A spectator in a familiar world

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Prairie sunsets make me a spectator in a familiar world

The sunsets on this prairie are nothing short of a gift.

After a long day working under the hot summer sun, or inside the walls of buildings that make us feel small, we understand that if we look up towards the heavens to catch the sun sneaking away, we may be rewarded with a splash of spectacular color.

I’ve seen sunsets in other parts of the world — across the vast oceans, peeking over the mountaintops and at the edge of rolling corn fields, but there is something about the way the sun says goodbye along the outskirts of my own world, against the familiar buttes and grain bins and horses on the horizon that puts me at ease and thrills me at the same time.

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I have theories about things like hail storms and tornadoes and blinding blizzards, that they’re a way of slowing us down, reminding us to surrender to an earth that spins no matter what our plans are for crops or hair-dos or making it to our Christmas party on time.

The storms are unpredictable, but the sun is always there. And it will always set and rise again.

Prairie Sunset

And sometimes as we put the burgers on the grill, close the gates for the cattle or roll the lawn mower in the shed might find ourselves bathed in yellow, gold, purple, orange, pink and blue and hues we’ll never find in our crayon box.

We might look above the oak groves or down to the end of the pink road and we find that sun bouncing against the clouds that roll over the prairie and buttes that we know so well, and if we let ourselves, we might think we’re lucky to have caught that fleeting, beautiful moment, one that is there for us, for anyone who has the notion to look to the horizon.

I tilt my head up and run to find the nearest hill so that I can watch how this landscape looks under the different shades of light.

Under these prairie sunsets I am a spectator on the familiar ground of home.

A tourist with my mouth agape in wonder.

And thankful for a world that’s round and a sky that’s so vast and forgiving.

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Come rain or shine or rain or wind or heat or hail…

Rain on Leaves

Summer fun, rain or shine
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I’m telling you when it comes to getting the most out of summer, rain or shine, North Dakotans don’t mess around.

As a musician who has been singing at these outdoor events most of my life, I’ve sang “Home on the Range” when the skies were most definitely cloudy all day. And blazing down temperatures of 105 degrees, burning my skin and making a nice sweat puddle down my back and behind my guitar.

Or, like last week, pouring down monsoon-style sideways rain for hours on the Wells County Fairgrounds while the audience sat under a canvas tent in puddles upon puddles of muddy water with the strings of their hoods tied around their chins, nothing but blankets, raincoats and trash bags shielding their soggy bodies as they tapped their toes and swayed along to the music.

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When it rains on a summer day in rural North Dakota, we tend to get a little punchy about cussing it. Most sane people would just go ahead and let 3 inches of relentless, pelting rain ruin their outdoor celebrations, but that type of person likely doesn’t endure 17 months of winter. But we do. And when summer finally does come, it’s a glorious reward for those long winters, and we refuse to waste a moment.

So in North Dakota, we say things like, “Well, we need the rain, it’s been so dry,” and then the show goes on. Or the rodeo. Or the 4-H goat show. Or the parade…

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Even when, in the first 45 minutes of our three-hour trek across the state to stand on that soggy stage, the windshield wiper on the driver’s side of my dad’s pickup flung clean off into the abyss of the monsoon. I guess it was exhausted. And I laughed, maybe a little too hard, because, well, of course that happened.

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But Dad wasn’t laughing. I guess he didn’t think standing in a downpour for 20 minutes trying to make the repair so we could make it to Fessenden on time was very funny. Thank you, New Town Napa guy, for saving us so we were able to get back on that rainy road and arrive at 5 o’clock on the dot, right at showtime, running from the rain to plug in, mic check and do what we came there to do. Rain or shine.

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And I loved it. I loved that that die-hard audience of all ages with their jackets zipped up to the top reinforced all my ideas that we are here to live and love and clap along and say “I think it’s going to let up” in all kinds of weather. Rain or shine.

And so I smiled and closed my eyes and sang my love song to the rain, while outside that tent it was clear that no crops were to be planted that day, but we were going to be together regardless, swaying and singing and laughing and soaking wet…

Because we’re North Dakotans, and when it comes to summer fun, we don’t mess around.

The Rancher’s Wife Mic Drop

Gramma and Grampa

Grandma Edie and Grampa Pete

If a rancher invented cussing, a rancher’s wife invented the walkaway mic drop
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The first time I heard my dad swear was when he was standing in the horse trailer at a high school rodeo in New Salem while my horse was standing on his foot.

Or maybe it was that time the bulls got out and bringing them back with only the help of an 11-year-old was going about as swimmingly as you can imagine.

Wait, no, I think it was the time he stepped off a young horse to open a gate and that horse began his slow and methodical side pass toward home, leaving the reigns just out of Dad’s reach.

Well, I can’t remember exactly, but my dad doesn’t swear much — so when he did, it made an impression on me. It meant a brief loss of the positive nature he exuded that fooled us all into believing we were going to be all right out there chasing bulls out of brush patch after tick-infested brush patch.

But mostly it was the string of words he chose to stitch together when it all finally did come spitting out, slowly and with utter, exasperated passion in a sort of poetic way that only a frustrated rancher could pull off.

Anyway, it just sinks in the point that being a cowboy is glamorous and everything, until it’s time to do cowboy things. I think it was likely a rancher who invented cussing. He was probably working on broken equipment.

And it was the rancher’s wife who invented the walkaway mic drop. Because the rancher’s wife is often times a rancher, too, unless you’re my mom who steps about as far into the calf pen as the porch outside her house and only gets her hands as dirty as they can get while planting geraniums, which is probably one of the reasons they’re still married, honestly.

My dad’s parents, however, worked side by side on the Veeder ranch during a time when the stakes were a bit higher on this place. And so it wasn’t always as romantic as their once-a-year trip down to the river to go catfishing.

And because I admired my Grandma Edie so much when I was young and she was still alive, I always lean in when my dad and uncle start sharing stories of their childhood with their mother at the helm.

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Last night, after the last few bites of my mom’s lasagna and a comment about my recent run-in with a cranky cow, the brothers sat back and remembered the time their mother was out helping move a bovine with a similar attitude from the pen below the barn to one in front of the barn.

It sounded like one of those moments where my grandpa passed on his own unique string of cuss words to the next generation as the cow did her best to fight the system and run past the gate and toward members of the happy family yelling and waving sorting sticks.

And then that cow turned on my grandma, chasing after her as she ran for her life toward the fence while my grandpa yelled at her, “Run toward the gate!”

And the part where their mother continued her climb over the fence and, without a word and without looking back, walked straight through the barnyard and up the hill into the house, leaving her husband standing there with only his foot in his mouth and stick in his hand, will forever be etched into the memories of her two sons.

And that, my friends, is what you call a mic drop that will live on in history…

A song for strong women

On International Women’s Day I think it’s appropriate to share this video of my song “Work,” inspired by my Norwegian immigrant Great Grandmother Gundrun, and all the women who have built (and are currently building) their muscles out here in this cold, rough, beautiful landscape. 

“Strong women
may we know them
may we be them
may we raise them.”

A real version of Country Living magazine

Nashville

Just got in from Nashville (where it was an unseasonable 25 degrees without their “windchill”) and arrived to blowing snow and no travel advised. There’s a reason only the strong survive up here (and a reason we all head south about now) but even the strong are getting cranky about it…

 A real version of Country Living magazine
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The snow was blowing big flakes sideways across the prairie and the weatherman warned of minus 30 wind chills and it was just another February morning in western North Dakota.

I loaded up the kids and the car: coats, hats, mittens, blankies, sippy cups, snow pants, snacks for the trip to town, more snacks for the trip back home, lunch bag, computer bag, checked my pocket for my phone and we were on our way… Backed out of the garage, up the driveway, around the little corner and, with a sip of coffee, noticed that with the fresh snow, it was nearly impossible to distinguish where, exactly, our little road was.

Leaned forward, squinted my eyes, misjudged the curve entirely and sunk that car full of snacks and snowpants up to the floorboards in the ditch. Before I even reached our mailbox.

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So I want to talk about country living for a minute. Are there glamorous parts about it? Sure. When the sun is setting on a 70 degree summer day and you’re on the back porch listening to the crickets singing and watching the lightning bugs flicker in creek beds. These are the things Martha Stewart, Country Living magazine and that adorable home-renovating Gaines couple sell you about the whole rural experience.

That and the solitude, fresh air and the fact that they’ve never walked outside to find their pet goats standing on the roof of their car, but I digress.

But I’m guessing neither Martha, Joanna or the editors at Country Living have ever lived where that fresh air hurts your face, winter lasts 37 months and every outfit must coordinate with snow boots and a beanie. No. They live in a world where the dirt, mud, melty snow and apple juice magically stays off of their photo-ready vintage farmhouses decorated with fragile antiques and (*gasp) white rugs.

In these magazines and home renovation shows I’ve learned plenty on how to make a cozy breakfast nook (I’ll never have a breakfast nook) and what flowers to put in my foyer (I will never have a foyer). Curiously, I’ve never come across any tips on what to do when you drive your car in the ditch in your own yard 30 miles from civilization. Sigh.

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Luckily I’ve found myself in this predicament enough times that I’ve developed my own list. The first step being, of course, slamming my hands on the steering wheel in exasperation.

The second is new to me, but involves answering all 50 million of my 3-year-old’s questions about why we’re not moving, which is my favorite step.

The third? Pray that my dad’s home so I don’t have to suffer the humiliation of explaining this situation to neighbor Kelly or risk death by frostbite while hoofing it down to the house for a shovel. Good thing I always pack snacks.

Anyways, I guess what I’m saying, Martha, is some of you have never been pulled out of the ditch by your dad’s old feed pickup in a wind chill blizzard warning and it shows.

If you need me, I’ll be conceptualizing my own magazine idea that will offer fewer tips on decorating that space above your cabinets and more information on the flooring that best blends with scoria mud, how to find a body shop that will removed goat hoof dents and a list of excuses you can use on your neighbor should you find your car stuck in a snowbank. In your own yard.

I think it’s going to be a hit.

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Veeder Ranch to be featured on Born to Explore

Born to Explore

Last summer, Richard, from Born to Explore, a travel show on PBS, came to North Dakota. They stopped by the ranch for a little music, a ride, and an attempt at a dinner conversation with us and our two babies.

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My our collection of grills, unfinished house projects, chaotic kitchen and my North Dakota accent make an appearance, but so does the beautiful landscape, our babies, cows and some music on the porch with dad 🙂 It’s a great snapshot of North Dakota and all the reasons this place means so much to us.

Also, I don’t usually wear dangly earrings when we chase cows…but, you know, TV.

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The episode, North Dakota: Where Legends are Born will premiere on PBS stations on Feb. 23 and have multiple repeat broadcasts throughout the year. Check out the preview here and tune in!

Born to Explore #208(P)/North Dakota: Where Legends are Born preview from Born to Explore on Vimeo.

Thanks Richard and crew for a great visit!

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January blues

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A lot can be said about winters up here in North Dakota, but for anyone who has lived through one (or one hundred), whether new to the area or born and raised, we all have January in common.

January is hard. It’s cold. It’s the longest month no matter how well things are going. And I’m guessing it’s the number one reason that half of our 65 and older population lives in Arizona during those thirty days. They’ve learned their lessons…

Being a mom to young kids in North Dakota in January is no joke.  All I have done today is wipe noses, mine included. And when you live 40 minutes from civilization, the isolation can weigh heavy on the days that feel hard.

I admit, I wondered if I should publish a piece in all of those newspapers about how I cried on my basement floor surrounded by all of my first world problems and so many of the things I’ve always wished for. But then I thought, well, there is likely another mom somewhere out there crying on her basement floor, and, well, I don’t want to feel alone either.

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January’s a little too good at loneliness

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I sat on the floor in the basement and cried.

I cried while my 3-year-old’s voice bubbled and babbled a narrative for her dolls as they navigated the new house her auntie snagged for them secondhand last week.

I cried while my 1-year-old wobbled over to hand me her little karaoke microphone because it was my 150th turn, so I smiled and gave her another little “la, la, la,” because that’s what mommas do, even when they’re crying.

Even when they have nothing to cry about really, except, sometimes, I’ve come to understand, that even the best of us have our moments, or days (or weeks or months), where it all feels a little heavy on us. Not just the hard stuff, but the good stuff, too. Because even the snuggly, sweet and syrupy things we’ve always wished for come with crumbs we have to sweep up sometimes.

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And so it was the smallest disagreement as my husband walked out the door after the waffles were half-eaten and the dishes were put in the sink that made me feel like maybe I will never have the crumbs under control.

And then, when the door clicked shut, it was a moment of loneliness tacked onto a selfish feeling of maybe not being OK missing the only thing I don’t have that I want, which is a moment to walk to the top of that hill out there and get away from the crumbs I used to pray so hard for when I was just me.

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So I cried. And I let myself because sometimes, it’s possible to be grateful and frustrated.

Sometimes, it’s possible to be lonesome for ourselves. Motherhood isn’t the only thing that taught me that.

January in North Dakota is good at loneliness. And so I cried for a bit. And then I stopped and carried on through the afternoon, trying to think of ways to tend to the ache.

I read an extra book or two to the toddler and laid down to close my eyes with the baby for a few moments. And when my daughters woke up, fresh and sweet, I turned on some music and watched them both twirl, so innocent and so unaware of the cold outside.

And when my husband walked through that door after a long day of working on the outdoor chores I desperately wished I could be helping with, it occurred to me that on the other side of these walls, he might have been wishing to be dancing while I was wishing for the bite of that wind.

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I looked at his face and the lump our morning exchange left in my chest dissolved, reminding me that this is life. And I’m OK.

So I cooked us supper, my husband, my daughters and me. And we all made crumbs we left for tomorrow so we could head down to the basement, sit on the floor together and laugh.

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Small things

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A few small things
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I love standing on the top of the hills around our house and scanning the horizon and the ribbon of road below me to see who might be coming or going — the sun, a neighbor, an oil field worker on his way home.

But often I feel like looking closer to see what’s happening underneath the grass, in the shady cool places of the ranch. All those small pieces that make up the mosaic of this landscape fascinate me.

In my other life, before the babies came, I would spend my evenings in my walking shoes, enjoying quiet moments out in our pastures. My favorite was when my husband would come along and we would wander together, slow and hushed along the deer trails, noticing how the dragonflies swoop and swerve, their delicate and transparent wings reflecting the sun.

Pushing a path alongside the beaver dam, the late summer cattails fuzz and the flowers hang on in the shade, staying cool and crisp as they reach for small glimmers of sun peeking through the trees. On the surface of the creek, the water bugs stay rowing and afloat by some combination of mechanics or magic above the school of minnows flashing their silver bellies in the hot sunlight.

I look at him; we look up at the birch tree branches. He looks at me and I tell him to watch for mushrooms growing on trees and chokecherries and the plums in the draw.

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And we walk. Along that creek that runs between the two places and down to the neighbors’, through beaver dams and stock dams and ponds where the frogs croak wildly. We would clear a path through bullberry brush and dry clover up to our armpits, jumping over washouts and scrambling up eroded banks, noticing how some oak trees have fallen, hollowed out and heavy with the weight of their age, the weight of a world that keeps changing, no matter if a human eye ever sweeps past it or inspects it or theorizes about it, or tries to save it. It changes.

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We’ve been married 12 years now, but I’ve loved this person since I was a just a kid. Three years ago on those quiet walks, we could only imagine a time in our lives where moments like these would have to be planned and adjusted to accommodate baby bedtimes, bathtimes and suppertime schedules.

That our life and our living room would be covered in noise and toys and new tiny moments we’ve created on our own that now hold their own mystery.

And I used to wish that this man and I would walk together in the coulees in these acres for a lifetime, with eyes wide to the small things that live and thrive and swim and crawl and grow outside our door.

And now, I hope that for us and for our own little creatures living and growing and crawling and thriving inside of these doors so that we might all move together in life like we moved through those trees — switching leads, pointing out beauty, asking questions, being silent, stepping forward, taking time and loving the moment … and one another in it.

Mushrooms on Trees

In the name of the fair

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Fair season is winding down up here in the great hot north. I hit up my third fair of the year last weekend, this time without the kids, to sing under the watchful eye of the world’s biggest Holstein cow. On the other side of the building 4-H kids stood, shoulders back, showing off the sheep or goat or steer they’d been working to feed up, groom and halter train all summer, unaware of just how many life lessons were packed into that project.

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We took the long, impromptu trek to the state fair a few weekends back with, meeting up with a bunch of family. I bought my two-year-old a wrist band and she fearlessly jumped on every ride she was tall enough to sit in.

I mean, she didn’t even bat an eye at the thought of reaching the top of the Ferris Wheel. She just grabbed her cousin’s hand and off she went growing up and I stood below, watching and wondering if I should start worrying now about her sense of adventure.

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Like, should I be hiding my husband’s dirt bike already?

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I suppose she comes by it honestly when it comes to carnival rides. When I was a kid, the bigger and faster, the better. And so when I had to accompany her on a ride that spun and jerked around a bit, I happily obliged, even though the seats were ripped and like five out of the ten carts were out of order. We squealed and laughed and then squealed and laughed some more as it jerked us around and spun us in circles…for like six hours. Seriously, the ride lasted forever. It gave us our first opportunity at a mother/daughter ESP moment as we looked at each other, wincing, both trying to will it to stop while I seriously questioned my parenting choice of hotdog before spinny ride.

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But we lived and we headed to the livestock barns to check out the pigs, goats, and cattle and grab an ice cream.

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Oh I love a good fair. The county fair was my favorite weekend of the summer growing up, because I was and always will be, a project person. And so I did projects. And showed horses and looked forward to one of the few times in the summer that I got to stay long hours in town and hang out with my friends.

And so I was eager to take my two-year-old to her first county fair this year…and, well, here’s how it went.

In the name of the fair
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It was 175 degrees and 200 percent humidity. I knew because my hair told me soon as I sat up in bed.

The higher the hair, the closer to God, and I got closer to God with each passing, sweltering hour.

It was 175 degrees and 200 percent humidity, so I did what any good and reasonably sane mother would do: I loaded up the kids and went to the county fair in town.

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Because this was our only chance before they packed up the carnival and quilting projects, put the horses away, sold all the 4-H steers and took the show rabbits off of ice and back home to safety.

Plus, they were selling giant glasses of freshly squeezed lemonade, which taste really good after lugging a 30-pound 2-year old across the parking lot because she suddenly wants to “hold you.”

Yeah, if only she could hold me. “One day child, one day,” I said quietly to myself, her sweat melting into my sweat as she began sliding down my legs at the food stand where the two of us had a 175-degree decision to make between pizza or hamburgers while my nephew spun around us in the wheels he strapped to his shoes so he “wouldn’t have to expend so much energy.”

Kid had the right idea. So did the lady who took one look at me as I trudged across the asphalt dragging a wagonful of children as if I was on the last legs of a yearlong trek across the Sahara. She handed me a handful of Popsicles and saved my life.

Ah, the county fair. It’s always hot at the county fair.

Unless it’s hot and windy.

Or windy and raining.

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I stuck one Popsicle down my shirt and handed the melting children the rest and continued our journey past the livestock sale toward the carnival for a flashback to all of the sweat that trickled into my eyes when I was a 4-H kid standing in my long-sleeved white shirt holding on tight to the halter of my clean-enough horse.

Which reminded me of the once-a-year horse-washing ritual I would perform on my mare in the grassy backyard, complete with hose, Mane ‘nTail and a ShowSheen finish only to wake up to an open gate and a horse that escaped to the nearest mudhole. That happened more than once.

But still, we persist. In 175 degrees or 175 mph winds. In the name of the county fair. And big, godly hair.

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Banquet in a Field: Telling our food story

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Dad and I had the opportunity to entertain for a unique event in Belfield, ND a few weeks ago for the Banquet in a Field event. Hosted by the Dickinson Area Chamber of Commerce Agricultural Committee, this event was focused on connecting consumers and North Dakota growers and producers. As cattle ranchers we were happy to have the opportunity to help support the idea that we need to find new and interesting ways to tell the story of our food, helping to bridge the gap and break down barriers in our industry.

The event was a great success, hosting 140 guests at Kessel’s Arrow K Farms, literally placing consumers where it all begins–right in our beautiful North Dakota backyard. The evening was not only a showcase of production agriculture, it was a first-hand look at scenic Western North Dakota.

As guests socialized and enjoyed appetizers made from local ingredients, dad and I played our old standards under the shade of tall cottonwoods that have likely stood as windbreaks for generations. The wheat field in front of us rolled in the much appreciated breeze and I felt fortunate to have my two world’s colliding in this special way.

It was even better that we were invited to the multi-course meal served by a local FFA chapter. My favorite part? The kids came around offering little shot glasses of milk–your choice of chocolate or white.

Below is this week’s column with a little more on the experience, but more about the importance of supporting and energizing efforts to tell our agriculture story. It’s why I do what I do, in a small way “opening the doors” to this place so that you might be able to see how important this land and these animals are to our family and the plates we help fill. Because we all know how food connects us, now let’s connect to our food.

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If we don’t tell our food story, who will?

We sit at kitchen tables, on blankets in the park, around picnic tables at street fairs and on tailgates after a long morning in the field. We crack eggs in our pancake mix while we tell our kids about the time their grandmother baked coffee filters in an early morning batch, her attempt at a legendary April Fool’s joke.

We flip our burgers on shady decks while our friends talk about the time they got lost in Mexico City. We scoop up spoonfuls of peas and choreograph a song and dance routine, complete with a jazz-hand landing to convince our toddler to open her mouth.

We grab a handful of dad’s caramel corn and remember the time spent with him in the kitchen. We’re grateful we paid attention to the recipe so he can live on in the sweet, sticky reminiscence.

No matter where you eat it, food connects us, it reminds us and it’s part of our story. But when was the last time you’ve thought about the story of your food?

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It was a muggy summer evening in western North Dakota and I stood next to my dad under the shade of a grove of tall cottonwood trees along the edge of a beautiful wheat field. We were strumming our guitars and singing about eating watermelon after a summer ballgame as a slow and steady line of community trickled into this farmyard from a makeshift parking lot behind the family shop.

They shook hands, made introductions and wondered what to expect as they walked past beautifully set tables next to grain bins and farm machinery, ready and waiting to celebrate food in a unique way — right where it all starts.

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We hear the phrase “farm-to-table” thrown around these days as a way to make us feel more connected to the food on our plate. On that evening, the Dickinson Area Chamber of Commerce took it a step further by inviting the community to meet directly with a local family who dedicates their life’s work to growing and caring for the land and the food we eat at their first annual Banquet in a Field event.

Over bites of mini cornbread muffins, lentil dip, sunflower toastettes, oven-roasted potatoes, beef picanha and honey apple cake served by kids from the local FFA chapter, a conversation, centered on North Dakota’s agriculture producers, began.

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And so did the celebration. Because our agriculture story is sometimes harder for us to tell than the story behind our grandmother’s recipe for award-winning chili. The fact that North Dakota is the lead producer of the navy and pinto beans it contains? Well, that’s something I know the Kessel family hosting us that evening was proud of.

And we should be, too. Because if we don’t spread the message and help the world understand that a tomato makes ketchup and that big, beautiful wheat field rolling in the breeze that evening is just a step on a long journey to appearing in the pasta you’ll be serving for your best friends as they reminisce about the time you all ran into the ocean naked, who will?

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The Banquet In a Field Events were the idea of CommonGround, a group of women in agriculture who volunteer to engage and outreach with non-ag consumers. It was started by and continues to be supported through the soybean and corn checkoffs. One of the reasons CommonGround created this event was to build stronger connections between North Dakota consumers and the state’s farmers and ranchers.
Because Banquet In A Field was such a success, the Dickinson Area Chamber Of Commerce Ag Committee is already making plans for next year. The event will be a key community resource, going forward, for those who want to learn more about how agriculture impacts their daily lives. Find out more at dickinsonchamber.org/banquet-in-a-field/