Cultivating a New Kind of Crop

Some new farmers moved to town last year. You might have noticed their first crop lit up in yellow and green along the Warroad River as you cross the Highway 11 bridge. Avis and Bill Kennel, the owners of the house with the palm trees, certainly wouldn’t label themselves farmers, but indeed they have planted a crop, and it will bear fruit. Already has, in fact.

The Kennels moved to Warroad after more than a decade of weekend commutes back and forth between their home in Thief River Falls and their cabin in Warroad. Along their route to visit family, they’d pass the iron palm trees on the corner of Highways 5 and 2, south of Warroad. “’We want those palm trees,’ we’d say every time we passed,” Avis recounted. They stopped in at the house several times over the years hoping to learn where the palm trees came from but were never able to connect with anyone.

Since the beginning of their regular visits to the area, the Kennels knew they wanted to “retire” in Warroad. Once they settled in full-time, got back to work in their chosen fields, as well as had plenty of cabin remodel projects underway, it was time to think about planting their first crop.

Not soybeans, wheat or canola as is the norm in our northern locale, but the iron-variety, yard-art-on-steroids palm trees they’d fallen in love with from a passing car-window and never forgotten.

This past summer on another intentional drive-by, the Kennel’s finally made contact with the owners of the little farm that housed the unusual palm trees. Oddly enough, owners Bob and Cheryl Brantingham had also split their time between Thief River Falls and Warroad, making their old family farm a haven for their creativity.

Bob’s wooden sunflowers, iron palm trees and even a moving oil pump have stood silently at the county road intersection, inviting in passers-by for twenty-odd years. And after a decade of wishing it into existence, it was finally Avis and Bill’s turn to meet the man behind the metal. Half-expecting to find out where he had bought them and get the contact info of some pre-fab company down south, they were more than pleasantly surprised to learn Bob was the actual artist who, though he chuckles at the word, takes great pride in his creations.

Right away, “I knew this was a guy I wanted to know,” Bill said. “I just thought it was so cool that someone local was an artist like that.

“When we went out there and caught him, we were there for a long time. He drew up some drawings for us, and we had to go in every building and look at everything he was making. We saw how he made his ice house out of garage doors. He’d made a moving oil pump well. His wife has this amazing flower garden in the back and he’d made all of these hanging brackets for the flowers. He does a lot with his grandkids, and he told us all the stories about how the palm trees are made.”IMG_5662

Bob also told the story of why he arrived at palm trees in the first place, which some might consider an unusually art form given our northern locale.

“I guess everybody likes a palm tree,” he said. “Where I work, they had scrap metal that was going out to the junk pile and one day I got the idea that I should make something with it. So, I stayed after work for many nights in a row and came up with the first palm tree, brought it here and planted it.

“It didn’t grow, but it’s still there,” he chuckled.

And that is the crux of this kind of farming. The Kennels, and Bob before them, planted a crop (its “roots” literally go down five feet) that will last for generations. Over the seasons, Bill and Avis plan to use different colored lights, add a tiki hut and a giant snowman. The will delight in watching both the iron oxidizing beautifully in the weather AND their friends, neighbors and the countless unknown travelers enjoying the sight of lit-up palm trees in the middle of a snow storm. The fruits of what they planted may sometimes be subtle or celebrated or maybe even outright mocked, but despite the notion that blue-collar communities value a functional conservatism over an aesthetic appreciation, art has become its own crop even here in a rural agricultural area. Repurposed family farms and people like the Brantinghams and the Kennels are the new co-ops that bring these crops to market.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but everyone who connects over or even simply enjoys a quick glance, reap the harvest and consume the fruits of their labor and investment.

IMG_5740“One of my students said ‘My dad told me to tell Mrs. Kennel that palm trees don’t grow in Minnesota’”, Avis said.

Both Bob and the Kennels would agree, but that doesn’t mean there’s no value in planting them. The Kennel’s are new to the community and as they have for many years in previous jobs, both work with children – she as a high-school special-needs teacher and he as a bus driver. For them, the joy has come from simple conversation and connection with the people around them.

“My students comment on it. They know they’re mine and it’s a connection we share. I teach kids that don’t have a lot of this kind of thing in their lives,” she said, referring to the light-hearted whimsy that a lit-up palm tree might bring on a twenty-below day.

Bill’s full-time “work”, his calling and his art are his carpentry, Avis explained. “Bill is a lot like his mom who always had her house and yard lit up; she was always crafting. When I look out at these lights, I think about her looking down from heaven saying, ‘yep, Bill’s just like me.’”

At the time of their introduction to Bob, the Kennels were neck-deep in home renovations and didn’t expect to install the palm trees right away, but Bob and his daughter Starr, who ran the plasma cutter to create all the fronds, got right to work.

The palm trees are no small undertaking or investment. Built entirely of iron with footings that go down five feet, the trees are nearly twenty feet tall and are the culmination of fifteen years of Bob’s artistic and engineering evolution getting his formula just right.

“It’s all flat material before you start, and it has to be bent and tweaked,” Bob said. “The coconuts are the hardest part; they’re segmented with five sections and all have a convex curvature to them. You put them all together, tack them and weld them and hope you come out with a decent looking coconut cluster.IMG_5688

“For the fronds, there are five different patterns: eight regular fronds, four sprouts coming up and four underneath that we call coconut fronds. It’s…I wouldn’t say complicated, but it is time consuming. And it’s fun,” Bob said. “I enjoy it.”

They will last a lifetime and beyond, according to Bob, and though they won’t grow, other more important things will as a result.

“Enjoyment has an impact on well-being,” Bob said both about the creation of art and the act of consuming it. “Especially if you put on your snowshoes, go walk around your artwork and get some fresh air in your lungs.”

“There is art in everything and everyone,” Avis seemed to agree. “It’s just a matter of bringing it out and finding a way.”  For her young students especially, Avis hopes the connections built over the enjoyment of her palm trees will help instill lifelong values about giving back to their community.

And maybe, just maybe, they will help cultivate another new crop of farmer a generation hence. Bob’s palm trees will certainly live to tell.

(Published in the January 16, 2018 issue of the Warroad Pioneer, in Warroad, Minnesota)


Author: Angle Full of Grace

A writer, woods-wanderer, and internal peace seeker who raises two free-range children in the wilderness, I escaped the wasteland of corporate America a few years back never to return. I write about love, family, mental health, addiction, parenthood and personal growth all through lens of place and connection to the land. Most entries are my weekly column for our local small-town newspaper, and there's an occasional feature story thrown in the mix as well.

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