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Nicholas, 10, (above, left), Ann, Nathan, 13, and Jon Finifrock pose in front of the sheep pasture on their farm near Barnum. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com

Our Neighbors...Finifrocks and flock love life on the farm

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Anyone who attended the 1998 wedding of Ann and Jon Finifrock won't be surprised to hear that their family was selected as Carlton County's 2013 Farm Family of the Year.

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After all, they were pulled away from the wedding ceremony by a John Deere tractor.

The 'farm-tale' romance started at a livestock show in Brainerd. Jon was helping his niece, who was showing some of his sheep. Ann was the summer assistant for the Carlton County 4-H program.

"He was wearing black jeans, a plaid snap-up western shirt and cowboy boots," said Ann, teasing her husband.

Perhaps it was destiny.

Both Ann and Jon grew up on Minnesota farms: Ann in Aitkin with her parents Carroll and Joy Janzen; Jon outside of Barnum with his folks, Willis and Kay Finifrock, who owned the farm before him and still live next door along with their combined herd of beef cattle.

Jon and Ann's oldest son, Nathan, was born during fair week and made his first appearance in the sheep barn when he was four days old. Both he and his younger brother, Nicholas, craft/design/grow or bake numerous 4-H projects every year, plus they show their own sheep in all five categories, alongside their dad, who has been showing sheep at the Carlton County Fair for more than 40 years now.

Being Farm Family of the Year is about more than breeding, however, or who has the most successful farm. Those items may be taken into consideration, but less material things matter too, like how you give back to the community or what kind of neighbor that family is.

Extension Educator Troy Salzer said the Finifrocks were "wonderful people, very kind and willing to help out other folks."

"The Finifrock family ... is known for their involvement with the county fair and 4-H and for their efforts and willingness to help out other folks -- in the agricultural community or otherwise. They are significant contributors to the local ag community. Personally, I've known 15 or 20 people that have gotten involved in the sheep industry predominantly due to Jon's efforts."

The Finifrocks were surprised when they got the call from Salzer.

"He [Jon] tried to decline and Troy said no," Ann said. "You don't feel worthy really. So many people do so much. And we look around and wish some things were different on the farm or with our situation.

"But we're very proud to have our boys grow up on a farm."

Challenges

Wooly white and black Suffolk sheep graze in the field outside the kitchen window of the Finifrock farm on County Road 6; huge round hay bales sit in a field further away. Inside there's raspberry pie to be eaten and numerous 4-H projects in various stages of completion sit on the table and the kitchen island.

Fair week is here. The next day the 4-H projects will be entered at the fairgrounds some six miles away. The following day it will be time to take the sheep there. On Thursday, the fair will officially begin and the Finifrocks will divide their days between the fair and the farm.

While there are smiles and laughter around that kitchen table today, there has also been heartache.

Once again, Jon is the superintendent of the sheep barn, something he's done for 20 years now. Some of the sheep he checks in will be his own.

Both he and Nathan will show this year.

Nicholas, however, will not. He is still recovering from surgery on his back two weeks ago, when doctors placed metal rods in his back to help stop the curvature of his spine that is the result of scoliosis. Nicholas also suffers from cerebral palsy, and is quadriplegic.

Neither Nicholas, his parents nor his brother let the fact that Nicholas can't talk or get around on his own get in the way of life on the farm. They work with him on 4-H projects. Nicholas uses a dynavox communication device his mom calls an "eye gaze" to communicate with the judges when they interview him about his projects. (They program in different responses that are represented by symbols and Nicholas has to focus his eyes on a particular symbol for a couple seconds and the device will play the programmed response.)

Last year Nicholas even won a blue champion ribbon for one of his sheep, when both he and the sheep were wearing matching wool vests made by Grandma Janzen.

His remarkable involvement is probably helped by the fact that his mother is a special education teacher at Barnum High School, although the whole family seems to greet obstacles with an optimistic, can-do attitude.

"You won't be able to see his involvement [this year] because two weeks ago today was his surgery. So Nathan will be showing with Daddy," Ann said, explaining why Nicholas won't be showing any sheep this year.

Nathan suddenly speaks up.

"Not with Daddy, against Daddy," he said, instantly lifting the mood.

Both his parents crack up. At the same time, Nicholas flashes his trademark smile, a beautiful wide grin that lights up his whole face.

"He's not going to show with Daddy; he's going to show against Daddy," Jon said, with a chuckle. "Just a little competitiveness in the family."

Nicholas also chimes in as the interview progresses, getting his message across in single syllables, which Ann usually interprets.

"I" -- as in "me too" -- is his most frequent contribution.

Raising a child with cerebral palsy wasn't the first challenge that Jon and Ann have faced.

In March 1995, the sheep barn burned down, and Jon's flock went with it. It was the middle of lambing season and he'd left to go to his parent's home next door to feed the cattle. When he came back home, flames were shooting out of the barn, the fire likely the result of a goat pulling a heating element down into the hay.

"It was pretty gruesome," Jon said, the conversation taking a more somber tone.

It would be years before he could grow his flock to the same size and quality.

Then, five years later, Jon hurt his back when he was at work at the USG plant in Cloquet.

Three back surgeries later and with three discs fused in his spine, Jon is unable to work outside the home and walks with a cane. Farming itself is a challenge, but one he tackles with grace and patience, because he is frequently forced to wait for help to tackle bigger jobs he could once do easily.

"Farming was always my part-time job, but it's become my life," Jon said. "Nathan's my big helper; he's my right-hand man."

Farm kids

Nathan, too, wants to be a farmer when he grows up. Ann says he will compile lists of what kind of animals he will raise. At one time, he had selected where on the farm he wanted build his own home and a spot where Nicholas would live too, right beside his big brother.

Nathan seems to show a maturity beyond that of most 13-year-olds when he's talking about the farm or working on a 4-H project. He's involved in almost every aspect of the farm. Ann says even when he was 5 and too young to help out, he would tell the neighbors or hired help what to do and how to do it.

Now, when he gets home from school, Nathan does homework with his dad and then the two of them head out to do chores. On weekends, they tackle Jon's to-do list of bigger projects.

"I rely a lot on Nathan to help me," Jon said. "Where a lot of farms will have a hired hand, I have Nathan. There are not a lot of farms where kids are that involved."

Although he struggles with pain and other issues related to his injury, Jon is grateful he has the farm.

"I don't know how guys work the same job for 40 years," he said, talking about how each season changes with farming, how each day can bring a different surprise. "Farming is one thing -- working is another."

Still, it's not all about farm work for the father and son team.

Sometimes Nathan and his dad will spend some time hitting golf balls out into the sheep pasture, or throwing the baseball back and forth. This year they headed off to baseball practice together several days a week, as Jon was an assistant coach on his son's team. (Nathan plays Little League Majors and Nicholas plays in the Miracle League.)

Other times, like farm kids do, they shoot pigeons, or rabbits.

Nathan started laughing when his mom mentioned the rabbits.

"Remember the time when I brought in Lucky?" he asked his mom.

The story unfolds. Nathan and Jon decided to go hunt for the rabbits that were eating the rhubarb patch. They found one and shot it, but when they were dressing it (to eat), they discovered it was pregnant. Lucky was the only baby to survive, so Nathan brought it in and they fed it some of Nicholas' special milk and kept some of the mama rabbit's fur for the baby to snuggle in.

"Only on a farm could you have these kinds of stories," Ann said.

Here's the kicker. Nathan turned the whole experience into a 4-H project.

"He's doing a project on how to aim at a rabbit's head now," said Ann. "He did a poster on how to shoot a rabbit. Everything becomes a lesson."

She talks about how Nathan got his first knife.

"Instead of saying 'no' all the time, his dad is explaining how to use it [the knife]," she said.

If Nathan could have his way, all his lessons would be on the farm. School is OK -- his grades aren't bad -- but it's the farm that really lights his fire. He learns math by figuring out weights and daily gains or how many units are needed for a shot. He knows the sheep by name and/or number. He often reinvests his money in breeding stock.

He knows that Woolite will get your sheep (and your sweaters) really clean, but it's expensive. Ivory soap is a good and cheaper alternative.

Before they go outside for a family photo, Ann puts her face up close to Nicholas' face.

"Who loves you?" she asked.

"Daddy," he said first. "Ann," he said second.

She chides him, laughing, but telling him it's "Mama," not "Ann."

Despite his disability, Nicholas is learning many of the same lessons as his brother.

"The kids learn a work ethic, life lessons," Ann said. "They learn about life and death and heartaches and good times. There's no birds and bees here. In this house, it's all rams and ewes."

Life is about give and take, about finding the right balance, she explained. Jon agreed. There are projects that didn't get done this spring because he was coaching. There will always be projects waiting, or pregnant sheep that need to be tended, or hay that needs to be cut.

"It's not just a job, it's a way of life," Jon said. "It's a different mentality off the farm. Families don't have as much togetherness. You rely on each other on a farm; you learn to lean on each other."

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