Her daughter, Julie, attests to this: “The soundtrack of our childhood was whatever country songs were playing on the radio over the loud fans during milking chores as we helped my dad feed the cows and clean the stalls. I particularly remember the Christmas radio shows, where kids could call in and talk to Santa. We’d all work a little quiet during the Christmas season, so we could hear what Santa had to say and what kids were asking for that Christmas. It felt magical.”
“I probably developed my love of music from the barn days,” she continued, “and appreciated that time with my dad, who worked long hours otherwise. I’ll hear a song on Bob FM today that will take me straight back to the days of fresh hay and dusty lungs. Wouldn’t trade a farm upbringing for all the money or material things in the world. We were the lucky ones.”