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At 88, southeast Minnesota man continues work on farm

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Donny Kramer
Donny Kramer, of Hayfield, Minn. drives a corn wagon next to his son's combine. Donny, 88, still helps his sons and grandsons plant, harvest, work on machines, whatever needs doing.
John Weiss | AP

On a recent Saturday, Donny Kramer was a happy man.

Not as happy as when he's sitting in the bleachers at Hayfield High School, watching four sons and later seven grandchildren play sports. That's tops with him.

But a strong second would be when he's sitting in the enclosed cab of a Case IH tractor pulling a corn wagon with his son, Tom Kramer, driving a combine next to him. Donny Kramer is 88 (89 soon) and he loves to farm. He works nearly daily on the farm sons Tom and Ted Kramer run northwest of Hayfield.

"I'm 88, I want to keep farming," Donny said. "I like it, I have got to have something to do." He doesn't worry about running out of work. "There's always something to do," he said.

If he quit, "What would I do?" he asked.

When spring arrives, he's eager to get into the fields. During summer and early fall, he watches as beans and corn begin to turn brown or gold. When they're dry, "I'm ready to go," Donny said.

Said his son, Tom, "He's the most dependable worker we have."

"I work cheap," his dad added. He doesn't get a salary, but he does get proceeds from some corn sales, and he rents out about 800 acres to his sons.

Tom said his dad's perspective on farming after so many decades is important.

"He has seen so much in his lifetime," Tom told the Post-Bulletin. "He's been there, done that. It's nice having that perspective."

On Saturday, father and sons — along with some of Donny's grandsons — were harvesting corn. Soybeans were already done, and they still had a few days of picking corn in one giant field. They were well organized, with two combines and two wagons filling semis, which would haul the corn to the farm or to the local elevator.

Each knew what to do, how to drive, what to look for. They only needed a few words on their radios to tell the others what was happening.

The Kramers were part of bustling farming scene during the weekend, with many others in surrounding fields harvesting acre upon acre of corn in what is shaping up to be the best harvest in a long time.

The big difference was Donny. He said there probably aren't many other 88-year-olds still doing the work of planting, caring for machines and harvesting. He's proud to be a farmer and proud of his sons and grandsons.

Donny Kramer
Donny Kramer, of Hayfield, Minn. talks with his son, Tom Kramer, as he drives a corn wagon next to his son's combine.
John Weiss | AP

Donny does take a few weeks off now and then. When he gets tired in the field after hours of driving, he takes a nap — in the field. He just finds a place in the sun and out of the wind, near the wheel or a truck or tractor, and dozes off.

He said he went to local schools until eighth grade when his father died and he had to begin farming. That was in the mid-1940s. He's been farming since and has never wanted to do anything else.

That love of farming is still strong.

The difference is size:

•Donny started with about 320 acres. Today, the family's operation is 5,200 acres.

• He started with a steel-wheeled tractor and would pull a 12-foot field cultivator and two-row picker. Today, the Kramers have a 600-horsepower tractor, 60-foot cultivators and 18-row combines.

• In the early years when it rained, Donny had to wait days for the fields to dry out. Today, fields are tiled so they dry quickly.

• He and his brother, Leonard, bought land for $45 an acre and paid for it in one year. Land now costs up to $8,000.

But here's the most interesting thing of all: Donny doesn't dwell on the good-old days. He thinks farming is a lot better today. It's not as hard on the body and it's more precise. Today's machines are controlled by GPS and satellites; they can plow a perfect row and measure out just the right amount of fertilizer or chemicals.

But nothing beats seeing corn or beans pouring into a wagon.

An AP Exchange feature by John Weiss, Rochester Post Bulletin