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Choosing life back on the farm

Kevin Dreyer stands near a field of wheat at the family farm he works with parents Wendell and Karen Dreyer southwest of New York Mills.

Elisa Korentayer

Herald columnist

Kevin Dreyer is one of those kinds of people that I'd only ever heard about: A native Midwesterner, born and raised in small-town Minnesota, now running the family farm.

When I lived in the big city, I didn't really know what to make of these kinds of people, so it was a treat to meet one in person.

Kevin Dreyer is tall. Very tall. And fit. He's got a short-cropped head of white hair and a ready, shy smile. I sat down with him to talk about his life, and to learn what made this native son of New York Mills tick.

Dreyer has lived in New York Mills for 40 years, save the two years that he spent installing telephone systems on the east coast. He worked a traveling job as a young man that took him from Boston to New York, and from Virginia to North Carolina. About my area of the country, Dreyer said, "Everyone's gotta see it." He continued with a twinkle in his eyes, "Dunno if they'd want to live there."

The traveling job was an adventure for Dreyer. He lived in motels. At the first stop light he came to in White Plains, New York, Dreyer didn't get his car started fast enough when the light turned green, and he learned the meaning of "a New York minute."

He returned to New York Mills to work for Precision Agrisystems, which sold and installed computerized feeding equipment for dairy cows. When they went out of business, Wendell Dreyer, Kevin's father, was ready to retire. Kevin took over the family farm--managing fields of corn, wheat, and soybeans. Wendell and Karen, Kevin's mother, still live with Kevin on the farm. Their house is impeccably well turned out, organized, and spacious, with a picture window in the kitchen overlooking Karen's flower garden.

Kevin Dreyer was patient with my ignorance about farming. He explained the difference between spring and winter wheat. He helped me understand the meaning of "no-till" farming, and he described his system for rotating crops.

Listening to Kevin talk about farming, it is clear just how much he enjoys his vocation. When I asked him what he would choose to do if he could do anything he wanted, he answered that he would choose to be a farmer.

"You start out with a little seed, and try to do everything you can to get that seed grown into a good crop."

Kevin's second choice would be to be an archeologist digging up dinosaur bones. He keeps an eye out in his fields for the odd stone with fossilized imprints.

Kevin has a farmer's humility. When explaining the potential for success, he said, "You do what you can do, but there are a lot of other factors to making a good crop." The three inches of rain that had fallen during our conversation was making him happy, "This will make the small grain crops around here, [but] it's not in the bin yet."

I asked Kevin whether my city-girl stereotypes of the economic challenges of farming held true. He explained that farming can be a roller coaster ride, as a farmer is at the mercy of the markets and subject to the whims of the weather. With 160 irrigated acres and 800 acres that aren't irrigated, Kevin looked out at the raging storm outside the kitchen window and said, "That's a million dollar rain out there."

In the winter, Kevin plans for the upcoming year, figuring out what field will take which crop and what inputs he'll need. He reviews what worked in the past year.

Kevin can't get a lot of farming done when it's cold, so he gets to practice one of his favorite hobbies--snowmobiling. He is active in the Ottertrail Riders Snowmobile Club as treasurer, trail boss, and map committee member. His favorite place to snowmobile is in the mountains in south-central Wyoming. It's not surprising to hear that he loves winter "whether it's on the trails here or out west."

Kevin is also a trustee at Trinity Lutheran Church and an active member of the New York Mills Lions Club.

I asked Kevin whether he had any surprising habits or hobbies that I could add to my article. He insisted that he had nothing interesting to offer. Then he showed me his beer can collection. Since he was a boy, Kevin has been collecting beer cans. When he was young, he'd pick up cans from dumps. When he was working out east and living from motel room to motel room, the only things he could carry with him were things that would fit in his car. He would buy single beers from gas stations, a different kind each time, and keep the cans.

The back wall of Kevin's garage is lined with beer-can towers held in place with ingeniously wound fishing wire. Highlights of the 400-plus-can collection include a dozen vintage steel Schmidt cans each embossed with a unique outdoor scene, including hunting, elk, water-skiing, and snowmobiling. Another can that caught my eye was the black St. Urho's brew can embossed with leaf-green and lurid violet lettering. "That one's from Menahga," he indicated.

As our conversation ended, Kevin was still not satisfied that he had offered me anything interesting about himself. I was packing up my computer when he exclaimed that he had thought of something that most people probably didn't know about him.

"I love to watch a good storm roll in," he said. Kevin loves the power of the storms. "Back in June, I was just watching the wall cloud come. At first it was a ribbon. Then it's over the top of you. You can see it rolling. Then the wind-boom. Half-mile away, you can hear the wind. The trees shifting and the lightning. Always a good sign of nature's power."

We ended our time together with a visit to the machine shed where four kittens crawled around metal shelving. I watched this tall man carefully gather each kitten up in his large hands to greet them. He admitted that it was hard to give them away. He was glad that two of them had been placed close by at his neighbor's house.

Kevin waved goodbye to me as he ran through one of his well-loved storms to check his rain gauge.