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Dave Olson, Published September 29 2013

Charm of the farm: For ‘retired’ farmers, lure of the combine hard to resist

Fargo - When the days grow shorter and shadows grow longer, Lyle Bartholomay knows exactly where he wants to be.

In the cab of a Massey Ferguson combine, helping with the fall harvest.

Never mind that he’s 75 and lives in West Fargo, having “retired” from his farm near Wheatland, N.D.

To sit down, he says, is to grow old.

So, on a recent sunny but blustery fall day, he was lending a hand to the soybean harvest on the farm he once ran but is now operated by Kelly Thompson.

Thompson, 39, began working for Bartholomay in high school.

After more than two decades toiling alongside each other, Thompson describes the education he received from Bartholomay as extremely valuable.

And the help his mentor provides never stops, according to Thompson.

“I don’t know if farmers actually retire,” said Thompson, who credits Bartholomay with giving him a shot at a farming career that might not have been possible otherwise.

“Without that (kind of help), I don’t think you would start,” said Thompson, whose children call Bartholomay “Grandpa Lyle.”

Bartholomay isn’t the only retired farmer who finds the siren song of chugging tractors and churning combines hard to resist.

No chairs, please

Ron Larson, who turned 80 this summer, keeps his phone close and waits expectantly for the call asking him to come drive truck for the fall harvest near Evansville, Minn.

A career long-haul trucker as well as a farmer, Larson started to rent out his farm about 15 years ago.

Three years ago, he decided it was time to hang it all up and retire.

That gave him the opportunity to “monkey around” with his tractor collection, but he found he still had lots of time on his hands.

Then he was talking to a farmer one day and asked the farmer if he needed help during the fall harvest.

The farmer said yes and Larson spent the past several autumns behind the wheel of a truck hauling soybeans and corn.

“I kind of like driving truck. I miss that,” said Larson, who offered a perspective on what it takes to be happily retired.

“It’s not to go sit in a chair and quit everything,” he said. “You gotta be able to get up and move around.”

At 87, Marvin Mahler wonders if it isn’t time to slow down a little.

“I don’t want to brag, but this is my 75th year that I’ve plowed,” said Mahler, who can still recall the first time he used a plow to work the land.

“My dad got me on the plow with three horses and I plowed the farm that fall.

“I was 12 years old and I’ve done it ever since,” said Mahler, who expects that after this year’s harvest he’ll again be tilling the fields on the farm near Fergus Falls, Minn., where he was born.

Early to rise

These days, Mahler rents the land to Holly and Brad Bilden, who grow corn, beans and hay.

“He (Mahler) needed something to do when he retired, so he drove tractor for us,” Holly Bilden said, adding that Mahler does the spring and fall plowing.

“He’s there at 6 o’clock in the morning and he leaves at 8, 9 o’clock at night. He’s pretty much like a grandpa to us,” added Bilden, who said Mahler also is a skilled craftsman who is adept at building miniature farm and ranch equipment out of wood.

“He just made us this beautiful cattle trailer to display at our place. He makes excavating equipment with all moving parts. It’s amazing what he does,” she said.

Whether it’s helping out with the harvest, or doing any of the countless number of other jobs a farmstead demands, Thompson said working with a more experienced farmer has helped him see that when it comes to working the land, “there’s a position there for a lifetime.”

His friend and mentor admits to being busier now than when he was farming full time.

“I’ll probably never quit helping,” Bartholomay confessed.

“I love to see plants grow,” he added, describing a process that starts with planting, followed by anxious waiting as the crops grow.

“And then, finally, harvest is there,” Bartholomay said.

“You gotta be on the ball for sure, then,” he added.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555