Stepping into Big Farming Boots

Our Life Logs
7 min readJan 8, 2020

I was born July 22, 1996 in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. I grew up feeling like an only child, as my siblings were much older. My relationship with my siblings was good, but I didn’t see them very much. And for that reason, my parents were my best friends. They taught me to be adventurous and ambitious, raising llamas and bison on our hobby farm in southeastern Minnesota. When I was really little, Mom was my go-to. As I got older, Dad became my world.

My dad teaching me to ride a horse.

I always felt safe around Dad. In his own words, Dad was 6’4” and sensitive — and it was true. To this day, I’ve never met a man as physically strong as my Dad. He could hold an 80 lb fence-post pounder with one hand while he used his other hand to steady the pole, as if it were just any old hammer and nail. He also had a lot of endurance. I didn’t know much about Dad’s professional career, but I knew that every man we were acquainted with admired him. Most of the people who worked for him were high school dropouts. He took them under his wings and made them feel included. I wanted to be exactly like him when I grew up.

So, Dad and I were a team, like Batman and Robin. At nine years old, I became Dad’s shadow on the farm, soaking up every minute of the outdoors with him. Mostly, Dad taught by example. Fencing, operating farm equipment, wood working, small farm engines — I learned the ins and outs of it all.

“Batman and Robin,” or Dad and me, 1999.

By seventh grade, I had my entire life pretty much figured out. I would go to the University of Minnesota (where my dad had gone), get a degree in sustainable farming, and come back to help operate the family farm.

When I transferred to University of Minnesota in the fall of 2015, I don’t remember ever expecting the worst.

College was hands down a fabulous experience, and in its atmosphere of growth, I began to search for something spiritual. While attending a Bible study on campus, I met Ellen. She was also pursuing a degree related to agriculture, and I was immediately smitten by her when we met. After an awkward first date in a crowded coffee shop, she told me she wasn’t interested in a relationship. At the time, I didn’t think too much about it. In the next year I dated another girl, broke up with that girl, completed my junior year of college, and turned Catholic. By this point, Ellen and I knew each other better and were in a much different place than our first coffee outing. We officially started dating in December of 2017.

Life can be sweet sometimes. Yes, I was busy with classes and work, but each day was another chance to learn more about Ellen and about my faith. I fell in love with both, and looked forward to sharing my dreams and hopes with my family.

My first picture with Ellen, Christmas 2017.

On the week Ellen and I were both graduating from college, Dad came down with pneumonia. I was naturally worried about him, but since Mom was taking care of him and helping him at home, I figured he would be better in no time. I mean, what was a bit of pneumonia compared to the 6’4” rock of a man I called Dad. He was never one to give up a fight, never one to lay down, and so I never saw it coming.

The Tuesday before I graduated, Mom had to run an errand to feed the llamas and Dad agreed to let her leave for a few hours while he rested. While she was gone, I decided to go check on him on an impulse. When I got there, I found him on his bed, unresponsive.

Dad died on Saturday May 5th, 2018.

Telling my family was the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life. I’m not sure who was the hardest to tell — my mom, or my sister who was seven months pregnant with my dad’s first grandson. It still haunts me to this day. Ellen came to comfort me and hold my hand. Together, we made it through the first awful night. What followed was the hardest week of my life. Dad’s funeral was on May 10th. Ellen and I graduated from college on May 11th. Dad was buried on May 12th.

With the loss of Dad, all sense of peace and security in my life disappeared from my life. I developed irrational fears about losing our home, our farm, and everything we owned, and began obsessing about financial security. Over and over again, I found my mind wandering to the moment when I walked in and saw him lying there cold. The moments before were warm and full of life, and now…

The doctors said that Dad died of a massive heart attack. His untreated heart disease had been there all along, and his smoking and drinking had only made the problem worse to the point where his body couldn’t handle the pneumonia. “Always give a man options,” Dad loved to say. He valued freedom of thought and having control over his own life, preferring his own methods to a doctor’s. In the end, his stubbornness killed him. Pride killed him. Denial killed him.

In my childhood, I used to think Dad could do no wrong — but that wasn’t the case. After Dad passed, I was bitter — with Dad and with myself. If only it had been a few more years that I had had with him. If only we had had slowed down our busy lives to visit him more often. He wanted to meet Ellen. He wanted to meet his grandson. It’s true that he kept inviting us out for lunch but we had both made excuses with our homework and busy school life, figuring there would always be time for that meeting to happen later on. But, sometimes there is no more later in life. That was a hard lesson to unlearn.

After Dad’s death, I made changes in my life. I now make time for people, for my spiritual journey, and I do my best to soak up joy when I can — and I say this at arguably the busiest time in my life as I try to fill my Dad’s shoes. Wood for the winter, chainsaw work, machinery stuff — the list feels never ending. I make sure to take time for what’s most important because it is what will carry us through our dark days. It’s another hard lesson to learn, yes, but also, it’s one that is sweet to know.

“Looks like we have a hoedown!” My sense of humor!

Today, both my muscles and heart are sore — from constantly working in the fields and reflecting on Dad’s life. But I’m not worn out, no. Instead, I’ve learned to love a fallible man, to learn from his mistakes, and to seek hope always. Between some good counseling and my newfound Catholic faith, I will continue to be thankful for the good in life. I will be thankful for what I believe is divine providence, seasons of preparation to weather any storm. That doesn’t always mean that I’m waiting for disaster, it just means that I’ll be ready to remain joyful when it hits. Dad knew these farm boots were waiting for me. Maybe that’s why he gave me the dream in the first place.

Our farm, 2018.

This is the story of Jim Gardner

Jim is a bright young man with dreams and vision for sustainable farming. On his journey to a bright future, he discovered a need for healing and companionship. With the unexpected death of his father, he now relies on these sources of hope even more for strength as he continues pursuing his dream of farming. Jim currently lives with his Mom in Bloomington while working and managing their family farm in southwestern, Minnesota, which he is furnishing for his future bride Ellen. They are engaged and will get married on the weekend of Thanksgiving in 2019. When Jim isn’t busy outside working on his new tractor and planning out his crop of hemp seed for next year’s planting season, he is listening to audio books and spending time hunting with his future brother-in-law.

A picture from the Gardner family’s last Christmas with their father, 2017.
| Writer: Mary Flanagan| Editor: Colleen Walker |

Life Log #247

This story first touched our hearts on October 17, 2018.

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