By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Vangie Elmhorst returned to Paynesville in 1988 with her husband, Mike Sr., and their seven children, to a farm her great-grandfather Friedrich Heitke established in 1897. The farmhouse had been vacant for several years, and the land rented.
Mike Sr. started life on a farm in Neillsville, Wis. “I thought I’d be there forever,” he said.
As the eldest in his family, he chose to move to another farm so that his younger siblings could stay on the home farm.
The Elmhorsts found “God opened a door for us to move on every time,” said Mike Sr.
In 1987, they attended a family gathering in Paynesville and let family members know they would be interested in taking the farm over if they could sell their land in Wisconsin (during the farm crisis of the 1980s) and afford to build a new barn in Paynesville.
“We came back to see if the house was fixable and knew that it was a now-or-never situation,” Mike Sr. said.
The financing of a barn was still an issue. “Then we got a phone call from a friend who offered us a loan,” he said.
At that point, Vangie felt she shouldn’t leave her job at a residential treatment center, feeling a moral obligation to the residents. “But the next Monday I found out that I was going to be laid off,” she said.
Mike Jr. was in college, but decided he wasn’t going to continue at that location. “He jumped in with us and was then hired by the contractor to help build the new barn,” said Vangie.
Having left the home place to make his career in Michigan, Vangie’s uncle, Harry Heitke, heard that the Elmhorsts were taking over the farm. He sent them a clock along with a note telling them to use it on their “restored farm.”
“He triggered the theme of restoration,” said Mike Sr. “And that got me searching Scripture.”
The verse the Elmhorsts were shown for their farm was Isaiah 58:12, “And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.”
“Everything was meant to be,” said Mike Sr.
Mike Jr. went back to college after helping build the new barn. He married Cara, who was from Texas, and they lived near Houston for a year.
“But I wanted to come back, and we found an available farm less than five miles away sitting empty,” said Mike Jr. He substitute taught, worked in a cabinet shop and coached football in Paynesville for a number of years.
Wanting to help out on his parents’ farm, he started baling hay and driving tractor for them during summers. Then the other kids married and left home and he gradually took on more of the farm work.
For the past 13 years he has taught junior and senior high history and wood shop at Community Christian School in Willmar. He is up by 3:45 a.m. to milk about 50 cows on the home farm, trying to be home by 6 a.m. to do chores there.
“The kids (son Mike III, daughter Mackenzie and son Caleb) alternate days coming with me,” he said. “The older two can nearly milk by themselves.”
While Mike Jr. milks most mornings, the Elmhorsts’ daughter Maretta and son Seth come over and milk in the evenings.
Mike Sr. has always farmed organically and is encouraged, knowing that he is raising grass-fed milk and beef.
“Our daughter Sandy told us we were so close to being organic, why didn’t we go for it?” Mike Sr. said. “She took the bull by the horns and filled out all of the paperwork.”
“This is truly a family farm,” said Vangie. Her sister Gerry Heitke still drives tractor and sister Ruby Elmhorst (who married Mike’s brother Eldred) unloads hay.
“Family farming is a choice, and it’s also a way of life,” said Mike Sr. “I’d like to tell people to go for it — try smaller-scale family farming.”
“It’s a lot of fun spending time with my kids working at the farm, commuting with them, seeing them at school,” said Mike Jr. “Not a lot of dads get to do what I do.”