Mike Hess is pictured at Hess Farm May 26 near Foley, Minnesota. The farm has been a steady presence in Benton County since 1900 and has consistently been expanded, with the addition of livestock, buildings and crops.
PHOTO BY EVAN MICHEALSON/DAIRY STAR
Mike Hess is pictured at Hess Farm May 26 near Foley, Minnesota. The farm has been a steady presence in Benton County since 1900 and has consistently been expanded, with the addition of livestock, buildings and crops. PHOTO BY EVAN MICHEALSON/DAIRY STAR
    FOLEY, Minn. – At the turn of the 20th Century, August Hess purchased 80 acres near Foley, which was then an incorporated village with a population under 200. He paid $8 per acre, equal to roughly $244 today, to begin a life in agriculture as a means of living after a short career in granite cutting.
    What followed was a 31-year period of growth, both from the crops August grew and the farm that he established. And now, after 120 years, the Hess Farm continues to push forward as a constant family-owned agricultural presence in the area, one of 89 century farms in Benton County.
    While August entered the farming industry seeking to survive, the current owner, Mike Hess, did not stumble upon the occupation; he was raised into the family business, helping around the farm at a young age before eventually taking over upon the passing of his father, Ronnie, in 2017.    
    “We were born into it,” Mike said. “This was what we were brought up to do.”
    The different motivations marked an ever-increasing passion and understanding of agriculture as the Hess bloodline gained more experience. Mike, similar to his father, has stayed on the family farm his entire life, helping the operation adjust to a changing farming climate. Hess Farms currently has 100 cows, 140 heifers and 950 steers, numbers that continue to grow as the Hesses embark on a transition from a dairy farm to a beef-based operation emphasizing steers.
    “You have to make it enticing for the next generation over, so it pays to keep farming,” Mike said. “We had to expand one way or the other, so we expanded with steers.”
    The priority of the next generation is always present in Mike’s forward-thinking mindset, which differs from his predecessors. He examines diminishing return and constantly brainstorms ways to provide efficiency to the century farm. Through investments such as a manure pit, the farm has continuously returned its value and saved itself money.
    “This farm has changed a lot since his father died,” said Leslie Hess, Mike and Mark’s mother. “Ronnie was a family-type person. He was day-to-day. Mike is looking towards the future.”
    This advanced trek towards sustained success has not been undertaken alone. Mike’s brother, Mark, works part-time at the farm, undertaking field work, operating the combine and serving as the mechanical backbone of the farm. Duane Graczyk has lent his helping hands towards the Hess farm for a quarter-century and was a reliable figure in Mike’s life when the ownership of the farm came to him.
    “It was very good to have Duane around, one who had been here so long with my husband, Ronnie, helping with fieldwork,” Leslie said. “That really helped Mike that first year, to have an older person, just to talk things over with. Duane is a good person.”
    Graczyk has since introduced his son, Lloyd, to farm work, yet another component of family values ever-present on Hess Farm. They help keep farm operations steady alongside employees Jason Gapinski, Victoria Molitor and Steph Ponsness. Leslie believes good help these days is hard to find, and the Hess family has found it in their stable staff.
    The farm’s survival has hinged on stability, something that has not always been easy to acquire. It was found early in the farm’s history, when the property passed on to August’s son, Clem, in 1931. Ronnie took on co-ownership duties while he was still in high school; he was a 1964 Foley High School graduate and managed to run the farm as early as 1961.
    Something the family has struggled with in managing the farm is health. Ronnie’s brother fell off a hayloft and was severely injured, while Ronnie himself suffered a string of heart attacks, beginning at 40 years old.
    “Health has been the biggest thing in this family,” Leslie said. “It’s been the men’s health. Many times, in the past, farmers were indestructible. They didn’t go to a doctor, and nowadays people are more conscious about their health than they were in those days.”
    Health habits are just one way the farming landscape has altered course over the years. Hess Farm has found an unlikely consistency, but the acres August Hess purchased registered on a smaller scale, unrecognizable in comparison to the substantial, structured layout of today’s family-owned farm.
     Mark hauls milk across the area, giving him an in-depth look at the Benton County farming community. He has witnessed farms large and small, and has noticed there is no blueprint to owning one.
    “These large farms, they’ll have kids go to college for business, they’ll come home and run it that way,” he said. “These small farms, if a kid stays at home, he’s doing manual labor.”
    The Hess Farm’s long, four-generation tradition of dairy farming places it in that small farm category, but that has not stopped them from slowly expanding outwards. At Leslie’s home, about a mile down the road from the family farm, a collection of landscape portraits hang high on the wall. These pictures display an overhead look of Hess Farm, each from a specific year, giving a chronological look at the changes the farm has undergone over its storied years.
    In the 1960s, the farm site consisted of the family home, a large livestock building and a pair of silos. Now, with the family’s increased steer and dairy cow ownership, the farm proudly owns six livestock facilities, along with August Hess’ original home, still standing tall.
    Seeing the physical nature of the farm’s growth and the family’s will to continue forward gives Mike a sense of pride, the culmination of a lifetime of learning.
    “You can see, firsthand, what you have accomplished,” Mike said. “You’re learning.”
    August Hess and the original Hess farming generation could not have imagined the drastic bolsters and shifts the farming industry would face and the general agricultural approaches that have been adapted. Tractors now have GPS trackers, and machinery can reach levels of efficiency previously unthought.
    “They [that original generation] couldn’t imagine how much change has taken place over those years,” Leslie said. “Equipment-wise, animal-wise, everything…They were struggling to make a living and not thinking of what could take place.”
    And while there is no longer a purely survivalist mindset towards keeping the farm afloat, the Hess Farm is not showing signs of slowing down. Like many of their contemporaries, Hess Farm exists not just as physical proof of a family tradition, but also as a business seeking to thrive.
    “You’re running it more like a business than just the family farm,” Leslie said. “That’s what agriculture is now. It’s more business. Even though they’re run by families, most of the farmers around here are now businesses.”
    And like a business, eventually, ownership will shift. Ronnie’s untimely death created a difficult period of transition for Mike, who worked side-by-side with his father in looking out for the land they had worked so hard to keep sustained. When the time comes for the fifth Hess generation to take full rein of the farm, he does not want to “hand over a dead horse.”
    However, regardless of how the next few years play out, he believes the Hess family has developed a special connection to agriculture.
    “It’s in your blood,” he said.