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Meet Joe Black: At 85, Benson Co. Farmer Shows No Signs of Slowing Down

Wurgler, Edie. "Meet Joe Black: At 85, Benson Co. Farmer Shows No Signs of Slowing Down" Pierce County Tribune, 13 February 2010, 1 and 7.


Benson County farmer Joe Black feeds hay to his herd of cattle at his farm northwest of Knox last week as his dog Belle, stands nearby. At age 85, Black remains busy on his farm with the help of his wife, Elsie.

At an age when most farmers have long since parked their tractors, Joe Black shows no signs of slowing down.

Joe and his wife, Elsie, raise small grains and cattle on their farm northwest of Knox, and seasonally battle the elements to get the cows fed, the calves on the ground, the seed planted and the grain in the bin.

Joe and Elsie, who both celebrated their 85th birthdays in 2009, began farming on their own in 1947. Joe rented 500 acres near Bantry that spring, and they were married in October. Before that Joe had farmed for about a year with his father on the farm where he had grown up at Berwick.

Joe and Elsie Brick, a Devils Lake native, met when he returned home from serving in the army and she was teaching school at Berwick.

"When I came home from the service I had saved enough money to buy a new truck for $2300," Joe said. "I made pretty good money that first year farming with my dad so I bought a new International M tractor. The International dealer in Towner threw in a new plow."

The first few years of their marriage were spent between the farm at Bantry and Minot, where Elsie taught school and Joe got a job working at Sears in the winter months." Joe had a real good boss," Elsie said. "He saved things for Joe to work on during the winter." Joe's dad helped by looking after their cattle when they were away from the farm.

They farmed at Bantry for three years, but became discouraged with the rocky soil and the need to haul water for almost every use, both human and animal. So Joe and Elsie decided to move and had in mind three requirements for a new farm: "It had to be close to Highway 2, close to church, and have a good well," Joe said. The farm at Knox fit the bill, and the Blacks moved with their toddler daughter, Joline, in 1951.

They sold their cows before leaving Bantry, and bought a new dairy herd at Knox. They milked 25 cows and sold cream. "When we first started at Knox we went into milking more cows because we didn't have crops to sell," Joe said. "It was a steady income."

Perhaps because less machinery was used six decades ago, Joe can easily enumerate his early equipment. "The second tractor I bought was an International WD9, followed by an International 650D. In those days they weren't as tough as they are now. The Internationals always ended up with a cracked head," he said. After four Internationals, he said. After four Internationals, he bought a Massey Ferguson. "A way better tractor than any I'd had before," Joe remembers.

Joe farmed traditionally with a plow being his main tillage tool. "My first plow couldn't take the rocks," he said, "so I went to a John Deere plow." After moving to Knox he bought a Graham Hoeme cultivator and stopped plowing.

While Joe's time was spent entirely in farming, Elsie split her days among several activities. She continued her education, eventually receiving a bachelor's degree from Minot State Teachers College. After their second daughter, Cindy, started school Elsie taught elementary school in area towns including Knox, Wolford and Leeds, and racked up 38 years in education before retiring. Evenings and weekends were spent milking cows, feeding pigs, hauling hay and grain, and raising chickens. She even owned a flock of geese at one point, but got rid of them because "they were so mean."

She remembers long days with her varied tasks, but says," I had a capacity for getting work done." She washed clothes with a wringer washer and wash tub. "Everything had to be ironed," she says, recalling the early days. "Girls couldn't wear pants to school and all those cotton dresses had to be ironed. We ironed sheets and pillowcases, even our dishtowels. It's so much simpler now."

In 1980 the Blacks went to no-till farming, eliminating the need for plowing or cultivating. "My drill was worn out and I needed to get a new one," Joe said. "Our land always blew, even the stubble. I was one of the first ones around (to go no-till) and everyone thought I was crazy, but then the land didn't blow and I had decent crops."

But the high cost of chemicals required with no-till farming convinced Joe to quit that practice about eight years back. By then he had rented out some of the tillable land and was concentrating more on cattle. He is using a cultivator again, but says, "I've got enough manure hauled on the fields so they don't blow."

"We raise a little wheat, but mostly oats and barley," Elsie says. "We sell the wheat to help pay bills," Joe adds, "but when you use chemicals there's not much left after you pay your bills."

The oats and barley are fed to the beef cattle which Joe and Elsie switched to after their daughters went to college. When it was just the two of them, working in the field and teaching all day plus milking the cows morning and evening made for very long days, so they sold their Holsteins.

"I used to go to a lot of ring sales and I saw what sold best," Joe said. "Angus always sold for three of four cents more a pound," so they focused on that breed and now have about 50 head.

Both daughters grew up helping with the cattle and operating farm machinery in the field alongside their parents. Their daughter, Joline now lives in Denver with her husband, Steven Parker. Cindy and Kevin Neuharth live and teach in Minot. Their children, Jared and Cassie, are college students. Even today the daughters help on the farm whenever they have the chance. "Joline is coming home for spring's work," Joe said, "and Cindy and Kevin are always home after school is out for the summer."

The Black's farming enterprise nearly came to an end in the summer of 1986 when Joe had a heart attack. "I was in the hospital in Minot for three days. Veins that were supposed to feed my heart were plugged nearly 100 percent," he said. He was flown to Bismarck for triple bypass surgery. "I had cardiac arrest three times," he says in a matter-of-fact way. Doctors feared his brain might be damaged from lack of oxygen, but he made a complete recovery. "People prayed for me," Joe said. "That's the best medicine you can get."

Friends and neighbors helped take the Blacks' crops off that fall. Their daughters were also reassuring. When Joe was hospitalized the girls told him, "Dad, don't worry about the farming. You've taught us how to do what we need to do."

An education for their daughters was a priority for Joe and Elsie, so when the girls were small each was given a sow. "They sold the little pigs and put the money in savings for college," Joe said. That tradition continued with their grandchildren. When they were born, Jared and Cassie each received a cow from their parents, which Joe and Elsie took care of, and thus had a calf to sell every fall. "They hated to sell nice heifers," Elsie said, "so they asked Grandpa if they could keep them, and Joe allowed up to five head each." Jared and Cassie, who spent a lot of time helping on the farm when their school schedules permitted, are now selling down because they're approaching college graduation.

On bright winter days Joe spends a good amount of time doing chores and moving snow. He feeds large round bales in the pasture west of the farmstead. "I feed in the open when I can," he says. "The cows got to have exercise so I hardly ever feed in the corral." He is convinced calving is easier on both the cows and on him since he started feeding them away from the barn.

His constant companion outdoors is Belle, a Great Pyrenees and black lab cross Joline brought from Colorado a few years back. "Belle had been a sheep dog up in the mountains," Elsie said, "and she constantly tried to keep the cattle rounded up in a small circle." After nearly driving the cows nuts, Belle has settled down. "She gets along with the cattle now."

Joe sometimes gets help with the cattle and other jobs from Tim Stone, a neighbor who rents some of their land. Elsie said Richard Sollin of Balta also helps out now and then, but she doesn't do much outside in the winter. Come summer, however, she will be back hauling hay and unloading grain trucks.

So the Blacks keep on keeping on -through cold and heat, flood and drought, not to mention sickness and health. In recent years Joe has had both knees replaced, and in 2002 had a defibrillator implanted. The defibrillator allows Joe to take less medicine, but also means he has to be careful around engines that are running, and he can no longer weld, an activity he really misses. The defibrillator was replaced in 2008. "I missed out on getting $20 a bushel for my wheat," he notes ruefully, "because I was in the hospital." Later he sold the wheat for $4.

But they have no regrets. Looking out the windows of their sun-filled dining room they can see the results of their years of hard work. Joe's 1947 truck is parked in the quonset, their original tractor in the barn. Like their owners, both see regular use. Angus cattle dot the hillside and tree rows they planted provide shelter. Their land is in good shape and so is most of their equipment. They would like to update some machinery, but they don't want to go into debt again. At age 85, "we're footloose and fancy free," Joe says with a laugh.

The Blacks have been good stewards in the community as well as of their farm. They are active in St. Mary's Catholic Church in Knox and belong to the American Legion and the Legion Auxiliary in town. Elsie is a member of Delta Kappa Gamma Society International, an organization for women teachers. Joe serves on the Knox Township Board, the Crop Improvement Association, The Heart of America Concert Association board of directors, and is a 4th Degree Knight in the Knights of Columbus.

Do they have any plans to retire? Not really. "I like what I'm doing," Joe says, no doubt speaking for Elsie as well. "I'm going to work as long as I can."

Printed with permission of the Pierce County Tribune.

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