Community Connection

It’s a conversation I think every town girl dating a farm boy has at some point in their relationship.

Nearly 10 years have passed since this conversation with Farmer Dan first occurred, and it was a conversation that happened many more times over the course of our young courtship. I still can perfectly remember the intense anxiety I felt when my now-husband told me he definitely wanted to stay in Yankton and take over the family farm.

As a young college student with ambition and dreams, I immediately felt panicked. What did this mean for our budding relationship? How could I be a writer and live only 30 minutes from my hometown on a farm? Didn’t I need to live in a city for that? And how in the world would I manage living the next 80 years in Yankton, S.D., of all places?

But if you know my farmer, you know he’s a pretty special guy, and I wasn’t about to let him slip out of my fingers. Over the next few years, Dan continued to paint a picture of what it would be like raising our family in this little South Dakota town that he loved so much. Once we married and finally moved here in 2011, I started to see what he meant, and soon became a transplant that is wildly passionate about her new home.

I’ll admit, it’s still a bit of a strange feeling, knowing that (God willing) I am forever connected to this piece of land and way of life that has been in my husband’s family for generations. My life experience is already so different than many of my friends who are bouncing from city to city with each new job, or even my parents, who raised four kids in seven towns before finally settling down in Vermillion when I was born.

As a farmer’s wife, I feel such a connection to this community, knowing that if all goes according to plan, I will someday raise my kids here, and hopefully my kids will raise their kids on the same farm they grew up on. Farm families have roots in their communities that are deep and true. Knowing that you hope to spend the rest of your life in one spot makes you want to get out, get your hands dirty and work to improve the quality of life not just for yourself, but for your kids and their kids. Suddenly, each decision you help make in your community has long-term consequences. When you’re a farm family, there’s no jumping ship if your community goes south.

That’s why when Bernie Hunhoff, a state senator in the South Dakota legislature and a once long-time farm neighbor, spoke to me about joining this group he called “Onward Yankton,” I eagerly accepted. There was a lot of mystery surrounding the group – in fact, I didn’t know what the group really planned to do until I showed up at my first meeting – but I knew it had something to do with growing Yankton and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

I’ll admit, it’s still a bit of a strange feeling, knowing that (God willing) I am forever connected to this piece of land and way of life that has been in my husband’s family for generations.

Onward Yankton, for those who have not heard about it, launched this month with 1,200 high school students, community members and the local 1 Million Cups chapter in attendance.  Business and community leaders announced that it was time for Yankton to again become a city of big dreamers. Yankton once was full of visionaries who built bridges, dammed rivers and founded colleges, they said. Now, it’s our generation’s turn to dream up something special.

To that end, Onward Yankton ( is conducting a 100-day worldwide search for Yankton’s “Next Big Idea,” with the person whose idea is chosen taking home a $10,000 prize. In less than a month, over 300 ideas have been submitted, and there is still plenty of time before the July 9 deadline. While the $10,000 serves an incentive to come up with the idea, the really exciting part comes in the second phase of the project, where funding will be raised to actually complete the project. The group is committed to seeing the winning project through to completion, which they hope has the potential to improve the lives of Yanktonians for generations to come. And already, chatter has started in the community about how it can work to implement the other ideas that did not win, but still offer value to growing our river city.

I’m thrilled that so many people – not just in Yankton, but throughout the state and beyond – are thinking long and hard about what could keep small South Dakota towns alive and thriving. We struggle to grow and retain young families, a problem most rural cities are facing. Yet those of us who call Yankton home are anxious to change the perception that our state – and our city – doesn’t have enough to offer young people. We do, and if the enthusiasm around Onward Yankton is any indication, it will only get better from here. And I couldn’t be happier about sticking around to watch it happen.


Rustic Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

Right now, I’ve got a bit of a rhubarb conundrum happening in my basement.

Last summer, my dad – who knows his daughter did not inherit his green thumb but happily accepts that she is willing to bake him anything he requests in return for homegrown fruits and vegetables – generously shared the bounty of his enormous garden with us. By the end of June, we had more than 300 cups of chopped rhubarb stored in our freezer. In fact, we were swimming in so much rhubarb that Dad didn’t even bother harvesting his last crop.

Now, as rhubarb season approaches once again, it’s time to try to whittle down some of the rhubarb surplus we have stored to make room for this year’s arrival. Fortunately, rhubarb is incredibly versatile, and can be used in a variety of ways, from sauce for ice cream, to jams and jellies, to pies and crumbles. You can stew it and make it into flavored simple syrup for cocktails and other beverages, or reduce it thicker and use as syrup for pancakes and waffles. It’s delicious in breads, muffins, cakes and cookies, or as chutney on meats like pork and chicken.

For those who aren’t as familiar with rhubarb, here’s a quick agricultural lesson from my dad the gardener. Rhubarb is a perennial plant composed of thin stalks and large ornamental leaves. The stalk is the only portion of the plant that can be eaten, as the leaves and roots contain oxalic acid, a toxic poison. Though rhubarb is technically a vegetable, it is typically used with other fruits and sugars to create a sweet filling (thus its long-time moniker as the “pie plant.”) Rhubarb alone is incredibly tart, which is why it is usually combined with a sweetener to become more palatable, though it is technically safe to eat raw (I wouldn’t advise it, though!)

There are many different varieties of rhubarb, but as a rule, the redder the stalks, the better flavor produced. It’s best to harvest rhubarb before the stalks get too big, about 12-18 inches, as the larger stalks tend to be less tender. Rhubarb tastes best when harvested in late spring and early summer, before temperatures get above 85 degrees.

To freeze rhubarb, cut the leaves and roots off the plant, clean and chop into uniform, bite-sized pieces and seal in a Ziploc bag, ensuring all air is removed from the bag.

If you, like me, are looking for ways to use your rhubarb, try this rustic strawberry-rhubarb crisp, made just like grandma used to make. This crisp was made for our Easter celebration and was gobbled up in minutes. It’s quick and easy to assemble, and best of all, it can be made up to two days before your event and stored at room temperature. Before serving, simply reheat at 250 degrees for 15 minutes or until bubbling. Serve with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream or whipped cream and enjoy!

 Rustic Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp


6 medium stalks rhubarb, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 cups strawberries, hulled and halved lengthwise
½ cup sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup firmly-packed golden brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsalted butter, melted

Position a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat to 350 degrees F.

In a large bowl, stir together the rhubarb, strawberries and sugar until well mixed. Pour into a 2.5-quart ceramic or glass pie dish or baking dish, and set aside.

In a large bowl, stir together flour, rolled oats, sugars, cinnamon and salt until well blended. Stir in the melted butter until evenly moistened crumbs form. Spoon the crumb mixture over the filling.

Bake the crisp until the rhubarb is tender when tested with a toothpick, the juices are bubbling and the topping is golden brown, 35-40 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack, and let cool for 10 minutes. Serve warm.

Note: The crisp can be cooled, covered with plastic wrap and stored at room temperature for up to 2 days. Rewarm in a 250-degree F oven for 15 minutes before serving. Preferably with a substantial scoop of vanilla ice cream.