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Proud and prosperous: This farm is their home

Peter Hanson says that sooner or later Americans will see that saving productive farmland is like any other environmental cause.

"Sensible land use is what it's about," he said. "Today people understand conservation issues, such as water and air pollution. Now we need an awareness about where you should build homes and protecting some of this ground so it remains in farming."

Peter is doing just that as he continues the tradition of his parents on the 160-acre Hanson farm on Hwy. 29 less than a mile east of fast-growing River Falls. The former dairy farm now raises heifers and grows crops of soybean, hay, alfalfa, corn and oats.

Just to the north of the Hanson farm, two massive housing subdivisions are in the works next to the River Falls Golf Course.

Peter's father, Ed, is still an active farmer. The house where the 82-year-old Ed Hanson was born was razed in the 1990s to make way for the Hwy. 65 bypass - another sign of growth.

But for now growth in River Falls that keeps pushing out the borders will not extend through the Hanson enclave.

Ed and wife Betty, who does the bookkeeping, along with son Peter and the other family members, see the farm as a cherished way of life.

"It's the land," says another Hanson son, Charley, who makes custom leather works like holsters, saddles and chaps and is also a welder. "A lot of people around here work at 3M, at Andersen Windows and other small entities in the Twin Cities. But for us, this is our Andersen, this is our 3M. There's an attachment here that's hard to explain.

"We keep coming back. There's a living being made, a lifestyle that we don't want to give up."

All Hanson family members contribute to the farm's operations. That includes building and maintaining a horse corral, fixing fences, painting structures, trimming trees, cleaning out brush, mowing, plowing, and repairing machinery and tools.

Siri Smith, a daughter, knows about 3M because she works there as a graphic designer. Her farming roots are ingrained and bring her back to the town of River Falls farm.

"All the Hanson children work with hands at our jobs and do creative things," she said. "I think you can trace that back to all the physical work we've done on this farm.

"There is something innately satisfying about watching things grow, the same as when you see what comes up in your garden. When I look out at rows of soybean fields on this farm and see no weeds, it gives me a thrill. It's not a feeling like that of a land baron. How do you make others understand what this kind of appreciation is?

Siri is a member of the town of River Falls Plan Commission. She said her husband Greg has come to share the same love for the family farm. Greg not only helps with farm chores, such as putting up hay, but thrives on the hunting and fishing from the land. "He likes to tell people that he had to hang his tree stand somewhere," laughed Siri. "In a relatively short time, Greg has come to have knowledge of the geography of our farm that's as good as any of us who have been here all our lives. He has developed a real passion for the land and what it's about.

"That's how it is here. The farming way of life and the land we live on gets in your veins and then gets passed on."

At the Wisconsin State Fair last summer Ed and Betty Hanson, their children and grandchildren were honored for maintaining 100 years of continuous family ownership. They were given a certificate naming theirs a "Century Farm."

The Hanson farm actually began much earlier than a century ago. Ed Hanson's maternal grandparents started farming the land in 1868. Back then property taxes on the roughly 80 acres were a mere $30 a year.

The farm was sold to another owner but reclaimed by the family in 1901. The current farmhouse was built in 1906 along with a still-existing granary.

The farm acreage over the years has varied - more outbuildings, barns, sheds, and silos have been built - but the core farmland and house have endured into the 21st century.

A second daughter, Kristi Teigen, is married and lives with her husband on a large Glenwood City farm that raises Holstein steers and crops. Kristi's brother, Peter, calls their farmland "part of the natural resources." She says farmers are caretakers of land they cultivate.

"We're stewards of the land," Kristi said. "You're only here for a certain length of time. You leave eventually. You take care of it because it's part of you. It's the dirt on our feet."

Paul Hanson, a son, is a home builder. He says there's plenty of places to build houses without taking good farms like the one he grew up on and the one his two children visit and work on.

"You can't blacktop everything," Paul said. "Once you do, you never get any of that back the way it was."

Kristi agrees, putting it another way: "You can always build more houses, but you can't build more land."

The Hanson family admits that not all farmland is productive. But the soil on their land is fertile, flat and holds moisture well, making it very productive for a long period.

Ed Hanson says that people must realize that converting more and more farms to subdivisions may eventually "turn the United States from being a food exporter into a food importer."

And Peter echoes that sentiment: "Historically, no nation has prospered long that hasn't produced its own food."

Around River Falls, Ed Hanson says the "support system" for farming has declined.

"I've watched quite a few full-time farms come and go. This is one of the last left in the South Fork valley," he said. "That's kind of difficult to see happen. You need a farming community to survive."

A decline in area support services means everything is spread far apart instead of closely linked. That includes creameries, feed mills, cattle buyers, fertilizer and petroleum suppliers, machine parts and repair dealers, and more.

"In farming you only have x-number of days to plant the corn or spray for herbicides," Siri Smith said. "Time is precious, and there's a cost when you can't always find all the things you need close by."

Paul Hanson said it's even tough now for farmers to find youths who want to work summers.

"That's another part of the support system," he said. "It's difficult to get good hired hands to bail hay, drive tractors or milk cows. Instead the kids get $8 an hour working at ShopKo or Burger King."

Some older farmers have no one to take their place. They want to have the choice of selling their land and earn a retirement "nest egg" after years of hard labor.

The Hanson family members realize this, but say there are other options, such as developers or the government either buying or transferring "development rights" so that farmers receive their nest egg while the land remains undeveloped and farmable.

Ed said the Hanson family has talked with the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust about a possible conservation land trust for their farm someday.

While there have been casual inquiries about the availability of the Hanson farm for development, Ed says it never goes anywhere.

"They know I'll never sell," he says.

Peter adds, "They know enough about us to know it wouldn't happen."

Siri puts it like this: "How can you put a dollar figure on the value of this land? It's irreplaceable. It's more than what you can do with it."

Ed's wife Betty was raised on a dairy farm near the town of Martell. She also attended River Falls State College during the end of World War II and taught high school English briefly in Spring Valley.

Betty met her future husband at a Pierce County 4-H dairy judging contest more than 60 years ago. Soon after she represented Pierce County as Dairy Queen at a Wisconsin State Fair. Ed was there as a 4-H member.

Betty needed an escort to a dance and thought Ed was the handsomest prospect. Once it was confirmed that he had the required attire, including white wool dress trousers, the date was sealed and the romance bloomed.

Jokingly Betty says that Ed's courting of her went something like, "'We ought to milk cows together,' and that's just what we did for more than 50 years."

Betty, now 81, says she has no desire to leave the farm, not even to go vacation winters in the warm Arizona sun.

"I've always felt like this was home," she said.

Along the way Ed, with help particularly from Peter, has embraced new tilling and erosion-control practices to keep the farm productive and profitable.

As for the heavy labors required of an old farmer who has arthritic knees and one knee replaced, Ed merely says, "Oh, some mornings you feel a little lazy, but then you still get up to do chores and pretty soon you feel better."