The Helstrom family story and that of the farm involves many twists and turns, moments of joy and seasons of heartache, deep struggles and great triumphs. In short, it’s a story that you can probably identify with because these are characteristics of many family stories. Perusing through the family history and other historical documents, one quickly realizes that the continuation and existence of the farm is due to a faithful God and hard-working ancestors.
The land on which the Helstrom farm sits was originally surveyed in 1867. Four years later Jacob Helstrom was born in Finland. He stepped on to the shores of America at Ellis Island in 1889, only three years after the Statue of Liberty was completed. Three years later, while living in New Hampshire, Jacob married Sanna and they started a family. Jake, John, and Matt were all born in New Hampshire before the family packed up and headed for Hibbing, Minnesota . There they could enjoy the company of relatives and a host of other like-minded Finns.
Like many Finns, they were also attracted to land that reminded them of their country of origin. Two more children came along (Karl & Emmy) before they made a claim on one-hundred and sixty acres south of Hibbing in 1904, 37 years after the land was first surveyed.
Fred was the first child born on the farm in 1905 (followed by Verne and Albert) and maybe that’s why he took the greatest interest in the farm over his siblings.
With the farm being established came many responsibilities: logging, building barns and outbuildings, as well as building a house. Soon land was cleared for potatoes, a few dairy cows, and hay to keep the horses and cows well-fed through the brutal Northern Minnesota winters. The family was eventually running forty acres of potatoes with horse drawn equipment.
Things would prove difficult during the Deflationary Recession of 1920 and 1921. The CPI (Consumer Price Index) took a sixteen percent drop and the bottom fell out of the potato market. It was so bad that potatoes were simply given away to those who would dig them up. The year was made even more difficult when Sanna passed away. The family never farmed potatoes again.
Jacob was devastated, but proud. He continued farming, logging, and working as a township road supervisor, doing whatever he could to provide for his family and hold onto the farm.
Fred stayed on and eventually took the farm over from his father. Along with his wife Savelle they kept the farm going. They had eight children, including Jim, who would later live on the farm (although they lost a daughter to a drowning accident and a son to poor health).
Through the heartache of loss they soldiered on.
Fred worked full-time off the farm in the underground mines before getting a certification from ICS (International Correspondence Schools) in Carpentry. He applied himself to carpentry, became a Foreman, and eventually a Superintendent of Construction
In the mid-1950s Fred bought a small herd of registered Polled Herefords for his boys’ college fund. A large sign was erected at the farm’s entrance reading - “Helstrom Brothers Polled Herefords” and the family’s first go at beef cattle farming began. It was a short stint. By 1960 the cattle had all been sold and Jim and his brothers were off at college pursuing career
Before Jim moved away for college though, he married his high school sweetheart, Carole, in 1957 (the same year they graduated). Their first son, Mike, was born the following year in 1958 while Jim was attending Hibbing Community College. After two years at HCC Jim finished college at UND with degrees in civil engineering and business administration. Jim and Carole then raised their three boys (Mike, Greg, and Mark) in the Twin Cities, while Jim worked for General Office Products. The family would take trips back to the Hibbing area where they split time between the cabin at Dewey Lake, where Carole grew up, and the Helstrom homestead (Mike remembers the farm more than the lake and how he longed to live there).
Jim had felt the Northwoods calling him and eventually received an offer from Hibbing Office Supply to be their General Manager. Although it didn’t contain the pay or the perks he was used to, the family knew where they were headed. They were going back to their home, the Helstrom Farm! As the family drove north the boys were rejoicing.
The family first built a home in Hibbing until they could get a suitable place built on the farm, where Jim still lives today. In 1974-75 Jim, along with his son, Mike, bought a small herd of Polled Herefords along with some antiquated farm equipment.
Mike’s passion for farming was always strong, so buying the cattle was a natural move. He remembers, as an 8-year-old, crying if he couldn’t make hay, or seeing people spread manure and feeling like, “That’s what I want to do.”
Mike worked hard to make a break from the family’s old model (working off-farm to make ends meet). Jim supported Mike in his farming endeavor as best he could.
Mike’s early days of farming have many great stories. He remembers working with his Uncle Jeff, a couple small Ford 800s, a couple two-bottom plows, and an old Ford Baler with a Wisconsin motor. They really thought they had arrived as they turned four furrows at a time. The Fords were known to load up on fuel, so Mike and Jeff would carry Crescent wrenches in their hands to hit the carburetors as they tooled along. It turned out that Mike and Jeff didn’t even know how to adjust the plows right, so a neighbor came to see why the furrows looked all askew and graciously showed Mike how to make adjustments to the plow. Then they unhitched the plows and disced the field before anyone else could notice their error. One day at a time they learned to farm. Grandma Savelle graciously brought coffee as the boys worked. It was a time of dreaming, doing, and planning for the future.
Tight as things were, Jim turned everything over to Mike and the farm continued to move slowly forward. They had even picked up more land and were raising some hogs. But when the farm crisis hit in the mid 1980’s, Mike needed to pay off a loan and the stock was sold. To support his young family Mike took a job at the mines for six months until he started an electrostatic painting business.
The business did well enough to allow Mike to start loosing money at farming again, so beef cattle were purchased and conventional farming methods were practiced; more fertilizers, stronger antibiotics, more vaccines, bigger cattle, more equipment, high grain diets, etc.
Jason, who was born in 1982, worked for his dad in the painting business before taking a full-time job in the mines. Although the pay was good and it provided security for the family (he married Charity in 2008) it wasn’t where his heart was. Like his dad, Jason longed to spread manure and walk among the bovines full time.
Everything changed when Mike and Jason attended a Sustainable Farming Association grazing conference. The keynote speaker was Greg Judy, who spoke on a practice called mob-grazing, where the cattle are used as a tool to repair abused and depleted soils. Judy made it clear that an operation has to be enjoyable and profitable to be sustainable and that nature needed to dictate management, not pharmaceuticals and chemicals. It was like nothing they had heard before and it forever changed the operation.
From then on, fertilizers, antibiotics, supplements, hormones, and any other additive would move aside so that the natural progression and process of nature could run its course on the Helstrom Family Farm.
By changing their practices, life and vitality began to return to the soil. Plant species began to appear that hadn’t been seen in decades. Birds, mice, earthworms, and dung beetles emerged and are now easily observed with a short walk into the pastures. The ecosystems on the farm are returning to the way nature intended.
And the farm is flourishing.
Through processes of natural selection, the current herd is becoming one that has adapted to the specific environment of the farm. There is less dependence upon expensive inputs and the animals are expressing their God-given abilities.
It has become the perfect combination for premium grass fed beef: healthy soil, healthy plants, and healthy animals.
And that means a tasteful, nutritious protein source!