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Music master Anne Waltner comes home to partner in parents’ farm

Anne Waltner, Parker, South Dakota, left a full-time career as a concert pianist and educator to join her parents’ farming operation. Along the way she married, had triplet daughters and survived cancer. Of her journey and life, she says: “Can you think of anybody luckier than me?”

A female farmer in a stocking cap, flanked by her parents in their 70s, stand in their farm yard, flanked by her triplet daughters on a vintage school merry-go-round.
Anne Waltner, center, is flanked by her parents Keith and Sharon Waltner, of Parker, South Dakota. Anne left a full-time career as a concert pianist and educator to join her parents’ farming operation. Along the way she married, had triplet daughters and survived cancer. Photo taken March 29, 2022, Parker, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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PARKER, S.D. — After 20 years away from the farm, Anne Waltner, in her late 30s, returned from her life as a concert pianist in the Eastern U.S. to take over the family corn and soybean operation from her parents, Keith and Sharon Waltner in South Dakota.

A woman with Bluetooth ear devices, plants corn in a John Deere tractor.
Anne Waltner, 44, plants corn near Parker, South Dakota, on May 10, 2022. A full-time farmer, Waltner was named principal pianist with the South Dakota Symphony. She is the mother of triplet 5-year-olds and the wife of a music educator.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Few farmers can image the multi-tasking going on here:

  • From 2010 to 2015, Anne returned from her academic world to rent soybean and corn acres from her parents. In 2016 she became a full  partner in a 1,600-acre corn and soybean farm with her parents.
  • In October 2015, she married Rolf Olson, a non-farming college music professor and trumpet player, 16 years her senior. 
  • On May 18, 2017, she gave birth to triplet daughters — Alice, Margreta “Greta,” and Lydia.
  • On Feb. 1, 2019, she was diagnosed with cancer (chronic lymphocytic leukemia), and is doing fine under treatment. She completed treatments in January 2022, when her blood work showed things are normal.

And yes, she still is a concert pianist.

Triplet daughters sit in stocking caps and parkas on a vintage merry-go-round.
Triplet daughters of Anne Waltner and her husband, Rolf Olson, are, from left, Alice, Margreta “Greta,” and Lydia. Their fifth birthday is May 18, 2022. Grandpa Keith built a “merri-go-tilta-see-saw” -- a merry-go-round with a “bucket in the middle so nobody’s left out." Photo taken March 29, 2022, Parker, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Not her dream

Born in January 1978, Anne came of age on in the tumultuous 1980s. Aware of the financial stresses of the time, she did not dream of going farming. In seventh grade, she shifted public school to the Freeman (South Dakota) Academy, a Mennonite high school with 43 total students. Most of her classmates were farm kids.

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The drive into a small Mennonite high school academy, with its old and newer buildings, carries the words "Faith. The Arts," and biblical inscriptions.
Farmer/pianist Anne Waltner is on the board of Freeman (South Dakota) Academy, a private Mennonite high school where she and her parents graduated. The tiny high school is strong in arts and academics, as well as having strong ties to a farming and livestock heritage. Photo taken March 29, 2022, Freeman, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

"We all went to school, smelling like hogs." Anne recalled. “In my sophomore demonstration speech I brought in two little pigs and castrated them." Everyone in the class was “completely bored,” because they all knew about that.

Anne loved animals and crops but saw the whipsaw of ag finance in the farm credit crisis years of high interest and land deflation. She thrived in a community, centered around the rural Salem Mennonite Church.

A tall brick steeple and cross stand in front of the Salem Mennonite Church, south of Freeman, S.D.
The tower at the rural Salem Mennonite Church, south of Freeman, South Dakota, beckons members, including the Keith Waltner family of nearby Parker, who carry on a tradition of theology and arts, especially music. Photo taken March 29, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The community has an oddly cosmopolitan vibe.

Roughly half of the population in the area is Mennonites. Mennonites, like other Anabaptist denominations — Hutterites, Amish, Church of the Brethren, are pacifists and typically register as conscientious objectors. Many adults in the church — like her parents — served stints in overseas in relief and development work, in lieu of military service.

“There are a lot of over-educated musical farmers in this area,” she said. “I didn’t know, growing up, just how rarefied that air was.”

At age 4, Anne took piano lessons from the president of Freeman Junior College, associated with the academy. She went to Sioux Falls for violin lessons. She played in youth orchestras, alongside students that often were from large, public high schools. She graduated in a class of 11 in 1996.

She went on to Goshen (Indiana) College (her mother’s alma mater). She graduated in 2000 in biology and piano performance. She spent three years teaching music at an international school in India, then returned to the U.S. for a master’s in solo piano performance at the Chicago College of Performing Arts. She went on to Cleveland Institute of Music, obtaining her Doctorate of Musical Arts in “collaborative piano performance” in May 2010.

The highway placard reads "Freeman: Pop. 1306," in front of a bustling, agricultural town.
Freeman, South Dakota, a town of about 1,300 people, is known for its annual Schmeckfest (“Festival of Tasting”) and for the region’s strong Mennonite farming and arts influence. Photo taken March 29, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

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On their shoulders

Anne's parents Keith and Sharon graduated from Freeman Academy — he in 1963 and she in 1966. Keith went on to the Freeman Junior College. They married in 1969. He went on to a Mennonite college in Kansas, and then earned a master’s degree in Greeley, Colorado. He taught school in Indiana, while Sharon took nurse’s training at a Mennonite college Goshen, Indiana.

In lieu of military service, Keith and Sharon worked in Indonesia from 1970 to 1973.

Flowers are painted with the Waltner name at the farmstead mailbox where Anne Waltner's family now lives.
Keith and Sharon Waltner have been on this farmstead near Parker, South Dakota, since 1975. They built strong livestock enterprises and then focused on corn and soybean production. Their concert pianist daughter, Anne, came back to the farm as a partner full-time in 2016, and in 2017 had triplet daughters. Photo taken March 29, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

They came home to rent his parents’ farmland and to farm with Sharon’s parents and brother. Keith and Sharon had Tim in 1974, and they moved onto their current farmstead in 1975. Anne was born in 1978, and her sister, “Mary” (later, Mariell) in 1980.

A modern tillage implement is flanked by silos and buildings on a crop farmstead that once was bustling with hog and beef production.
Unused silos and livestock buildings are reminiscent of hog and beef enterprises that Anne Waltner grew up with on her parents’ farmstead near Parker, South Dakota. They got out of hogs in 1998 and out of cattle in 2010. Today, she’s joined a 1,600-acre corn and soybean farm. Photo taken March 29, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

In 1983, they built a “super-insulated house and finished it from farm cash flow over seven years, even as they built new livestock facilities. By 1984, the Waltners were named a Master Pork Producers.

They farrowed up to 160 sows. The kids helped move pigs and with chores — giving shots, docking tails. Every week or so they’d take 35 head of finished hogs to market at the Morrell’s plant in Sioux Falls.

“That was an event,” Anne recalled, with joy. ”We got to go to Sioux Falls, and sometimes we got to eat at Bonanza!”

Anne remembered the scary side of the times, too. The emotional stress.

Notably, May 17, 1984, Jennis Hofer, a farmer in the neighborhood, shot and killed two neighbors Andrew Wipf, Sr., and his son, Andrew Wipf, Jr., ostensibly for draining water on his land. Hofer was sentenced to life in prison.

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With the strong family help, Waltners were able to keep their farm debt down. In the 1990s, they were able to purchase more farmland. The children — livestock helpers — went off to college and other careers; Tim became a neurosurgeon in Kansas City, Missouri; Anne pursued her music; and Mariell “Mary” studied to music and obtained a career as a life coach.

Without the family labor, the Waltners quit hogs in 1998. They quit feeding cattle in 2010.

The garden plot

In 2010, Keith, then 65, started looking toward retiring on his crop farm.

“We were getting older and the kids weren’t here, and at the moment it looked like no one was really coming to take over,” Keith said.

A southeast South Dakota farm headquarters is on the horizon, with numerous bins.
Anne Waltner, 44, came home to join her parents’ farm near Parker, South Dakota, after 20 years pursuing degrees and experience as a concert pianist and educator. In the past six years she’s married a non-farmer, birthed triplet daughters and survived cancer. Photo taken March 29, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Keith and Sharon offered to rent 127 of their acres of their farm Anne. She could take the soybean rotation, and she have full management and financial responsibility. They introduced her to their own loan officer at Farm Credit Services of America in Sioux Falls.

Anne remembered skipping her own doctoral graduation to come home and plant soybeans. In part, it was to whittle away at tens of thousands in debts she acquired in her doctoral program.

The 2010 crop year turned out to be a doozy for farm income. “I couldn’t believe the money we were making,” she said.

After planting, Anne returned to Cleveland to put on recitals. She applied for 56 jobs and landed one at West Virginia State University, near Charleston. Two years later, she shifted to Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she taught three years.

Anne Waltner plays at a Steinway grand piano on a college auditorium stage, as Marla Fogderud, a soprano soloist an associate professor of music at Northern State University, performs a recital.
Anne Waltner, left, who farms full-time at Parker, South Dakota, accompanies soprano Marla Fogderud, performing a concert of Edvard Grieg art works on Feb. 27, 2022. Both artists hold Doctor of Musical Arts degrees. Fogderud, who grew up on a North Dakota dairy farm, is an associate professor of music at NSU. Photo taken Feb. 27, 2022, Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Back at the farm, in 2012 her drought-stunted soybeans averaged 13 bushels per acre. “Crop insurance saved our bacon,” she said.

In 2014 she added another 104 acres of corn, for a total of about 230 acres. In May 2015, she skipped the last two days of finals at EMU and flew home to help plant.

On the personal side, she was 37, living in her parents’ basement. Her former sixth grade music teacher suggested she meet Rolf Olson, director of bands at the University of South Dakota at Vermillion. Despite their age difference, the two hit it off. They married in the courthouse October 2015.

Anne had not been desperate to become a mother. But she had frozen eggs in case she would ever want children. Modern medicine brought them triplet girls.

Shifting focus

Keith always knew that if any of his kids would return to the farm, it would probably be Anne

“She was very good — intuitive, good with machinery, good with livestock,” he said.

A father in his 70s and daughter, in her 40s, work in a farm shop to fix a damaged rock picker.
Farmer Keith Waltner and his daughter/partner, Anne, work together to grease a Summers rock picker in preparation for the 2022 farming season. Photo taken March 29, 2022, Parker, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Sharon had been a good role model as a woman farmer — caring for the hogs, doing tillage, cutting silage, unloading. Anne describes Keith as something of a “feminist” in sharing responsibilities. Sharon is a multitasker.

Besides the farm work, Sharon had her degree in nursing and accumulated a master’s in counseling. She still works at Avera Education Systems and with the Mennonite community, setting up workshops on conflict mediation, and works in the church.

Triplet girls, nearly 5 years old, play on a vintage merry-go-round on a farmstead.
Keith and Sharon Waltner moved onto this farmstead and gradually built a home on it from 1983 to 1990. Today, their daughter Anne lives on the place, which features a merry-go-round for her triplet daughters. The equipment was “harvested” from Sharon’s country school. Photo taken March 29, 2022, in Parker, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

As Anne’s home got busier with triplets and then cancer, Keith and Sharon stepped up.

In 2021, Keith and Sharon bought a home in Freeman, and Anne, Rolf and the girls moved into the home Anne's parents had enjoyed for decades. (Olson had become director of bands at Northern State University in Aberdeen, but retired this spring to come to the farm and help manage the kids and home.)

Collaboration is a key word in the Olson/Waltner homes.

A grandfather and grandmother in their 70s, kneel with their triplet, four-year-old granddaughters, putting together picture puzzles.
Keith and Sharon Waltner, in their 70s, have welcomed home their daughter, Anne, as a partner in their corn and soybean farm near Parker, South Dakota. At age 39, Anne had triplet daughters. “It has changed our plans and altered our focus,” Sharon says. Photo taken March 29, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Keith and Anne work in the shop or field. Sharon handles much of the kid duty, getting the girls in to child care at Freeman and getting them back to the farm. Sharon embraces the tasks with a practicality.

“We are working to hopefully get her established,” Sharon said. “Maybe that’s what keeps us young, but at the end of the day, we can be tired. It has changed our plans and altered our focus.”

A woman works on a hydraulic press in a farm shop, protecting her hands with a large glove.
Anne Waltner, a professional concert pianist who once insured her hands, now wears gloves as a full-time corn and soybean farmer near Parker, South Dakota. Here, she uses a hydraulic shop press to straighten a piece of steel. Photo taken March 29, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Anne is growing more comfortable with the farming duties. She embraces the technology of farming, but admits all of the trouble-shooting and problem-solving can be daunting.

“How to fix, how to manipulate things, physically. How to jerry rig, and offer myself the best physical advantage when I’m trying to work on things,” she said. Dad still picks up the phone when she calls.

An anomaly

She acknowledges that not everyone accepts a woman as a farmer.

She takes it in stride.

“Some of these seed guys wanted to talk to Dad and not me,” she said. She remembered one situation: “No matter how many times my dad said, ‘She’s the farmer, you’ll have to talk to her,’" they couldn’t understand that she is more than Keith’s “helper.”

A woman in dress concert attire greets well-wishers after a concert recital, surrounded by her husband and her five-year-old triplet daughters, in matching red dresses with black leggings.
Farming concert pianist Anne Waltner and her husband, Rolf Olson, a professor of music, hold their triplet daughters and greet well-wishers after Anne played a concert at on Feb. 27, 2022, at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

More amusing, some people look past her and approach her husband Rolf about farming purchases.

“He can’t speak that language,” she said, noting that his gifts are elsewhere. He retired from full-time teaching at Northern State University in Aberdeen, and now is back at the farmstead, managing the kitchen and the home.

A man in shorts has delivered a lunch bucket to his father-in-law farmer, leaning on a disk.
Rolf Olson, left, brings lunch with father-in-law, Keith Waltner, who takes a break from plowing up a piece of unused pasture to plant into crops. Photo taken May 10, 2022, Parker, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Anne looks ahead with gratitude and hope.

Happily, the cancer has backed off. She tolerated the immunotherapy infusions in Sioux Falls, but likely will take pills daily for the rest of her life. In January 2022, her numbers were all in a normal range. She is grateful for “good science” and the power of hearing prayer. “I know this is how it gets done,” she said.

A back-lit pianist, Anne Waltner, in black concert dress, plays a Steinway grand piano on the stage at Northern State University, where she collaborated as an accompanist for a recital of Edvard Grieg music.
Farmer Anne Waltner holds doctorate degrees in piano performance and served in music faculties before returning full-time to South Dakota in 2016 to join her parents as a partner at their corn and soybean farm, about 40 miles southwest of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Photo taken Feb. 27, 2022, Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

And Anne remains a professional pianist. It's not convenient for farming, but Keith encourages her to take “gigs." She was named principal keyboard artist for the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, where Rolf is in the trumpet section. She serves on the board of her beloved Freeman Academy.

A woman plants corn with a John Deere planter.
Farmer Anne Waltner said the technology of farming is not daunting, but said it is a comfort to have her father around when dealing with the inevitable breakdowns and work-arounds. Photo taken May 10, 2022, Parker, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“I have never worked this hard,” Anne said. “I love what I do. I get to work with all of my favorite people. Who gets to do that?” And then she adds: “Can you think of anybody luckier than me?”

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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