Minnetonka Author Pens Children’s Book on Dairy Farming

Minnetonka author teaches new generations the lessons of living on a farm.
Phyllis Alsdurf's experiences on the farm inspired her new book.

It’s rare in 2013 to find someone who spent any time on a farm as a child. It’s rarer still to find someone who spent their entire childhood on a farm.

Minnetonka resident Phyllis Alsdurf, an English professor at Bethel University, is one of those rare people. She recently penned a children’s book based on her experiences growing up on a dairy farm in southern Minnesota. It’s Milking Time was published in 2012 and tells the story of a young girl doing farm work with her father.

“The impetus for [the book] was growing up on a dairy farm, with one of my chores being to run down the lane to get the cows for milking,” Alsdurf says. “ ‘It’s milking time’ is a common refrain on the farm, and became one of the refrains for the book itself.”

Alsdurf was inspired to write the story when she recovered an old photograph of her brother dressed as “a proverbial young farm boy.” She felt the story was a good way to connect the past to the present.

Today, farming has become entirely different than during the heyday of the family farm. At its peak, farming was the livelihood for many people. As industrialization took over, and mass production and mass consumption became the norm, the family farm began to die off. Living off the land was no longer a requirement, and farm after farm began shutting down.

“Three generations ago, nearly 50 percent of Americans were engaged in farming. In 1945, there were about 8 million farms in the U.S., and according to the 2008 census, the number has dropped to just over a million,” says Tim Reese, farm supervisor  for Three Rivers Park District.

Farming in the United States peaked in the 1930s, with nearly 8 million farms nationwide. Since then, the number has plummeted to around 2 million. Numbers bottomed out in the 2000s, but began picking up again around 2010 and continue to slowly rise. Although the United States may never reach 8 million again, the recent uptick is a good sign for the farming community.

At Gale Woods farm in Minnetrista, Reese and a dedicated group of workers bring farming to life. Gale Woods is a functioning farm and educational destination for school groups and visitors of all ages. The farm raises livestock, including cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and egg-laying hens. Everything produced is sold directly to the consumer, including the vegetables grown on more than 3 acres.

With programs ranging from beginner basics for 5-year-olds to veterinary seminars for teenagers, Gale Woods offers wide-ranging education on what for many is a lost art.

“These are kids who otherwise don’t have the opportunity to see what farming is all about, learn what it takes to have a garden,” Reese says. “It is very important for kids to know how their food is produced.”

As the generational divide becomes greater, and fewer kids even have grandparents who experienced farm life, places like Gale Woods have found a nostalgic niche in a market where farming seems to be heading for revival. Farmers’ markets can be found all over the metro, with more hobby farms and family farms emerging as consumers put a greater emphasis on sustainability, environmental impact and shopping local.

Alsdurf is encouraged by the future of farming. She understands that growing up on a farm forces kids to learn skills that can’t be gained anywhere else.

“I do think that kids who grow up on farms tend to have  more independence and mediate comfortably in the world in terms of learning self-sufficiency and problem-solving,” she says. “It’s a wonderful foundation for the bigger challenges later on in life. You get to see your connection to the wider world and your responsibility to the wider world.”

When Alsdurf wrote the first draft of It’s Milking Time 15 years ago, she wanted to show kids what life is like on the farm. She never knew that the story would appeal to so many people, and serve as a symbolic connection of past and present.

“One interesting thing that I never anticipated is the book has become well-loved by older people,” Alsdurf says. “A number of people have bought it for their parents because it is reminiscent of a certain era, and it appeals to grandparents and young people. It crosses the generational divide.”

Alsdurf’s story serves as more than just a snapshot of the past. It serves as a stepping stone into the future. If the rejuvenation of farming continues, kids won’t just be sitting on Grandma or Grandpa’s knee listening to old stories: They’ll be running down the lane themselves to get the cows for milking.

In a few years, Gale Woods may not seem so foreign. It’s Milking Time might not feel like a time long lost. And those farmhouses you pass on your weekend drive may pull at your heartstrings a little more.