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A search for personal sovereignty

by Christine Behnen

The farmlands of central Minnesota are home to all kinds of people. The soil is exceptionally fertile, and the young stock grown and raised here are as varied as any native grass or tree. In the ecological balance of a human community are those who want to know why things are the way that they are, and what they might otherwise be like, and their restlessness may only be settled by seeking the answers. The restlessness of the questioning has the potential to take them far far away, to the other side of the earth if need be. When those who have gone away return, they may bring with them answers found by trials and travels. With such answers alive in their hands, they may immediately knead them into the earth, a gift for the homecoming.

Daniel and Stephanie Zetah live and farm at New Story Farm between Dassel and Hutchinson. These 96 acres are where Daniel grew up, where his parents, Dennis and Elaine, raised cattle since the sixties. This farm is an old farm, a family farm, but Daniel’s pathway home was anything but a straightforward continuance of the life he grew up with. Daniel had established a life in Australia, and then underwent a radical transformation of his life goals and skills, in order to be able to return to the land that first knew him. Stephanie likewise gave up the trappings of an established professional life on a computer in order to discover the new way of living that brought her home here. Together they are holding space on their farm for a new story, and not just for themselves, but a new story for any who might be seeking and willing.

At one time such a drastic change might have seemed unlikely, impossible, or even undesirable, but the seeds of that change were present even from a young age. And there were distinct moments which were like flint to steel, sparking a pivotal moment which might have otherwise slept undisturbed.

“My parents raised cattle organically,” Daniel remembered. “And yet, every time we sold a cow it would go away on a truck, and we bought all of our meat at a supermarket. Even as a kid, I was always questioning everything.”

After studying economics and business, Daniel moved to Colorado, but 9-11 marked a crucial moment which would lead to him moving to Australia.

“I watched American culture double down on fear,” Daniel reflected. “I had to get out. I didn’t fit into this culture, and I questioned it. Why do we do this this way? I didn’t know what I was looking for. I wasn’t fully baked yet.”

His time in Australia would last over a decade. He had a job working as a chemical spraying auditor and prosecutor for Tasmania, an island state in the south. He called Tasmania “Black Sheep Island,” because it seemed to attract people who likewise didn’t fit in, but Daniel still didn’t quite know where his life was going.

“None of my work had any meaning to it,” said Daniel. “I just fell into it, and it was just a paycheck. I was unconscious to my role in the world.”

A huge life change was sparked when a local acquaintance, Brett, asked him, “What are you doing?”

Brett and his wife had bought a “bush block,” a tract of undeveloped land, and, despite lacking many skills, they were not afraid to try and learn new things. They built a concrete block house, ugly but homey. They built much of what they needed: a table, and even their spoons and forks. They had a garden, baked their own bread, and for meat they would go out every other night and kill one of the wallabies that were everywhere on the island.

“I had never really experienced that,” remarked Daniel, “other than the really old people I’d met when I was a young person, who still lived the way that this culture lived before it got so consumer-based. At some stage they were sovereign. A hundred years ago, the average farmer or rural person would have been just fine if the entire system had collapsed.”

Making these connections, between his ancestors and this resilient couple in the bush of Australia and his own unsettled search for answers, was like an awakening from which Daniel could not turn away.

“I would either have to continue what I was doing,” said Daniel,” and be really uncomfortable, or I’d have to change everything in my life. I had to do something, because now I had responsibility, the ability to respond. Being called out on my reality was very uncomfortable, but it was also really refreshing.”

Daniel got to work. He changed jobs, worked to pay off his debt, and spent his spare time learning how to do stuff. He studied and later himself became a teacher of permaculture. He learned natural building and renewable energy systems.

Life was different in Tasmania, but, when the Fukushima tsunami happened, he realized that even moving to the ends of the earth was not sufficient to escape.

“There’s no hiding.” Daniel remarked. “That’s when I decided to move back to Minnesota, to give it a shot. We’re all on an island.”

Back to Minnesota ultimately meant back to his parents’ farm where he had grown up.

Stephanie was also changing her life before she met Daniel. She had left a corporate job in graphic design, and even gave up the house she had bought.

“I decided I would leave it all,” Stephanie recalled. “In 2008 when the housing market crashed, I still didn’t care. My happiness was worth more than money. I gave away my belongings. I just surrendered to the unknown.”

They found each other in the following years at an intentional community where Stephanie had been living, and where Daniel came to visit. They shared the same goals of wanting to be sovereign individuals, who could meet more of their own needs. They wanted to be a part of small, resilient, agrarian community which could meet the majority of its own needs. Despite their combined experience with communities around the world, Minnesota stood out as the best and most hospitable place for them to realize their vision.

“I’ve been to places in the world where ten acres of this soil is literally as productive as 100 acres of their soil,” noted Daniel. “We have some of the richest soil resource the world’s ever seen.”

Daniel and Stephanie shared the story of how the ecology of the land over tens of thousands of years had banked the fertility of the soil. The Mdewankanton Sioux living on the tall grass prairies, oak savannahs, and canopy forests, had managed the land using fire. Bison migrating through would eat, trample, defecate and move on. All of this activity was part of a functioning ecology which the couple hoped to restore, as much as is possible in our modern time. This old story, of how the land used to be, threaded itself into a new concept of their roles.

“We grow food as a by-product of ecological restoration,” explained Daniel. “I want to help restore what damage we as humans have done.”

Even though Daniel and Stephanie were able to return to Daniel’s family farm, transitioning from his parents to the next generation’s vision and leadership has required mutual support, respect and trust. Dennis and Elaine Zetah had committed a lifetime to the care of their home, and their approval of the couple’s plans allowed for both continuity and change.

“My parents both love this farm more than anything,” Daniel commented. “They were good stewards of the land. I’m really grateful for that.”

Having access to fertile land was a huge gift to the couple’s vision. Passing the responsibility of stewarding the land to Daniel and Stephanie gave them the security to fully invest themselves. With this assurance the couple was determined to share this way of life with others who might likewise be inspired to change, but lack the knowledge, perspective and means to do so.

Christening the farm with a new name, New Story Farm, both honored the released past of the farm and its people, as well as raised a bright new intention, like a beacon calling out for a new way, a new lifestyle, not just for themselves, but for any comers.

Visible signs of the new story are everywhere. A system of paddocks to rotationally graze the cows is set up, to mimic the bison’s migrational movements of long ago. A row of maple seedlings line a slight hill, where they shall serve as a windbreak, and provide syrup when they mature.

An old chicken coop was repurposed into a community gathering place. A broad and open concept allows for community meals, hanging out, crafts and other social experiences and events. The walls are lined with pages from old farming magazines, which serve as reminder of recent history and the urgent questions New Story Farm hopes to address.

“See how farming has changed over the last 100 years,” Daniel pointed out. “Never has there been such a shift in such a short period of our cultural values. I wish we had the humility as a species to look back and question. Were those good changes?”

The people who Daniel and Stephanie welcome to the farm may be interested in making a change, but feel trapped by their debt, or their lack of skills and experience. They hope to serve as a stepping stone for them.

“There are not clear cut avenues how to step into this new way of living,” shared Stephanie. “People think they don’t have options to change. When I left my job, I never thought that I’d own land. I am not a cubicle, desk worker. I’m a land-based being”

To this end, they have curated ways to get involved. This might be as simple as attending specific topic workshops like foraging, crafts or agricultural skills, or they may be as complete as an internship living in community on the farm for the time needed. In the warmer seasons, bi-weekly homeschool days bring in children and families. Resiliency School is another offering by which families may experience farm life, learn self-sufficiency and survival skills, and learn about regenerative agriculture.

The Zetahs have so many interests and plans that it appears as though there is always another facet, another skill, another project to be developed. A smokehouse and a root cellar are close on the horizon. Each has worked hard to learn every skill that at one time they did not have, and for a grander vision, it is worth it. There is always more to do, but, Stephanie explained that every meal, even a piece of cake on a relaxed winter day offers an opportunity for gratitude – for the wheat that Daniel grew, for the currants that Stephanie grew, for the dairy by way of another’s farm.

“Every day is something amazing,” Daniel offered. “We never wake up with an alarm clock, but with the circadian rhythms. We eat like royalty. The ingredients are fresh and wholesome and nutritious and tasty. We get to do something different every day. We get to work with our hands. We get to work with our minds. We have autonomy and agency and freedom like most people have never known. We have purpose and meaning.”

After journeying far from home, led by searching questions, a child of this land can be welcomed home, now a man or a woman. A story once held, can be questioned and released, and a new story found to guide the way. Soil grown over the ages can be rediscovered, as a treasure made by time, and regenerated anew. Stephanie and Daniel Zetah, of New Story Farm, once uprooted, have come home.

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