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Soaring like Eagles: Three Litchfield Boy Scouts reach highest rank
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Three Litchfield teens reached the pinnacle of Scouting as they became Eagle Scouts during a ceremony Sunday at First Lutheran Church.

But the achievement, while certainly a moment to celebrate — they are the first Litchfield Boys Scouts to earn the rank since 2014 — seemed to take a back seat to the journey for Riley Defries, Sam Dougherty and Levi Schmidt when they sat down to discuss the coming Eagle Scout Court of Honor last week.

Reaching the organization’s highest rank came after nearly seven years of participation in meetings, camping trips and service projects that helped shape them, not just as Boy Scouts but as people, they said.

“There’s so many things in Boy Scouts that I don’t really think about, because we just did it,” Dougherty said. “Things that we know how to do or even if we’re not experts on it, we know how to do or have done it before.

“I think, just at that one trip, how many things did we do?” Dougherty said, recalling a Boy Scout camp from years ago. “We were triangulating points to figure out where we were …. We made tea with just like random berries that we found. We put up a 20-foot tall teepee, like a real teepee. We replanted a prairie. And that was just one trip. How many kids in our school could say they have done anything like that.”

They did those things while the Litchfield Boy Scout troop was moving through a transition in leadership and organization. At one point, they were among only a handful of Boy Scouts remaining in the program — worried, they said, the troop might disintegrate because of the lack of numbers.

But they stuck with it, and eventually they saw an infusion of enthusiasm and activity as new adult leadership — who they each say they are indebted to for helping them reach Eagle Scout — stepped in.

Even without the instability in leadership, sticking with Boy Scouts can be difficult, Defries acknowledged. So many other activities vie for a teenager’s attention, and Boy Scouts often is viewed as an oddity by their peers.

“I think people underestimate Boy Scouts and what it’s about, because a lot of people have this assumption that, ‘Oh, it’s a bunch of nerdy kids going to meetings and, like, learning knots or whatever,’” Defries said. “I think people need to get rid of the stereotype … because being in Boys Scouts, for me, has been awesome. Having a group so focused on learning new things and developing my leadership skills and stuff, I’m lucky to have had that.”

Eagle Scout projects

One of the final requirements for reaching Eagle Scout is a community service project, with a focus on the Eagle Scout candidate planning, overseeing and executing the work, which his fellow Scouts perform.

Defries, Schmidt and Dougherty each completed a project at their respective churches.

Schmidt’s project, the trio agreed, was the biggest and most expensive of the three – creation of a new gaga ball pit for Oak Heights Covenant Church in Hutchinson. For the uninitiated, gaga ball is similar to dodgeball, played in an octagon “pit” with a sand floor. The pit for Oak Heights Covenant, Schmidt said, was an improvement project to replace an older pit.

Construction, even with assistance from a Bobcat to scrape the topsoil and auger post holes, was a labor intensive project involving several Boy Scouts and other assistants working six hours on a Saturday.

“Probably the hardest part of that was moving the four cubic yards of sand with two wheelbarrows,” Schmidt said with a smile. “The whole troop helped. It’s intended as a leadership experience. It went pretty well.”

Defries planned and oversaw repainting of Chilstrom Hall at First Lutheran Church in Litchfield, another all-day project that improved the look of the area, which is used by church members as a “coffee hour area” and for the church’s FoodShare distribution program, Defries explained.

In preparation for painting, Scouts had to spackle some walls that had been dented and scraped.

“Putting up spackle … everyone did really well with that, especially the younger Scouts,” Defries said. “For us never doing it before, with (adult leaders’) guidance, I feel like we did a fairly good job. I thought it was a really good project … a very affordable and well-thought-of project for the church.”

Dougherty planned and built a new recycling center for his church, Beckville Lutheran.

“The one (recycling center) they had was pretty much just a pile of cans in the woods,” Dougherty said. “So, the new center just looks better and it’s secure, and twice a year, we go and sell (the recyclables) and give the money to the Sunday school (program).”

And while overseeing the recycling center work was rewarding, Dougherty said, it was something else that happened that Saturday that was even more memorable.

A funeral for one of the older members of the church took place the same day, and Dougherty, Schmidt and a younger Scout participated in a church tradition by ringing the church bell once for every year of the 90-year-old deceased’s age.

“Usually I do it myself,” Dougherty said, “but we switched off, and it was just, I thought, a really meaningful experience for all of us.”

The experience

The trio — all seniors at Litchfield High School — easily recalled multiple meaningful experiences throughout Boy Scouts. They shared stories of so-called high adventure trips and of summer stays at Many Point Scout Camp in northern Minnesota.

Those trips to Many Point, which the trio made together for six consecutive years, helped them advance through Boy Scout ranks. But they all say that earning merits badges – a key to advancement – and moving up in rank wasn’t ever the goal of the Boy Scout experience. It was a side benefit.

“I guess for me, getting as many merit badges as possible wasn’t necessarily my goal,” Dougherty said. “I feel like I always thought that merit badges that I did get, I wanted to actually like it, and I wanted to actually learn about it versus just getting the patch.”

Schmidt echoed that thought, saying a sash full of merit badges never motivated him.

“I feel like a lot of these merit badges kind of just fell into place as we went along,” he said. “Whether we had specific ones that we needed to get — there’s 21 that are required for Eagle — I feel like we did them because they were our interests. So it didn’t feel like a chore to necessarily be in Boy Scouts and do stuff. We just had fun. Every summer, we’d pick one or two that we needed and work on them together, and that was fun. I think we kind of helped each other along a lot.”

And in doing so, they broke the stereotype of today’s teenager, obsessed with cellphones, social media and electronics.

“Boy Scouts has been like the kind of the activity where you can get out of the house and put down (electronics) stuff and just like, take a breath of fresh air outside and learn some new skills,” Defries said. “When we're out on camporees and stuff, most of the time we're outside learning stuff. Just to get us away from this whole stereotype that our entire generation is built on technology and all that.”

Being prepared

The trio’s last high adventure experience was a trip last summer with other Litchfield Boy Scouts and leaders to the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Michigan. Days spent hiking and enjoying nature, perfect weather and majestic scenery on the shores of Lake Superior.

“It was our last big adventure and we wanted to make that one really good,” Defries said. “The adult leaders wanted to make sure we got a really good, nice last trip, which we did. It was really fun.”

It also was a trip that demonstrated their ability to take charge in difficult circumstances when, on the last day, one of the adult leaders became ill and went into shock.

“The three of us and all the other Scouts there kind of tried to help him, and we called emergency services because we were three miles into the woods,” Dougherty said. “There was no way we were going to get him out on our own. So we made him comfortable and called and they had an emergency boat brought in … and we used our shirts and tent poles and tarps to flag the ship down and brought emergency services to him … and they eventually airlifted him to Duluth.

“So, I guess just seeing how everyone worked together … I kind of expected that us three would be able to work through it, but seeing the younger Scouts, too, being able to stay calm and help … that was just kind of memorable,” Dougherty added.

Thanks for support

While they grew in independence through Boy Scouts, the trio readily acknowledged that might not have been possible with the support of adults who created the opportunity for learning.

“I'm proud of where we're at,” Defries said. “And I'd like to thank (Scout leaders) Jesse Knutson and Eric Miller for getting us to where we are because without them at the beginning, we would have been lost. Those two have helped us with everything. Whenever we had questions, both of them were super knowledgeable, especially with like them pushing us to get our ranks.

“So I think it's a big thank you to those two and thank you to all the other parents that have helped us along the way,” he added. “Our parents and parents of younger Scouts and any person involved in Boy Scouts that's been at camps and stuff helping us with things like that — we appreciate that support.”


Education
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COVID exposure means Litchfield fifth-graders temporarily move to distance learning (copy)

Surging COVID-19 cases prompted Litchfield Public Schools administrators to initiate a targeted containment strategy last week.

Superintendent Beckie Simenson told Litchfield School Board members during their meeting April 12 that all of the district's fifth-graders would move to distance learning for a 10-day period, April 13-20. The district notified parents of the switch via an email April 13.

"We're going to try this. I know it's very frustrating," Simenson said as she announced the plan that affected only fifth-grade students, and would keep them out of school for five instructional days.

During that time the fifth-graders attended class online. Any siblings of the fifth-graders could attend school in person, as long as no one in the home has COVID-19 symptoms.

Simenson said she knew many — especially the fifth-graders and their parents — might ask why the district would "punish" even students not exposed to the COVID-19 virus. "The answer is to keep them safe," she said, from exposure the district and its COVID incident command team know was circulating in the fifth-grade classrooms at Litchfield Middle School.

Without the targeted quarantining of all fifth-graders, Simenson said, the district would have to consider a modified schedule for the entire middle school, either all students in a hybrid schedule or in distance learning, "and those would be the last possible solutions."

According to a letter from LMS Principal Chelsea Brown, four fifth-grade students had tested positive for the virus. Contact tracing led to the conclusion that 56 students — nearly half of the school's 116 fifth-graders — and two staff members would need to be quarantined due to their exposure to COVID-positive students.

Brown's letter explained that a check with Minnesota Department of Health led to the following guidance:

"Right now, with all the high-attacking variant activity in the state, we are taking a very conservative approach to contact tracing. ...(A)nytime a person might be considered a close contact, we recommend quarantining them. This applies due to length of time in the same room or other situational things that affect contact tracing. Generally speaking, we recommend quarantining the entire class when they spend the whole day together."

While numbers within the fifth grade prompted action, COVID-19 cases have been rising throughout the district and Meeker County. According to Brown's letter:

  • Ripley Elementary School had no positive cases, but eight students were in quarantine, and two staff members were awaiting test results.
  • Litchfield Middle School had five positive cases, 12 students in quarantine, three staff members in quarantine and nine fifth-graders waiting for COVID-19 test results.
  • Litchfield High School had six positive cases and 20 students in quarantine. (In an email later in the week, Simenson reported that the high school had seen three new cases, while Ripley Elementary had two new cases.)

Meeker County's case numbers have been on a steady rise since early February, when case rates were 7.37 for the Feb. 7-20 reporting period. The rate was 34.66 for March 14-27, then rose again, to 40.73 for March 21 to April 3.

As of April 15, the county had 2,303 COVID-19 cases, with 70 new cases reported between April 7-14.

School Board member Greg Mathews asked whether there were any specific causes to the spike in cases in the schools, and Simenson indicated that spring break — which the district observed March 29 to April 2 — was a likely culprit.

"Spring break definitely did make a difference," Simenson said, as many families left Minnesota for a vacation and might have been exposed. But she also pointed to the public's virus fatigue. "People are becoming sick and tired of COVID. The COVID drag is there."

While the number of people being vaccinated against the virus has risen substantially in recent weeks, that also could have played a role in some letting down their guard, Simenson said, adding "we need to continue our due diligence."

Board Chairman Darrin Anderson said it was the goal of the administration and board "to keep our kids in school every day.


Business
During unpredictable 2020, state's farmers saw some financial improvement
  • Updated

Minnesota farms saw improved profitability in 2020, despite the challenges COVID-19 created.

Much of this increased profitability was related to improved commodity prices in the third and fourth quarters of 2020, according to a report released at the end of March by University of Minnesota Extension, but government payments also played a role in many state farmers avoiding another year of low profits.

Median net farm income for Minnesota farms reached $106,969 in 2020. This was a welcome increase after seven years of low profitability, Extension reported. When adjusted for inflation, 2020 farm profits were above average compared to the historical records tracked by University of Minnesota Extension and the Minnesota State Agricultural Centers of Excellence. Overall, the average Minnesota farm saw improved working capital, positive earned net worth change and improved debt coverage in 2020.

“Minnesota farms have faced many struggles in recent years,” said Pauline Van Nurden of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Farm Financial Management. “This past year’s increased profitability has given many a sigh of relief and renewed hope for the future of their farm.”

All farm types experienced positive net farm income last year, something not seen since 2014. For much of the year, the pandemic created considerable uncertainty and many challenges for farms and small businesses alike. Without the commodity price improvements and government payments received, Minnesota farms would have experienced an eighth year of low profits.

“Government support payments played a crucial role for our farms during the initial phases of the pandemic,” said Keith Olander of the Minnesota State Northern Agricultural Center of Excellence. “Federal and state programs benefitted farmers and rural small businesses in their time of need.”

Government payments accounted for 12 percent of gross farm income for the average producer last year. Many of these payments were related to the pandemic and disasters from previous years. Market and supply chain disruptions loomed large in April and May, but most farms were able to endure and continue operations.

This analysis includes 2,225 participants in Minnesota State Farm Business Management programs and 105 members of the Southwest Farm Business Management Association. Participating farmers represent approximately 10 percent of Minnesota’s farms that have gross incomes of more than $250,000 annually.

Crop Farms

The median income for crop farms was $109,774. This improved profitability was the result of strong yields and improved year-end prices for Minnesota’s major crops. Crop yields were above average for corn, soybeans, and sugarbeets.

“After dealing with prevented plant issues over the last few years, the higher corn and soybean yields were much needed for our southern Minnesota farms,” said Garen Paulson, Extension ag business management educator. Crop prices improved by year-end, but cash sale prices received during the 2020 marketing year were mixed. Cash corn price received was six percent below the previous year at $3.40 and soybean price was six percent better at $8.98.

Crop farms did benefit from government program payments as well. “Many of the government program payments received in 2020 were related to disasters in 2018 and 2019. Other payments were related to low crop prices resulting from COVID during the 2020 marketing year,” said Ron Dvergsten, Farm Business Management instructor at Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls. WHIP+ (Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus) provided crop disaster relief related to the 2018 and 2019 production years. The Market Facilitation Program provided payments to producers of commodities impacted by trade-related losses and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Programs offered support for farm operations experiencing market disruptions related to the pandemic.

Dairy

The plight of dairy farms has been in the news over the past several years. Prices started to improve in 2019 and that continued into 2020. The median dairy farm earned $173,460 last year, compared to $64,144 in 2019 and $15,907 in 2018. The average milk price, at $19.73 per hundred pounds, was the highest since record prices in 2014. The challenges of COVID led to many supply chain disruptions for all livestock markets in the early months of the pandemic. Government assistance helped stabilize the situation and support farms in their time of need.

“Minnesota dairy farms were able to play catch-up in 2020. Many farms saw accounts payable build and deferred necessary maintenance when prices were depressed. The profits of 2020 allowed those farms to make repairs and pay old bills,” said Nate Converse, Farm Business Management Instructor at the Staples campus of Central Lakes College. Cash expenses for Minnesota dairy farms increased by 9 percent in 2020, indicating dollars spent on deferred repairs and other outstanding bills.

Pork producers

Pork producer net earnings continued to rebound with the median producer earning $310,042, up from $96,245 in 2019. Wean-to-finish producers made $13 per head. Again, government payments played a significant role in hog farm profitability last year. Without aid related to trade and pandemic challenges, Minnesota pork producers would have seen profits diminish. The spring of 2020 caused once-in-a-lifetime disruptions for many of the state’s hog producers. With processing plants closed because of COVID, many producers were forced to euthanize hogs. The realities of this caused severe mental health challenges in rural Minnesota. Hog farmers endured, making many difficult management decisions along the way.

Beef producers

Beef producers enjoyed a return to positive net farm income in 2020. Median net farm income for beef producers was $42,850, an improvement over the $4,000 of net profits the prior year. Despite COVID-related challenges, cattle finishers showed almost $35 of net return per head. But a subset of beef farmers, beef calf-cow producers, only broke even. Beef prices improved less than other commodity prices in the state and government support was also received by these farms. Many Minnesota beef operations have additional sources of income, mainly from off-farm sources. This group of producers have the highest levels of nonfarm income in the database at $55,525 in 2020.

Prospects for 2021

USDA forecasts net farm income to decrease 8percent in 2021. Much of this decline is expected because of lower government payments to farmers. Case in point, no farm payments were included in the most recent stimulus legislation, the American Rescue Plan. Improved commodity prices are expected to continue in 2021. But operating expenses will likely trend up, related to higher energy and increased input prices. Livestock producers will likely see profits limited by increased feed prices. As spring nears, many farmers are optimistic for a more “normal” year after the uncertainty and challenges of 2020. But many unknowns remain related to the pandemic and our nation’s economic recovery. Hope springs eternal for the Minnesota farmer though, and plans for 2021 production are well underway.


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