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Mouse River farm marks 125 years and five generations

A family farm near Tolley in the Mouse River Valley just seven miles south of the Canadian border has quietly produced a bounty for the past 125 years.

7/03/14 (Thu)

Three generations actively farming . . . Generations 5, 4, and 3, namely (from left) Jared Johnson, Kirk Johnson,
and Richard Johnson posed together on Saturday at their farm along the Mouse River, north of Tolley. Kirk
holds a picture of their farm taken at the time it was named a “Centennial Farm” in 1987. 

By Marvin Baker

A family farm near Tolley in the Mouse River Valley just seven miles south of the Canadian border has quietly produced a bounty for the past 125 years.

The Johnson family, which has worked on that farm for five generations celebrated the milestone.

Extended family members attended a picnic and informal program on the farm on Saturday.

Kirk Johnson and his sisters spoke of when they were younger and some of the changes they’ve seen over the years.

Letters from dignitaries were also read in celebrating the farm’s quasquicentennial. They included North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Sen. John Hoeven, Rep. Kevin Cramer, a certificate from Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s office was shown, along with letters from Sen. Dave O’Connell and Rep. Bob Hunskor.

O’Connell presented the Johnson family with a U.S. flag that was flown over the U.S. capitol in Washington, D.C., along with letters from President Barack Obama.

Rep. Glen Froseth, who attended the celebration, said celebrating 125 years is quite a milestone and makes the Johnson farm the same age as North Dakota.

“It’s rare for a family to stay on the farm for that many years,” Froseth said. “It’s quite a milestone.”

Kirk and Martha Johnson now farm the land with their son Jared. He said Jared recently made up his mind, returned from college, and now represents the fifth generation on the family farm that has endured for as long as North Dakota has been a state.

“My grandparents came from Norway to Minnesota and didn’t like it there, so they kept going,” said Richard Johnson, Kirk’s father who is now retired and living in Kenmare. “They went to White Earth and raised sheep, but there were too many coyotes getting the sheep, so they came to Tolley.”

Richard Johnson said the farm has a rich history and has certainly gone through ups and downs like most farms have in North Dakota.

But one of the things he said that often gets forgotten is that the farmland had to be cleared before it could be worked.

He said his grandfather and others cleared about 200 acres of trees and it took weeks to get one tree out. Today it would take all of five minutes.

Peter and Annie Johnson came to their present-day farm in 1886, but didn’t file paperwork until 1888. They were essentially squatters. They left for two years and when they came back, realized they were on a school section that had recently been surveyed.

“My parents moved onto the farm when I was 4 years old,” Richard Johnson said. “So I’ve been on the farm for more than 70 years.”

Richard and his wife Myrna, took over the farm operation in 1954 and raised cattle and grain and for several years, also had a bison herd.

“I still have one that got out and has stayed since,” Richard said.

He said most years have been good, but the 2011 flood took it’s toll on the farm.

“The original house is still standing but it took a beating,” Richard said. “There’s a wood grainary that’s in pretty good shape. There was a second one that floated away in about 8 or 9 feet of water.”

He also talked of how his grandparents would encounter Indians who would come by the farm, knock on the door of the house and request exchanging wild game for bread and flour, something that was new to them.

“So, oh yes, there’s a lot of history with this farm,” Richard said.

Kirk Johnson has farmed with Richard since he was in high school and now it is good to see his son, Jared, getting into farming.

According to Kirk, farming has changed a great deal since he was a kid.

“The way the whole farming operation has evolved, it’s so sophistocated and computerized,”  he said. “And the way we market grain nowadays, you almost need a contract because inputs are so high. You almost have to guarantee a price or lose money.”

Kirk Johson said the farm was recognized when it had its centennial on July 13, 1987. He said a certificate was signed by Ag Commissioner Kent Jones. Now, they have one signed by Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring.

According to O’Connell, who grew up in the Lansford area, said the Johnson farm does indeed have the history for it to be officially recognized for 125 years.

“It’s great to be able to represent constituents who have made the commitment to the land,” he said. “There’s an attachment to the land. These people have been through drought and bad prices, but also good times like barn dances. What a great honor. It’s quite a milestone.”

According to Kirk, he can begin to ease back a little as he ages and relax as Jared is working on taking the reigns.

“My son is proud of the farm and wants to carry on,” Kirk said. “I never told him he should be farming. He made up his own mind.”

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