An unusual partnership, forged by recession

We all need a good story in this recession. We haven’t had many. Here’s one.

Kim Otterson always loved this land, 140 acres of rolling fields and trees in central Minnesota, from the day she walked it as a newlywed to the day she gave it up in divorce. She’s come back now, for a few months, to ride out the recession with her ex-husband’s widow.

The economy’s brought them together in an odd way. But it’s working.

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That was my shorthand on the story I’d been told. Two women, Kim Otterson and Jess Benson, hurt by the recession, touched by the death of the same man, Glenn Benson, working to keep together the farm that they all loved.

We knew we needed to tell it.

Click on the play bar to hear reporter Sasha Aslanian’s lovely radio piece.

It began when I’d talked to Otterson a few months ago. She’s part of MPR’s Public Insight Network. I’ve been using MinnEcon and the network to try and tell as many stories as I can of Minnesotans working through these hard times.

Kim, 54, is a farrier, someone who shoes and cares for horse hooves. (Yeah, I’m a city kid and had to look up the word. ) I asked her to send me a view on the economy from her vantage point. I hadn’t realized until she told me how bad things were in the horse business in the recession.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm. Surplus horses… high feed costs, due to a weather, and maybe even ethanol production, indirectly; and the economic situation on top of it.”

Then as we emailed, she wrote,

Just wanted to let you know, I moved a couple of weeks ago. I’m now living near Randall. I actually moved in with my ex-husband’s widow. Kind of a weird set up but it’s working. Glenn passed away the end of May and Jess has had kind of a crash course in farming.

Glenn, 58, was her ex-husband. They’d owned the land in Morrison County. He kept it in the divorce and eventually married Jess. He and Jess lived there raising horses.

Kim was living in Oklahoma and returning to Minnesota. Glenn offered to help her find property. He died about the same time she returned.

Suddenly, Jess, 36, needed help keeping the farm together. She wasn’t a farm kid and Glenn had taken care of so much. Kim was trying to find a way to save money to buy a farm but was burning away her savings on rent and boarding her own horses.

Keith Spandl, a friend who knew Glenn, Jess and Kim, was the first to say Kim ought to move back to the farm and help Jess. “He thought it’d be good for them both,” his wife, Sharon Spandl, said.

“Kim needed a place to stay and Jessie was all be herself. Kim can run just about anything in farm equipment. So Keith says (to Kim), ‘Just go over and ask her.'”

“Glenn was a fun guy,” Sharon Spandl says. “He could tell you stories. We really miss him because he was a good friend.”

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Jess is doing all she can to keep the farm. She has a telecommuting job as a customer service representative. But keeping the land in tact will still mean selling many of the horses, including Jackson, a stallion that Kim and Glenn bought together when they were married.

Kim has filled the breach, fixing the daily problems of farm life: Buying hay, fixing tractors and stoves, knowing who to call in the region for other stuff.

The horse business has been miserable, though. Jess and Kim told us stories of how the market’s dropped. That makes it even more challenging because Jess has to sell some of the horses to keep the farm intact.

She’s adamant about not selling the land.

Kim’s not sure how long she’ll stay. She has a boyfriend and she’s doing pretty well saving money for a down payment on property. She moved back to Minnesota because she thought it was her best chance to own a place again. For now, in this recession, this works.

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I don’t really know how this story ends. But in the worst recession in decades, we can take heart sometimes in a story like Jess and Kim. We’ll keep tabs on them and I’ll post updates. Find more photos here.

If you know a good story about the economy, something that tells us about how you and your neighbors are faring, drop a line and tell us.

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(Jess Benson (l) and Kim Otterson)

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(Glenn Benson, from a family photo)

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