As she looks out across the farmland she’s lived on for 38 years, Toni Borgerding loves to watch the changing of the seasons: from the rich black soil of spring to the green and golden crops of summer and fall to the perfect blanket of untouched white snow that covers the fields in winter.
If it wasn’t for a chance meeting at a dance hall in Alexandria where she met her husband Joe, Toni, who grew up in St. Cloud, might have missed out on that view.
Now the couple, members of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Elrosa, is excited to welcome others to their land when they host this year’s Catholic Charities Annual Rural Life Celebration Aug. 13 at their farm in Belgrade.
About 400 acres of their land was originally purchased by Joe’s father in 1946. It has grown from a small conventional farm to an organic dairy farm. It also includes some dairy beef, crops of grain and food-grade soybeans that are exported to Japan.
The family-run operation includes their sons, Tommy and Danny, who work full time on the farm, their son, Tyler, who works when he’s not away at college, their daughter Teri (husband, Cole), and Danny’s wife, Colleen. Their oldest son, Ryan, lives in Texas.
“We always say the best thing we raised on our farm is our children,” Joe said. “We are so blessed to have raised our children here, and now the five grandchildren are around here, too.”
The theme for this year’s Rural Life Celebration is “Caring for God’s Creation: Sharing in the Stewardship of God’s Country,” something Joe said he and his family have been working on for over 40 years.
In addition to the land they live on, the family maintains three nearby locations — about 600 acres — in what is called regenerative agriculture. This system of farming works on improving the soil, watersheds and ecosystem.
“As the stewards of the land and livestock in God’s country, we do our best to plant straight rows and care for the animals,” Joe said. “Then comes the humbling realization that we can’t make it grow. We have to remember to be humble and wait for help from God.”
One of the family’s goals is to change the lifestyle of farmers.
“It was rarely fun growing up on a farm. Later on, you appreciated it, but when you were young, you were always working and missed out on some things. We are trying to change that lifestyle by having multiple partners involved. With a larger group operation, people can get away a little easier and have a little down time,” Joe explained.
“There’s also an element of teamwork — you can put your heads together to resolve problems and we really think that makes it a better lifestyle than the way it was when I was growing up,” Joe said.
“We like to promote the rural community,” Danny added. “If we can kind of be an example of how it can work, maybe more people will stay in farming and keep these small communities alive and even thrive.”
But caring for the land and their family hasn’t come without heartache. On Aug. 8, 1995, Joe and Toni’s son Carl, almost 11, was the victim of an accident, the details of which are still hard for the family to talk about. One thing they know for sure is that Carl wanted with all his heart to be a farmer.
“When we decided to host this event, I was thinking of our son Carl. He really loved farming so we thought it would be neat to have a Mass on our farm,” Toni said. “Personally, for me, I’m doing this in his honor. Also, this is a way to give back to our great rural community.
“Rural life is not just the farm, it’s also the experience of the small town,” she added.
“Everyone knows pretty much everything about you, the bad and the good. But that can be a good thing,” she said. “Twenty-two years ago when we spent 10 days in the hospital with Carl, someone told us they went to church to light a candle and all the candles were already lit. We knew people were praying for us.”
And when they came home, people were out doing their field work and milking their cows. One family continued to come each Christmas Eve for the next couple of years following Carl’s death.
“That kind of support, well, that’s part of why we live here,” Joe said. “When things go wrong, we can pull together to get through those times.”
They hope the celebration of rural life will reflect Carl’s love of farming as well as the sacrifices and successes of their neighbors near and far across the diocese.
“We just want to give our fellow farmers a chance to gather together to thank God for our lifestyle and all he gives us,” Joe said. “It is also a chance for non-farmers to spend a few hours on the farm.”
The gift of rural life
According to Kathy Langer, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud, the Rural Life Celebration is a chance for everyone in the diocese to acknowledge the contributions of rural communities.
“The people in the host parishes have rallied around Toni and Joe, just like rural people traditionally do, and are making this possible,” Langer said. “Every year this happens. [And] every year we celebrate God’s gift of creation, that is the earth, sky, animals and all that God gives so freely. The gift that we so easily take for granted and yet need for our very lives.”
The day’s activities include Mass with Bishop Donald Kettler, lunch featuring hot beef sandwiches, chips, corn on the cob, coleslaw, ice cream and homemade cookies, farm tours, a petting zoo and a short presentation by Benedictine Abbot John Klassen of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville.
Abbot Klassen, who grew up on a farm neighboring the Borgerding’s land, intends to reflect briefly on the “challenges and the joys of living in a rural area, for raising a family, for making a living and being so close to nature.”
“Agriculture and small town life have changed dramatically in the 50 years since I graduated from high school — nothing short of astonishing,” Abbot Klassen said. “Those changes have impacted life in small towns. I see talented, engaged families responding to these challenges, working to make communities viable. Core elements of strong communities remain that make life in these communities profoundly compelling.
“Furthermore,” he said, “in the face of a technical and capital intensive agriculture, there are cost and margin pressures, in the face of which we are all called to ‘care for our common home.’ I want to give some examples that are particularly relevant to rural life. Above all, it is a time to rejoice in the gift of rural community life.”
Interactive live music will also be part of the day.
The event is sponsored by Catholic Charities, the Diocese of St. Cloud and The Catholic Foundation and is being hosted by the parishes of St. Donatus in Brooten, St. Francis de Sales in Belgrade and Sts. Peter and Paul in Elrosa. All are welcome.