Why do we hold on to stuff? Is it for a bridge between past and future generations? Do we see future potential and purpose in an unused item today? Or, is it a backup plan for when new technology crashes? What is stuff of value and what is worthless junk? The difference depends upon who is telling the story. There is my stuff and Mark’s junk. Mark has a machine shed filled with his saves. There are old paint cans filled with used nails, nuts and bolts. There are piles of wood scraps waiting to be used in future repair projects. There are pieces and parts of old machines lying on a sheet of plywood straddled over two wooden saw horses. I have tried to clean out the shed over the years, but I cannot even make a dent. What I call junk is redefined as needed stuff and finds a new storage place back in the shed. We cannot throw it out now because we might need it in the future. We cannot tempt fate because you know the moment you get rid of something, you will find the perfect use for it a couple of days later. It never seems to fail.
    Because I could not make a dent in reorganizing the machine shed, I thought I would refocus my energy on decluttering our house. We moved down to the main farm 15 years ago this spring. I was overwhelmed with all of the closet and storage spaces compared to our old house. There was no way I was going to need all of that space. Well, I found enough stuff to save over the years and everything is full. Of course, most of the stuff being stored belongs to the kids. Totes and boxes filled with mementos from elementary to college days. Whenever they settle down and have their own place, their boxes of stuff will move with them. Until then, I needed to focus on clearing out some of the other junk.
    I have been keeping the farm record books since we were married. At first, every transaction was written down in the record book and every column was manually calculated. When we upgraded and moved the bookkeeping to the computer, I still wanted to have a paper trail in case the computer crashed. For the last 20 years, I have over stuffed accordion files with every receipt and cancelled check stored on shelves underneath the basement stairs. This looked like a great place to start making room. I know I only needed to keep seven years of records for an IRS audit. I will keep 10 to be safe. That means I needed to purge 10 years of stuff. I went through the files and started filling a couple of big boxes and bags with receipts, monthly reports and other pieces of paper long faded over time. I moved the boxes and bags to the dining room, tripping over them as a reminder for Mark to go through to see if there was anything he thought we should keep. After a couple of weeks with no progress, I moved everything out to the garage for disposal.
    Mark’s dad, Ralph, always seemed to know what to save over his career. He has handed down papers from when his father started farming this land in the ‘30s to bind the generations. Because he saved things, he was also able to prove his purebred breeding line when the Holstein Association opened up the herd book in the ‘70s. Ralph saved the sales catalog from the St. Cloud Children’s Orphanage Sale where he purchased his first registered cow in the late ‘50s. Twenty years later with the saved catalog and all the breeding receipts, they were able to prove the lineage of their purebred cattle and started RALMA.
    So, what do I receive in the mail a week after I moved the receipts out to the garage? A letter regarding a milk powder settlement lawsuit for dairy producers. They estimated we produced just over 2.5 million pounds of milk from January 2002 to June 2007. They were wrong. That was our annual production level. By the third letter, they had corrected our production up to 11 million pounds. I knew this still was not right. All I had to do was pull out our year end statements from the creamery to document our correct production. Now where were those old receipts. The garage. They had disappeared from the garage and were finally disposed. No problem, everything is on the computer now. I called the co-op. Nope, they did not have records for 2002-07 production. They did not keep them that far back. Now I am on a mission. My curiosity is peaked. What was our production during that time?
    When one road is blocked, there is always another route. I did not have the documentation they listed on their instructions, but I did have the paperwork to support our higher production level. The one thing I did not throw out when I was purging the needless paperwork were all of the DHIA records. I have every test sheet from when they first started to test the herd in 1974. I also had every annual DHIA state report which listed our production. I found an additional 2.5 million pounds of milk to add to their estimate.
    Now I do not know if all this extra chasing around will pay off or not. The settlement pot is $40 million to be paid to the lawyers first for their work over the last nine years. The remainder will be split between the producers based on their production. It will probably be only pennies on the hundredweight. We might be able to buy a couple of pails of ice cream with the settlement but the treasure hunt of seeing those old cows again on the test sheet was worth every penny.
    Even though cleaning out the clutter caused some anxiety, I have not missed the paperwork. In fact, I saved those old accordion files to reuse because there is still a purpose left in those old files.
    Natalie, Mark and his brother Al, farm together near Rice, Minn. They milk 100 registered Holsteins under the RALMA prefix. Their four children are grown up and all involved in agriculture with hopes of someone returning to the farm. For questions or comments, please e-mail Natalie at mnschmitt@jetup.net.