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In farming, the only constant is change

What is going on out there?

"It's changing all of the time," Leaf River Ag Service manager Scott Dau said of the agricultural scene in Wadena County.

The days when a family could live on a quarter section of land by having a dairy to go along with it had plenty of charm -- and a fair amount of hard work. These farm families may not have piled up big bank accounts but they became part of the land and they shared the good times and the bad.

"It was a way of life, it was a family tradition to be a farmer," Dau said.

It is far from impossible to find the nostalgia for the family farm gripping the hearts of many people in the 21st century, when interstate highways, the Internet, cellphones, fast food and urban lifestyles have taken over most of the United States. One out of every four Americans live in urban areas in 2011, yet for people like Dau, who grew up in the country, the pull is still there.

"When it comes to farm children, I would say three-quarters of them would like to be back on the farm," Dau said.

What is stopping them? You could say "their common sense" and not be far off the mark. Dau said he believes that they know that they can make more money working in the city than they can farming. If they have families of their own that added income can be very important.

But what else has changed farming? The cost of running a farm has gone up.

The price a dairyman receives for milk these days might be close to what he received in the 80s but production costs have grown -- fuel, fertilizer and feed have all risen -- and so has the cost of machinery. That Oliver tractor and that John Deere combine that grandpa once farmed with is not in the same class as farm machinery being sold today. A farmer can now dig up a quarter section of land in one day with a big outfit but the price for running that kind of machinery can be measured in six figures. Those production costs have made a lot of would-be farmers take a second look at farming as a career. About the only way of joining the farming fraternity is to already be part of it.

Dau has seen many operators turn from livestock to grain farming. Irrigation in Wadena and eastern Otter Tail Counties has grown tremendously as farmers go for good yields on lighter soil.

Dau believes that corn is still the No. 1 crop in the area with soybeans No. 2 and alfalfa and some of the small grains falling in behind them.

Grain in the county is shipped 100 percent by truck to large grain terminals or to ethanol plants in Little Falls and Fergus Falls. For farmers in the year 2011, a global market is definitely a fact of life. Corn raised on a Wadena County farm might be shipped by rail through Wadena on a unit train to some West Coast port, placed on a ship and carried to China for hog feed.

When it comes to livestock, Dau estimates that poultry farming is the largest with beef cattle and hogs right behind.

Wadena County assessor Lee Brekke grew up in agricultural country and like Dau, he can remember what farming was like when he was growing up.

"You'd maybe see two, three or four farms in a section and now you are lucky to see one person on a section," Brekke said.

The United States Department of Agriculture statistics from 2007 indicate there were 657 farms in Wadena County and 151,212 acres are in production. The average size of a farm is 230 acres.

By contrast, the 1950 census found 1,509 farm operators in Wadena County and 79 percent of the counties' 343,030 acres owned by them. The average size of a farm was 178.6 acres.

Brekke believes that there are many more hobby farmers in Wadena County -- people who have a job that provides most of their income -- but still plant some acres or raise some livestock.

"If you do have a little tract you might want to find some utilization for it," Brekke said.

A fair share of these hobby farmers come from the city. Many outstate counties have seen newcomers buying places in the rural areas just to enjoy the lakes or the land.

The exodus of people from the cities to a quieter rural life has prompted the University of Minnesota to offer a program called

"Living Off the Land." To anyone growing up in a rural area the course might seem ludicrous because it is designed for people who might not even know what a tractor looks like, much less where to buy one and how to operate it, but for someone moving from the county to a metro area the experience can be just as foreign.

As Dau said, "it's changing all of the time."