Chervestad Family, Pennington County
The challenges of making hay exist no matter where you live. For the Chervestads in Pennington County, erratic weather patterns left them with an ugly brown crop in the early 2000s that they couldn’t give away.
“We bought some cows,” said Aaron Chervestad.
“It’s better than a match,” joked his father Kory.
The family and their operation, Hay Day Farms, has been through the tough times of the 1980s and the low prices of today. But they keep their heads up, working hard and trying new things, while staying as dedicated to MFU as ever.
Making hay… and clean water
Aaron and his wife Jill are the third generation to live in their current house. But the family’s been in the area for longer than that. His great-grandmother, originally from the Grand Forks, N.D., area, moved to their township after her husband died. Land was cheaper in Pennington County than in Grand Forks then. She moved into the house where Kory and Carol Chervestad now live. However, Kory was born in what’s now Aaron and Jill’s house, about a mile from the other house.
Father and son work the approximately 4,000 acres under the Chervestad purview, splitting ownership equally between them.
“We’re fairly diversified,” Aaron said. “We grow corn, soybeans, dry beans, wheat, alfalfa and fescue grass for both seed and hay. We did malt barley for about 10 years until we started the fescue. And at the moment we have about 120 Angus cow-calf pairs.”
Like many Minnesota farms, Hay Day Farms was once a dairy. Until 1994, they milked 50 cows.
“It was considered a decent size at the time, but not anymore,” Aaron said. “Now there are no dairies in the township and only one in the county.”
The hay business has sustained the Chervestads for more than 30 years now, both to feed the cattle and to sell to other farm businesses. Their initiative with fescue grass supplements that business, both in providing grass for hay and grass seed they can market.
“It’s the fifth year for us now,” Kory said of the grass production. “With fescue you can get three or four crops. And it likes water.”
“After all this rain we had in the fall, there was very little runoff off those fields,” Aaron added. “And it likes nitrogen. It’ll drink up as much as you want to put on it. It keeps the it out of the watershed. You’re also eliminating a lot of tillage passes every year. Erosion is very minimal.”
The Chervestads are lucky to have dedicated part-time employees who work making hay, who’ve been with them a long time. One is a pastor who worked with Kory in the 1980s, when things were looking bleak for agriculture.
“He said he was thinking of going into ministry,” Kory said. “We didn’t stop him and told him we’d support him. Now he’s preaching in Erskine and lives on his family’s home place. So he works with us part-time again. He knows what to do.”
The Chervestads have stayed close as a family throughout their generations. Aaron’s two sisters, Abby and Angie, live nearby in Gary and Red Lake Falls, respectively. Their other sister lives in their hearts.
“We had four children,” Kory said. “But we lost a daughter in 1994 in a homecoming parade accident. She was on a float with her classmates in Oklee.”
Carol worked in town until 2008.
“I worked at the hospital in Thief River Falls about 21 years, then I took my civil service test and got hired by the Postal Service,” she said. “I worked part-time in Oklee, then got to be the officer in charge in Bejou for six years, then transferred to St. Hilaire.”
(A fun fact about Carol – she is the first cousin of Red Lake County President Steve Linder, who farms just a few miles away from Hay Day.)
Meanwhile, Aaron’s wife Jill is a paralegal at the Ihle, Sparby and Haase Law Firm in Thief River Falls. She’s worked there for more than 20 years after getting her degree from Minnesota State University-Moorhead (formerly Moorhead State). She and Aaron have two children: Owen, 12, and Alexa, 10. Aaron has a degree in ag industry sales and management from the University of Minnesota-Crookston.
‘Don’t miss the Farmers Union meeting!’
Kory remembers going to Farmers Union meetings ever since he was small.
“They used to go to meetings every week,” he said. “Everyone was involved.”
People would tell each other it was okay to miss church on Sunday morning, but not to miss the Farmers Union meetings. At their local, they’d discuss similar things to what our members deal with now – low prices for their products.
The Chervestads are still stalwarts at Farmers Union meetings and conventions. Kory is the Pennington County President. And they still are troubled by low prices.
“[The trade wars] have really put a crimp in things,” Aaron said. “We go to different meetings and some say that the tariffs aren’t the true reason the prices have crashed. Well, it certainly hasn’t helped matters any. And those ethanol waivers have been bad too. The president could do something about those, but he’s chosen not to.”
Sitting on the Board of Directors of the Red Lake Electric Cooperative, Aaron’s privy to the disparities in rural broadband access. Though their area has good internet through Garden Valley Telephone, they’re among the lucky ones.
“You sit in these meetings and look at a map of Minnesota, and we’re a red bullseye in the middle of nothing.”
MFU is working to extend that bullseye of coverage, in part by supporting full funding for the Border-to-Border Grants.
“That’s how Garden Valley got started [with fiber broadband], through grants,” Carol said.
In 2016, Aaron and Jill decided to take a step forward in leading for family farmers by joining the Farmers Union Enterprises (FUE) Leadership Couples program, with couples also from Wisconsin, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana.
“We weren’t sure what we were getting into at first, but we got really comfortable fast,” Aaron said. “Harley and Irene Danielson did a fantastic job. We had a lot of differences but at the end of the day, we’re all trying to raise kids and make the farm work.
“The biggest thing I learned was how important Farmers Union Industries (FUI) is. The reason we stepped into those businesses was that people couldn’t make money at them, but we still need the services. It was the same cooperative principles that started our grain elevators and electric and telephone.”
And maybe that’ll extend to broadband too, eventually.
Making it through
How have the Chervestads hung in there?
“Faith,” Carol was quick to answer. “Communication.”
They value being able to talk about the issues they’re dealing with, even though it’s hard. And they can rely on experience to know it’s not the end of the world.
“The 80s were not good for us with all the rain,” Carol said. “We made it through that.”
Trying new things, such as beef cattle and fescue grass, have kept things interesting at Hay Day Farms too. But they have each other, no matter what.
“The family is a big part of it,” Aaron said.