Old Glory: Flags on farms show the Heartland's patriotism
FARGO — You see them often you drive across the heartland.
The Stars and Stripes pop up in many places — on a pole, on a wall, at the top of a machine, or over U.S. Department of Agriculture and agribusiness offices.
The flag is a big deal in the heartland, especially around the Fourth of July.
Most farmers in this part of America are of European extraction, still only three or four generations from immigration. Some still speak with a family or regional lilt or brogue. It doesn't take long for them to relate how a government welcomed in hard-working immigrants who believed in themselves and strove for the nation's ideals.
And most farm families can recount their farm boys who lost their lives in World War I and World War II, and many who kissed the ground when they returned. Thousands went to the Korean War, and many to Vietnam. Some enlisted in the National Guards, which would later play a stepped-up role in the Middle East conflicts of the past 30 years.
Today's farmers have become acutely aware of the international scene. They're travelers, thinkers and weather-watchers. Many have invested in export facilities and send three-fourths of their wheat, soybeans and corn to Asia. It's easy to see America's opportunities when you're people who have your feet on farmland and look up at a flag.
'We're all Americans'
Jason Lovas didn't have to talk much to get his wife, Sarah, and his father, Peter, interested in putting a large flag of the United States on one of their grain bins near Hillsboro, N.D., about three years ago.
The 12-by-25 foot flag is visible for a couple of miles to motorists on the flat, northbound lane of Interstate 29. The flag's grommets are attached to a 100,000-bushel bin the 50 feet to the eaves. They bought the flag through The Idea Shop, a local marketing company.
"I've been surprised at how many people have stopped by the shop, just to thank us and show their support," Jason said. One Saturday last summer, a woman stopped by, not knowing who the Lovas family was. "I was really touched by it," Jason said. "She was almost in tears when she expressed her thankfulness for us for putting up the flag."
At age 18, Jason joined a farm that his great-grandfather had started. After graduating from Hillsboro High School, Jason started farming with a few acres of sugar beets. He went to North Dakota State University where he met his wife, Sarah Hall of Hoople. Both were studying ag systems management.. They were married in 2003 and now have their first child — a 6-month-old son named Axel. Sarah does some custom agronomy consulting on the side. The Lovas family left sugar beets in 2002 as they expanded into a corn rotation.
One of Jason's grandfathers fought in the Battle of the Bulge in WWII. One of Sarah's grandfathers served in the South Pacific theater. Peter served in the North Dakota National Guard in the 1960s.
"I've always had a lot of respect for the military, it's one of our greatest assets in this country," Jason said. "There's a certain amount of political tension in this country. We need to remember that we're all Americans and this is the greatest nation on the planet, without a doubt."
Flags 'n Fords
The Orris family west of Clark, S.D., celebrates the Fourth of July by pulling an "860" model Ford tractor out by their flagpole that is visible along U.S. Highway 212 about five miles west of town.
Jim Orris, 69, has been living here since he was 5. As the story goes, his father, Robert, was driving a welding truck for Dakota Welding of Watertown, when he saw "tall weeds and a lot of rocks," and decided it was the only land he could afford. Robert built a blacksmith shop. Jim's mother, Clarice established Valley View Service, a grocery and service station, and ran it from 1954 to 1963. The store building still serves as Jim's house.
According to family lore, Robert had no intention of farming, but eventually shifted into it with eight children to care for. It was possible due to a progression of "little Ford tractors."
"We started out with 9Ns and 8Ns, and then we went to the 'Golden Jubilee,'" Orris recalls, referring to the Ford "NAA," which coincided with the 50th anniversary of Ford in 1953. Soon, they bought the 860 — "big dog," boasting belt-tested power of a whopping 46 horsepower.
Today, Orris and his partner, Lori Elie, manage the farm that's now mostly corn and beans. They still have a few Angus cows and Jim gets seasonal help from his son, Seth Orris, 38, who builds homes in Arizona.
"We seem to be like everybody else — proud of where we came from," Jim said. "We've got the cows and the little Fords and we've since graduated to all John Deere. I almost think it was more fun when I had the little Ford. It was a lot simpler."
As he gets older, Jim said he has as a stronger appreciation for the U.S. government. "Even the bad parts of our government, it seems like they can be fixed, they can be changed," he said. "We don't even think too hard to know we should be proud of it."
Due for new
Alfred Kemen, 76, has kept a flag flying in the front yard of his Madison, Minn., farmstead for decades.
"We put up a new flag every once in awhile," he said. "The weather gets the best of it, and we start over. We're about due for a new one again. It flies day and night, year-round."
His parents homesteaded in 1924 and built the house and barn that same year. Kemen said flag displays in his area often are associated with military service. Kemen was in the Army National Guard from 1962 to 1969. Back then, the "Guard" was was more of a state force than it is today.
Kemen quit crop farming at age 61. He helps his sons, Paul and Steve, on their farms, but mostly raises raises his purebred pigs and black Angus cattle for sale.
He's raised and sold registered pigs for 65 years, starting at age 11. He markets pigs in a five-state area, mostly through repeat customers and word-of-mouth. He sells Hampshire (black with a white stripe), Yorkshire (white) and the the first cross F1 of Hampshire and Durocs (red), which are sold black with the white stripe.
Kemen's market niche is the "outside pig" — pigs bred outdoors — known for meat quality and taste. "There's a lot of young families getting back into raising a few pigs — maybe five to ten sows, raising meat for their family and friends, and probably a few 4-H and feeder pigs," he said.
Beyond its symbolism, Kemen half-jokes that the flag has a practical purpose on his farmstead. "When I feed the cattle, I can tell the wind direction if I look at the flag. I can tell which way I've gotta face the feeder wagon."
Flags, by heart
Laurie Tollefson Wagner has been flying a flag from her combine for the past two years, and the flag fills a huge spot in her heart.
"I married my farmer four years ago," Laurie said, referring to husband, Russell Wagner, whose Arena, N.D., farm address is the site of the "ghost town" of Arena in rural Burleigh County.
Laurie grew up in rural Robinson, where her father had a construction company. She became a nurse living near St. Paul, but came back to see her family and see her then-boyfriend Russell, who's she'd known since high school and was confirmed with. They were married in 2013.
Both Laurie's and Russell's fathers were in the Navy. Her father, a Vietnam veteran, put up a flag on a flag pole every morning. It was his children's role to take it down every night. "He made us fold it every night," she said.
Laurie was inspired in using the flag on farm equipment by a crew caravan passing by from the non-profit Farm Rescue organization. Since then she's been flying the flag from her combine and plans to put flags on her planting and disking tractors too.
"I always say pride and farming are hand-in-hand," she adds. "Farming is the base of our country. When I think of our Stars and Stripes, three things come to mind — freedom, farming and family."
Ken and Peggy Fyre fly a flag between two cupolas in their Portland, N.D., yard.
The cupolas had stood atop of a barn that had been on the farm for more than 100 years but collapsed in a big snowstorm on Dec. 31, 2010. In 2011, the family used the cupolas in a yard display that includes a rock garden, bushes, flowers and solar lights to keep the flag lighted.
"Patriotism is very important to us," Peggy writes. Ken served in both the Army National Guard and the Air Force Guard. Their son, Chad, was serving in the national guard when 9/11 occurred. Her father, George Brustad of Mayville, served in the Korean War era.
"Displaying the flag and honoring all service men and women from the past, present and future means a lot to us," Peggy said.
R,W, on big blue
Eleanor Magrum lives on a farmstead near Braddock, N.D., where she and her husband, Vincent, farmed and ran a feedlot at the location.
The farm had installed famous blue Harvestore silos in the late 1970s and each was famously festooned with big U.S. flag decal. The silos have gotten out of date and too expensive to use after the late 1990s, but the flags remain.
"It would probably would be very expensive to take down," said Eleanor, 85, the mother of eight sons and two daughters. "The children thought we should leave them as a landmark." She expects them to be there as long as she's around.
A flag that fits
Les Koll of Wimbledon, N.D., displays a flag his son, Jordan, brought him 10 years ago, when working as a Foster County deputy sheriff. The flag was "worn and retired, and had to be shortened on the right side," Les said. He'd built a new shop and had space for a flag that size. Les' father was in the merchant marine during and after World War II, one of his family's connections to a country they love.
Only in America
Ellingson Drainage Inc., known for their field drainage development since the 1970s, recently has made a big statement. Their flag can be seen for miles along Interstate 29 near Hillsboro, N.D.
While it's not on a farm, the agricultural company offers one of the region's strongest flag statements. The 30-by-50-foot flag on a 100-foot pole and is similar to a flag on an 80-foot pole at their founding headquarters in West Concord, Minn.
Derrik Ellingson leads the company with his brother, Jeremy and their father, Roger. "Really it's the executive team wanting to show our patriotism for the country," Derrik explained. The flag at Harwood was raised on Dec. 19, 2017, a few days before the death of their grandfather, Eldon Ellingson, who founded the company. The Ellingsons are preparing a memorial display at the flag's base to honor Eldon and his wife, Genese.