Ed Terry of Northfield, Minnesota celebrated milestones over the past year. Along with his family farm reaching its 150th birthday, Terry retired after 51 years of teaching agriculture and advising FFA.
He had a formative role in many legacies. “I’m in my third generation of teachers, and in more than one instance, I’ve known five generations of the same family in this community,” says Terry. “With ourselves being recognized by the Century and Sesquicentennial Farm program, we realize the importance and tradition of farming as a family business.”
Many of Terry’s former students came from family farms and some now operate their own 500 cow dairies and large farming operations. Others have secured positions in agricultural finance, the energy sector and other careers in agribusiness.
“I always say that I have no students; instead, they are part of the extended family,” he says. “I like to think my most important harvest has been raising leaders.”
Terry’s teaching career began in 1968 in Farmington, Minnesota. He had obtained a diploma in agricultural education because the family farm was not expanding at that time. During his six years teaching at Farmington, he helped the agricultural program grow to such an extent that a second teaching position was added.
In 1974, Terry’s father, Chester, retired from farming. Terry, his wife, Carol, and his brother David have formed a 50/50 partnership to take over the farm which has been in the Terry family since 1871.
Carol and Ed Terry.
Terry Family Farm
After returning from four years with the Minnesota Regiment during the Civil War, Terry’s great-grandfather George sold half his interest in a local lumber business to purchase 160 acres and pursue his passion for farming.
In trade, George arranged for enough timber to build a farmhouse, which still stands on the property. The original barn contained eight cows and four horses. There were dairy cattle on the farm from 1871 to 2004. The Terrys raised pigs and chickens and grew clover, corn and wheat. The wheat was sent to Archibald Mill in Dundas, just a few miles south of Northfield.
The farm has been passed down from generation to generation, but Terry says there were always two requirements for the next owner.
“First, make sure your payments go to the previous generation. And second, it’s your responsibility to leave the farm and the land better than when you acquired it,” he says. “When we sell to the next generation, that will also be part of the deal.”
Since 1974, the Terrys have integrated grassy streams and sedimentary basins. The current crop rotation includes corn, soybeans and alfalfa, and has been practiced with minimal tillage for 35 years.
In 2004, they made the difficult decision to leave the dairy business because it made more financial sense to liquidate than to reinvest. They moved on to a small herd of beef cows, which they still maintain, in addition to raising Holstein steers.
The family has sustained the farm and weathered many storms over the past 151 years.
During the Depression, Terry’s grandparents had to make do with corn at a price of five cents a bushel. It was a time when it seemed better to burn corn for heat than to sell it.
His parents in the 1950s were devastated by army worms. His father would cut the oats before they were even ripe simply to avoid the pest.
“In agriculture, you have to believe in yourself and in your own ability to meet challenges,” he says. “For my grandparents and my parents, it was very important to have a rainy day fund. Many farmers who bought land before the Depression lost it if it was financed by insurance companies or banks and they couldn’t make the payments. So owning land was important.
Ed, Carol and David had to deal with wild market fluctuations and the agricultural crisis of the 1980s. They experienced increasingly unstable weather, battled Canada thistle and mite, encountered new diseases such as tar spot and more recently have faced supply issues and high input prices due to the pandemic. His advice to others is to be conservatively optimistic.
“The sun always rises in the east. Some days you just have to hope the next day will be better,” says Terry. “Farmers are competitive by nature. If we didn’t like challenges, we wouldn’t be in the business. Some things can be devastating, but you need to be able to recover and trust your beliefs. Due to the nature of the business, you work hand in hand with the good Lord.
Farmer and educator
Although Terry’s ultimate goal was always to be a full-time farmer, he couldn’t quite escape the allure of serving the community and his students. In the summer of 1977, the neighboring school district of Randolph called to ask if he could advise the administration on its new agricultural and FFA program.
“They wanted me to teach, and I kept saying no because we were milking a lot of cows and managing the land,” he says. “That summer, I was the open class livestock superintendent at the Dakota County Fair where the school board president’s son was showing dairy cattle. While I was running the show, I could see him in the outside ring talking to people and pointing fingers at me that I was the new agricultural teacher. That kind of sealed the deal.
At the end of his first year teaching at Randolph, the school could not find a replacement and Terry accepted one more year. “I did the second year, same problem, then the next 43 years were history,” he says.
Terry started with just 15 agriculture students and FFA members. He retired at 163. During his career, he started a co-op program with Northfield for these students to attend. He also launched an outreach program that served eight area schools with no agricultural education or FFA.
“When I started at Randolph 45 years ago, Carol took over my operation. It’s a family farm, and Carol, David, my kids all pitched in and helped out with things. things when I needed to go to school and FFA. It’s not very often that families are involved in a teacher’s job, so it’s very important to me, it’s to say the least,” said Terry.
Ed Terry with his son Michael and grandson Callan, the fifth and sixth generations building a future on the farm.
Lessons for the future
His son Michael is the next generation with a future on the farm. Terry’s wish is that the farm stays in the family for many more years.
“We were lucky because in every generation there was someone in the family who was up for the challenge, who loved the land and loved farming,” he says.
He acknowledges, however, that if more land is not added to the 160 acres, it could become a hobby farm. As farms grow, so does equipment and costs. Terry says the farm will need to be more productive and that can only be done by continuing to improve soil health and using technology.
“As farmers, we love what we do, even in difficult times. We have a commitment to the land, the livestock, our families and our communities,” he says.
The future of farming is in the hands of the next generation, the young people Terry taught.
His advice for them and for young farmers everywhere is to get involved in the community. Each generation of the Terry family has had someone serving on the board of the township, church, school, or farm group.
He says, “I think to be successful, you can’t just end your farm day and say, ‘Well, I’m done for the day.’ You need to get out there and get involved.