Koller Family, Nicollet County
“I’m glad we were raised on a farm,” 18-year-old Noah Koller said.
If you’re a farm family, those are some of the best words you could hear from your children. Noah’s parents, Andrea and Chris Koller, have raised him and his four younger siblings – Caleb, 14; Charity, 11; Micah, 5; and Jonas, 2 – on their 170 acres near Le Sueur, Minn.
In addition to being active MFU members, Andrea and Chris were part of the Farmers Union Enterprises Leadership Couples program for the 2018-2019 session. They’ve successfully juggled parenting with participating in the program, transitioning their acres to certified organic grains and dealing with ever more dramatic weather. With the help of their faith and their kids, they’ve made it.
The Koller farmland has been in Chris’s family since they emigrated from Germany. The couple bought it from his grandfather in 2004, after Chris spent his childhood visiting the farm often. They’ve come to realize the importance of building relationships with other farmers, since the work of agriculture can be isolating.
“It’s not like you have a core group to talk to other than your family,” Andrea said. “I led a women’s farming group for a few years, meeting once a month so we could talk with other farming women.”
MFU has been another source of networking for them, as they’re active participants in the annual conventions, Women’s Conference and past Focus on the Future events. They became members after their children started attending MFU Leadership Camp. Lee Johnson, an MFU Membership and Outreach Staff member based in St. Peter, happens to be Chris’s uncle.
“He drove our kids to camp a few times,” Chris said.
Through the FUE program, they became close with the couples from Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin Farmers Union too. Even with Jonas being only six months old at the time they started sessions.
“It was probably good for us to get away from the farm and meet other people,” Andrea said. “It’s funny how you can bring in one couple from each of the five states and not know their background or their history but yet we all have kind of the same issues that we’re dealing with.”
Succession planning was one topic the Kollers said came up among the couples, particularly communication between generations on what they want to do.
“We used to farm with my dad so we had to work on sharing equipment and communication too,” Chris said. “Everybody has their own circumstances.”
Beyond finding this common ground, the Kollers and their fellow FUE couples spent their year learning about what Farmers Union stands for, its history and advocacy in Washington, D.C. They did workshops in the FUE states, at the National Farmers Union Convention and capped off the program with the 2019 NFU Legislative Fly-In. Caleb and Charity got to join them in D.C. and were recognized alongside U.S. Sen. Tina Smith during MFU’s meeting with her.
“You realize that Farmers Union is working to help these family farms out,” Chris said. “It’s good to know they’re fighting for farmers.”
Of all the policy issues that Farmers Union works on, they get back to supporting family farms like the Kollers’. That’s what’s most important to them, especially being a relatively small farm in terms of acreage.
“We have 170 acres and I think that’s pretty small, but 1,000 acres seems to be pretty small too for some people,” Andrea said.
“Our small towns are suffering because these smaller farms are disappearing,” Chris added. “We brought up farm sizes [at Fly-In] and they didn’t feel like they could do anything about it. It’s frustrating to see.”
Having a smaller acreage does make being certified organic a little easier, since it is so labor-intensive.
“There’s a lot of weed pulling because you can’t spray,” Chris said. “The ground froze up at one point this fall, but we got a second chance. And you have to wait for the weeds to die before harvesting.
“We get a few kids from town to help pull weeds. Luckily we have woods surrounding us so I don’t have to worry about chemicals.”
“Once you get it planted, it’s like a race against the weather and the weeds,” Andrea added. “You’re constantly cultivating.”
There’s still plenty of space for their five kids to be kids, while also learning how to farm. Andrea’s had to learn some new skills herself during her 19 years of marriage to Chris, having grown up on a turkey farm in Gaylord, in contrast to the corn, soybeans, peas and buckwheat they grow now.
“As I get older, I’m enjoying it more,” she said. “And you don’t have to worry too much about the kids.”
The kids get to help out on the farm quite a bit, driving tractor and pulling weeds. Though sometimes teaching them to use farm equipment is trying, especially if pieces break, they still get the work done that needs to be done.
“This fall was such a race against the weather, so they had to help,” Andrea said. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Truthfully, providing a good life for their family is what helps keep the Kollers going through tough times in agriculture. They’re backed up by their Christian faith too.
“You do it for your kids, keep going for their future,” Andrea said. “They know that farming is not all flowers and roses, you’re going to go through some hard times and you’ve just got to keep going.”