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2011 Valley Farmer & Homemaker

DARLENE AND CURTIS BALLARD of rural Ogema were named as the 2011 Valley Farmer and Homemaker of the Year for Becker County. The award is given annually by the Minnesota Red River Valley Development Association. A total of 16 families from 14 Minnesota counties were honored at the Minnesota RRVDA banquet in Crookston on March 14.

Since purchasing their farm in rural Ogema almost 40 years ago in the fall of 1972, Curtis and Darlene Ballard have seen many changes.

The home where they raised their five children is now inhabited by daughter and son-in-law Angie and Tim Lehrke, and their three children.

Curt and Darlene now live in a comfortable two-year-old home atop a hillside that overlooks the farm, less than half a mile away.

Daughter and son-in-law Annalee and Shawn Kologi live in the Rochert area with their four children, while the other three siblings have ventured a little farther afield.

Son John Ballard and daughter Abby, along with her husband Deon DeWitt, all live near Medora, N.D., while daughter Amanda, a member of the U.S. Air Force, is currently stationed overseas, at Mildenhall Air Force Base in England. (Amanda's husband, Carter Roerick is currently stationed at Offutt AFB in Omaha, Neb.)

Last fall, Darlene made her first trip overseas when she and Curt paid a visit to Amanda, who acted as their personal tour guide through England and Ireland. (Curt had traveled extensively during his stint with the Air Force, 1967-70.)

"I was a crew chief working on fighter planes," Ballard said of his time in the military, noting that it was his job to make sure all the planes were fueled and maintained properly, and all paperwork was filled out and appropriately filed.

After his stint with the Air Force, Curt and Darlene were married; they will celebrate their 40th anniversary on Sept. 11 of this year.

During their first few years of marriage, the couple moved from a rented home in Ogema, to being the caretakers of a farm near Darlene's parents in the Strawberry Lake area, to living in a trailer home in Spring Creek Township.

"I was working for Ernie Anderson, hauling gravel," Curt said. "One day I was delivering a load of gravel to Art Oberdick, and we started talking."

Curt mentioned that he and Darlene were looking for a farm, and Art said he knew of one in the area that was for sale.

"I think some things are just predestined," Curt said.

So the Ballards purchased the first 240 acres of their current farm operation, adding just under 100 more over the next few years, for a total of 337 acres.

"Then we started renting land, thinking that would be the answer," Curt said. "That proved to be a fiasco."

Eventually, the operation became too large for the Ballards to maintain profitably, so they scaled back again.

The cost of all the pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals needed to maintain their farm operation also became prohibitive, so about 12 years ago, they decided to go organic.

They went through the three-year transition period needed to have both their cow/calf and grain operations certified as chemical and hormone free.

"Soybeans are the main cash crop, but we also raise barley, oats and alfalfa," Curt said. "Our cow/calf operation is also certified organic."

What that means is the Ballards can't use pesticides, herbicides, hormones or antibiotics in their operation.

"There are some holistic things you can use," Darlene pointed out.

"But we don't use any farm chemicals or commercial fertilizers at all," Curt said.

They also can't use any seed that have been genetically modified.

At first, going organic was primarily a cost saver; since then, however, the Ballards have committed to it wholeheartedly.

"It's a way of life, a commitment," Curt said. "In many ways, it's so much easier to farm the other way -- you just plant, and spray, and have a beautiful cosmetic crop without a single weed."

Organic farming, by contrast, requires much more attention to control weeds and fertilize fields, because only natural, organic methods and materials can be used.

"Every year is different -- some years you have good, clean crops, and some are fiascos, where the weeds take over," Curt said.

The quality of the crops is very weather-dependent, he added. If you can get in and till the fields properly, weed control becomes much less of an issue; if conditions are too wet, the weeds get a chance to establish themselves, and become much harder to get rid of.

Ultimately, however, the work is worth it, Curt noted.

"After you get into it, you wonder, 'Why do we use all these chemicals?'" Darlene said. "You just don't realize (how much) until you're not using it."

Their eating habits have also changed; the couple raises their own meat, fruits and vegetables, and makes their own bread. For what they can't produce themselves, they try to buy only organic when they can.

"We can't get everything organic, but we try," Darlene said.

"When we first started organics, I was so excited about it, I was probably trying to push it too much," Curt admitted. "Now, we try to lead by example."

And leading by example is something they practice in other areas of their lives as well. Despite all the changes in their lives, the Ballards' commitment to both family and community has remained a constant.

In recognition of their dedication to family, community service, farming and natural resource conservation, the couple was named as the 2011 Valley Farmer and Homemaker of the Year for Becker County, by the Red River Valley Development Association of Minnesota.

The 73rd Annual Honor Banquet sponsored by the Minnesota RRVDA was held on Saturday, March 19, at the University of Minnesota-Crookston's Bede Ballroom. Sixteen families from 14 northwest Minnesota counties were named to receive this distinguished award.

"It's a great honor," Curt said.

It was also a complete surprise, Darlene added.

"They called us ahead of time to let Curt know we'd been chosen, but we had no idea we'd been nominated," Darlene said of receiving the news.

"There are so many people who are more worthy, who deserve it more," Curt said. "We feel very blessed."

Besides their farm operation, the Ballards are also heavily involved in volunteer work. Darlene is a homemaker, part-time postal worker and religious education director at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Ogema. She has also volunteered extensively at St. Mary's Nursing Home (now Oak Crossing) in Detroit Lakes for more than 10 years.

Curt is a life member of the VFW in Ogema, the Knights of Columbus, and has also volunteered at St. Mary's and for the church. He has also been a Becker County commissioner and White Earth Township board member.

In addition, he owns and operates a school bus, delivering kids to and from school in the Waubun-Ogema-White Earth District for about 20 years now.

"I've had all seven of my grandkids on my bus at different times," Curt said. "I think it's good to be around kids a lot, to look at things as they do."

As far as why he enjoys volunteer work, Curt added, "You get back so much more than what you give. That's the bottom line."

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454