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An Olson farms again

By David J. Olson / August 26, 1985



FOR nearly a hundred years our family tilled the fine, black earth of southern Minnesota and, in a modest way, contributed to the breadbasket that made America the best-fed nation on earth. When depressed prices and high operating costs forced us to pull up stakes and leave the farm in 1971, it looked as if the Olsons were leaving agriculture for good. The Peace Corps brought us back, but in a way that my great-great-grandfather Olaf never could have imagined. In the mid-1800s, Olaf and Elna J"onsson and their three sons eked out a living in Ystad, the southernmost village in Sweden. Their nation seemed blighted by religious intolerance and shrinking farmsteads. America seemed like the gold at the end of the rainbow, so in 1874 they set sail, leaving the only life they had ever known.

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They made one compromise with their cultural identity to conform to American society. In Sweden, as in most of Scandinavia, a child's surname was formed by taking the father's first name and adding either ``son'' or ``d"otter.'' The three sons of Olaf and Elna, including my great-grandfather Louis, shortened what would have been their surname, Olafson, to Olson -- and ended the tradition. It seemed more American.

The Olsons headed for Minnesota, the young state most like the familiar pastoral flatlands back in southern Sweden. Thousands of their like-minded countrymen would eventually transform the ``Land of Ten Thousand Lakes'' into a kind of ``New Scandinavia.''

The family homesteaded a farm north of St. Paul, near the Wisconsin border, and threw themselves into clearing the land and building a new life. They thought they had a home, but the railroad had other plans. It barreled into their lives in 1880, slicing the center of their homestead with a set of tracks. Once again, the family felt compelled to move.

And so the Olsons heaped their belongings into a horse-drawn wagon and headed to Chippewa County in southwestern Minnesota, where they bought a 225-acre farm and began an agricultural dynasty.

This time the family had found a real home. Five generations sweated and shivered, feuded and loved, on the Olson farmstead between 1881 and 1971, as they poured untold quantities of corn, soybeans, cattle, and hogs into the elevators and slaughterhouses of the Upper Midwest.

I was the second son in the fifth, and last, generation to live and work on the farm. I savored the opportunities the farm presented to an adventurous adolescent: exploring the vast woods with my brothers, climbing the incredibly high evergreen trees in our yard, ice skating and sledding, picking wild blackberries, and building elaborate forts in the trees and in large snowbanks that formed every winter.

But, although I came to appreciate growing up on a farm, and the solid values impressed on me there, it seemed a bit prosaic at the time and more trouble than it was worth. I constantly schemed to avoid my farm chores. Partly because of the physical isolation of our farm, I developed a passion for the outside world.

I became a voracious reader and longed to see firsthand what I had been reading about. I had exhausted the possibilities for exploration on the farm. Now the world beckoned.

So it was with little regret that my brothers and I packed up, 90 years after our forefathers had put down roots, and moved to a nearby community. Years later, after I had discovered our family history and seen the world through the eyes of an adult, I came to be haunted by what I feared was our abandonment of the family's heritage.

Guilt was certainly not one of my motives for joining the Peace Corps in June 1983. But, in a most fundamental way, my work teaching agriculture in a secondary school in the West African nation of Togo is a continuation of my family's long association with farming.

This Olson may have shifted from cattle and soybeans to African crops like gombo and cassava, but the objectives are only slightly different. In Minnesota, our highest priority on the farm was food production. Here in Togo, my highest priority is the transfer of knowledge that makes that production possible for our Togolese friends. And this in an environment far more hostile to agriculture than that rich, fertile soil found by my family at the end of the long trip from Sweden.

So, once again, an Olson has ventured cross the Atlantic to face the joys and frustrations, the challenges and satisfactions, of working foreign soil. After a 12-year absence, the family is back in agriculture.

Great-great-grandfather Olaf would be pleased.