This 215-foot-long ag bag with the words “Land of the free because of the brave” pays tribute to the military and law enforcement and is located just south of Steve and Pam Herdering’s dairy farm near Freeport, Minnesota. 
This 215-foot-long ag bag with the words “Land of the free because of the brave” pays tribute to the military and law enforcement and is located just south of Steve and Pam Herdering’s dairy farm near Freeport, Minnesota. PHOTO BY CAROL MOORMAN

    FREEPORT, Minn. – A yellow ribbon with “We Love Our Troops” hangs on the front door of Pam and Steve Herderings’ rural Freeport farm house, near a wooden American flag.

    Inside their dairy barn, Steve and son Luke work together.
    Sept. 1, 2019, Luke returned to the farm – North Oak Dairy – to work full time after four years in the Marines. When he joined the Marines, he thought he would make the military his permanent career but that changed.
    “I remembered fondly life on the farm and realized what I missed and the value of the farm,” he said Nov. 3 sitting around the kitchen table with his dad and his sister, Grace.  
    This farm is where Luke’s mom and her siblings were raised, the children of Leo and Grace Eveslage. Pam and Steve purchased it in 1987 and were married one year later. Back then, they were a 40-sow feeder pig operation with a 52-cow tie-stall barn. In 2002 they built a free-stall barn and in 2006, added a parlor system. Today they milk 120 cows with close to 250 cattle on the farm, including young stock.
    “It’s more efficient,” Luke said, with Steve adding, “Labor-wise, one person can milk and one can move the cows.”
    While Steve and Pam worked together in the barn and in the field, their children – Matt, Kristen, Luke and Grace – performed age-appropriate chores.
    Luke was around 5 when he started feeding calves, similar to his siblings.
    “It was a requirement that they get up in the morning and do a little bit before school,” Steve said, with eighth grader Grace adding, “It still is.”  
    The January before Luke graduated from Melrose High School in 2015, he enlisted in the Marines. He recalls telling his dad he was looking into joining the military while they were in the barn milking.
    “Like with all the kids, we tell them they are not staying on the farm,” Steve said. “You are leaving here and if you want to come back, okay.”
    Luke left Freeport Aug. 23, 2015, for boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California, starting four years of active duty, followed by four years in the Individual Ready Reserve. The 13-week, three-phase boot camp was difficult Luke said, because learning how to be a Marine means a recruit puts themselves in a different mindset.
    “In the Marines you are part of something bigger than yourself,” Luke said.    
    They were not allowed to use pronouns like I, me, we or us.
    “It’s about gaining that team mindset,” he said.
    Luke talks about the culmination of boot camp called the Crucible, which takes place over 54 hours and includes food and sleep deprivation and over 45 miles of marching. The final test was climbing one of the steepest hills in Camp Pendleton, known as the Reaper, carrying an 80-pound backpack.
    Recruits motivate each other.
    “It’s all about teamwork,” Luke said.
    Luke recalls the emotion-filled ceremony on top of the hill as the sun rose, with the Pacific Ocean in front of them.  
    ““The drill instructor hands you the Eagle, Globe and Anchor insignia and says ‘congratulations Marine,’” Luke said. “That’s the first time you are called a Marine.”
    Luke trained as a heavy equipment operator. His permanent duty station was Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, with the 8th Engineer Support Battalion.
    He kept in touch with family, writing what he called “old school letters,” with return letters including the “farm report,” which tugged at his heart.  
    “While I wouldn’t change my time in the Marines for anything in the world, after a few years I knew I didn’t want this to be my career,” he said. “I thought about how it was on the farm and it impacted me when I heard updates from the farm.”
    While in boot camp, Luke corresponded with Ashley Nathe, who he knew in high school, and they had their first date Dec. 30, 2015, when he returned home on leave. They were married during a civil ceremony Feb. 8, 2018, in Jacksonville, North Carolina, with a church ceremony Feb. 9, 2019, at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Spring Hill. Luke wore his dress blues and a few of his close friends, family and Marine buddies were groomsmen.
    While home on leave, Pam and Steve told Luke they were looking for a successor to their farm. He said he wanted to come back and work on the farm for at least one year, gauging if he would be that successor.  
    “It was a flood of emotions,” Steve said. “You’re happy. You’re apprehensive.”
    Steve said at the time, from 2015 to 2019, they were coming off of financially hard times in farming. Luke understood the responsibilities, financially and physically, knowing his parents would support him, along with his brother, Matt, a mentor in farming and in life.
What sealed the deal that the military was not the lifestyle for Luke was when his friend, Blake Hemker, died and he did not have leave time to return home for the funeral.
    “I thought, ‘I can’t miss those things any more,’” he said.
    He remembered words from one of his sergeants: “No one will look out for you as well as you can. If your priority is your family, you make sure they are taken care of at all times.”
    Luke was discharged from active duty Aug. 24, 2019, and joined the Select Marine Corps Reserve with the Marine Wing Support Squadron 471. He and Ashley, who is a social worker, moved to Avon Aug. 27, 2019, and Luke started working at North Oak Dairy Sept. 1.
    “It was like a breath of fresh air, working with Dad,” Luke said.
    It was different than working on the farm growing up.
    “I felt a lot more responsibility,” Luke said. “Now, I make sure the cows are okay because this is a huge part of your life. The responsibility is the farm and the family.”
    “And it was full time instead of part time,” Steve said. “It’s been a lot of fun to work with my kids.”
Luke’s responsibility is feeding.
    “Every morning is dedicated to making sure every animal is fed,” he said.
    Twice daily milking is done primarily by part-time employees.
    “They are putting on the units, and I come in and assist with moving the cows,” said Steve, who manages medical treatment of the cows, breeding and does the computer work.
    “Every cow has a medical record from birth, that goes into the computer,” Steve said.
    “We keep tabs on them their entire life on the farm,” Luke said.
    Smiling, Luke said there are father-son discussions when issues arise.
    “We’re both learning to work together,” Steve said. “I’ve never had a son work for me before.”
    Luke admits it is different than when he was in charge of five or six guys in the Marines.
    “It’s a two-person team effort, and we lead and manage our employees together,” he said.  
    Steve, 55, enjoys that management aspect of farming, along with the planting and harvesting.
    “It’s (farming) so diversified,” he said.
    Luke, 23, likes the interaction with the cows.
    “I blame my wife for making me the animal lover that I am,” he said, smiling.
    Both are happy to be working side-by-side on the farm.
    A 215-foot long ag-bag with the words “Land of the Free Because of the Brave” on it just south of the Herderings’ dairy farm can be seen from the road. It was designed by Lori Austing with help from her husband, Dan, and painted by them, family and the Herderings.
    The idea stemmed from when Luke first went into the Marines and his proud mom, as a way to support the military, painted a round ag-bag near the driveway with the words “Marines Rock,” followed the next year by “God Bless The USA,” and that grew into the first message last year on a long ag-bag “Thank You For Our Freedom.”
    He treasures his time in the Marines.
    “Nov. 10 is the Marine Corps’ birthday,” he said.
    Luke’s happy he returned home – a proud veteran and farmer.