Remembering a son

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Thoennes family wants farm stress to be topic of conversation

By Sarah Colburn

URBANK — Charles Thoennes taps his index finger against an old newspaper clipping laying on the kitchen table. His eyes smile with the memories, but his face twists and his voice betrays him. He recalls the day in June 2003 that his son Craig, a volunteer firefighter, and he posed for a newspaper photo highlighting the two running the family dairy in Urbank.

“Those were better days,” Charles said.

The days before Craig, 41, died under the weight of maintaining the farm.

It is a grief that Charles cannot shake. His wife, Craig’s mom, Kim sits at the table folding her hands, unfolding them and folding them again as tears stream unabashedly down her face and together, they tell the story of how Craig died — and how he lived.

It has been five years and one day since the couple rushed home on June 15, 2019 from a trip to Fleet Farm. They got a call that Craig had been found dead in the farmyard with a bull, known for its hot temper, stamping around next to him, and the dairy cows bellowing.

The family was alerted to Craig’s death by the regular milk truck driver, who had shown up that morning to find the bulk tank was less than half full. The driver called Craig’s uncle, who went to the farm and found Craig lying on the cement in the yard.

Craig, his father said, likely died the night before, as he readied for the evening milking. The cows missed that milking and the one the next morning.

The death, Charles and Kim said, is one they want people to know about. In 2023 alone, 146 dairies in Minnesota closed their doors due to mounting financial pressures, drought conditions, inflation and higher costs of production, all combined with an aging workforce.

“There are a lot of people who don’t know the dedication of a family dairy farm,” Charles said. “It’s all day, every day.”

Charles knows. He has been dairy farming since he was kid.

He was working on a neighboring dairy farm when, in 1979, his dad retired and asked if he wanted to come home and run the farm with his brother. Later, he purchased his own farm. It is the place Craig and his sister, Alicia, grew up — spending their days outside playing, enjoying family picnics under a tree.
Kim said Craig was around equipment from the time he could walk.

“Craig always played with farm machinery — combines, tractors,” Kim said. “He could drive anything.”

As an adult, he passed his farm toys on to his nieces, Payton and Faith, who his parents say he centered his life around.

“(If he was in the field) and the girls were coming out, he’d drop everything,” Kim said.

He taught Payton how to drive tractor and a skid loader, and how to back up with the best of them.

In 2001, Craig and his father officially formed a family dairy farm partnership. They expanded from 50 cows to 70. Craig owned half the cows; Charles owned the other half and the land. Craig bought a skid loader, something Charles never had but said lessened the manual labor. He said Craig used the loader for everything and was in it most days.

His mother agreed.

“(Farming) was all he ever wanted,” Kim said.

And it was, until it wasn’t.

Five years after the partnership began, Charles said Craig was anxious to break out on his own with his own herd.

“The problem is, there’s work for two and money for one,” Charles said. “Money was tight to make it work for both of us.”

Though hesitant, and all too familiar with the financial constraints of dairy farming, Charles said if Craig could hold off a few more years, he could take over the family farm when Charles turned 50. Charles feared from the beginning, and said so in the newspaper clipping about their partnership, that he didn’t want to pressure his kids to take over and he was concerned about the financial viability of dairy farming.

Despite his hesitation, in 2008, father and son made it official.

“I wasn’t ready yet, but he was, (and) I’m a man of my word,” Charles said. “He wanted it all and I kept true to my word and sold him the other half of the herd. He wanted to get out on his own and make more money.”

Charles had dedicated his life to milking cows, and the sale was a turning point.

“(Initially I was) kind of relieved but, at the same time, it was more than he could handle,” Charles said.

Charles helped Craig every day on the farm for the next three years. Together, they fed cows, milked cows, planted and harvested. Craig, who had been renting a house off site, moved into the farmhouse and Charles and Kim moved to Alexandria.

Eventually, Charles had to take an off-farm job to supplement his income and was not able to help with milking, but continued to help with planting and harvesting.

Charles said Craig began to struggle in his absence and Charles tried to intervene and encourage Craig to take on a different profession.

Craig, who joined Leaf Valley Fire & Rescue as a volunteer firefighter straight out of high school, began missing meetings at the fire hall because he had work to do on the farm.

“He had ambition as all hell, it was all about farming,” Charles said.
Kim agreed.

“(It was) 5 o clock in the morning til 10 o’clock at night,” she said.

The couple talked to Craig about selling the cows due to the surmounting pressures; his sister talked to him about getting out.

But, the Thoenneses have a long family history of farming, and talk of selling the farm splintered their relationship.

Charles’ great-grandfather, a German immigrant, spent his life as a farmer. Charles’ father was one of eight brothers and three sisters and all farmed except for one.

Charles and Kim purchased their own farm the year before the drought of 1988 and kept pushing through.

“I don’t walk away from things easily,” Charles said. “I never even once thought about walking away.”
And, neither did Craig.

Each time Charles brought up the idea of selling, Craig slipped further and further away, upset with his father. Eventually, Craig did not speak much with his parents, though Charles continued helping on the farm each week. When things got really bad, Charles said, his brothers, Craig’s uncles Marvin and Gerald Thoennes, helped on the farm too.

“I was out helping him one day and I told him to sell the cows,” Charles said. “He blamed me for being a farmer and said he couldn’t sell the cows because they’re not worth any money. Our relationship changed.”

Charles said the mounting pressure on dairy farmers can be overwhelming — financials, family expectations, can all boil over.

“I was asking him to sell the dairy,” Charles said. “He didn’t want to fail but, by selling the cows you’re not failing, just taking a different look at life.”

The family, Charles said, broke apart.
He shook his head in disbelief as he talked about the attempts he made to get Craig to do something else.

“When you have a bad year farming you always hope next year will be better but Craig and all dairy farmers faced back to back years of record low prices,” Charles said.

The stress of the farm, Charles said, was just too much and they could see it.
But, Craig persisted.

He purchased a bull at auction to handle breeding where prior, the two did artificial insemination.

“There was way more work than he could accomplish and he wasn’t getting cattle bred,” Charles said.

That bull is the one that ended his life.

Today, Charles and Kim have a room dedicated to Craig. His fire department jacket hangs on the doorknob inside the memorial room. There, pictures of Craig adorn the walls, as does a framed photograph of the farm, sayings about being a farmer, his favorite hat and spiritual decor that tries to help them make sense of what happened.

“Every time I go in there, I gotta wipe the tears out of my eyes,” Charles said.

Every day now, Kim walks to the cemetery not far from their house to visit with Craig. There, a small diecast John Deere tractor sits on his gravestone. The stone is adorned on one side with a tractor and, on the other, an image of a cow.

The family sold the cows the same week as Craig’s funeral, and they sold the bull the same day Craig was found. In May, the Thoenneses sold the majority of their farmland to a person who’s going to crop farm with irrigation.

They used money from Craig’s estate to build a house for his sister and her girls, a legacy to the relationship he had with his sister and her children.

They donated some of the funeral gift funds to the fire department to purchase a side-by-side. A plate just inside the passenger door is engraved with the words, “In memory of Craig Thoennes”.

Charles and Kim said some days it feels like the loss just happened and, on those days, their grief is palpable and inescapable.

“I want people to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel; it’s not a bright light, but it’s there,” Kim said.