A thin dusting of snow clings stubbornly under a row of pine trees near Onamia in central Minnesota on April 21. On a sunny but unusually cold afternoon, two brothers shovel dirt side by side on land their family has owned for over 100 years. Thus begins an annual springtime ritual – now five decades old – of planting young pines in the grassy field, alongside the older trees they have planted in previous years.
At the northern end of their property is the farm where one of them was born. About 100 yards east of where they work is a homemade cross that rises about 40 feet into the sky, overlooking what has become an impressive pine farmhouse.
For more than 60 years, the brothers watched crops like corn and hay grow and go to harvest, and they also watched — and helped — the raising of chickens and cattle. Some of the fruits of that labor ended up traveling many miles down the road of a religious order – deliveries of up to 200 eggs twice a week for more than a decade.
Joe Kawalek, 70, of All Saints in Lakeville, is the fourth of 10 children and the eldest son of Charles and Marie Kawalek, who bought the farm from a relative in the 1940s and worked the land until 1995, when they started renting to other local farmers. Joe eventually purchased 80 of his parents’ 120 acres and began planting trees with his brother, Mike, 66, in 2009. Mike, who is owned by St. Thomas Becket in Eagan, owns 50 acres of the farm.
In recent years, as Joe watched the pines on the farm grow to heights of 30 to 40 feet, he wanted to place something on the property that would express his Catholic faith and be visible to people visiting the property and to those walking past. . the highway marking the northern border of their territory.
An idea came to him in 2020. It was leftover lumber from a fence building project – two 4-by-4 white oak boards stored in Joe’s garage. He thought he could use the wood to make a cross. Then came another idea: to raise the cross high enough to remain visible above the tops of the many pines on the farm.
A nephew happened to have a wooden power line pole that Joe thought would be perfect for attaching the cross and raising it above the trees. This same nephew also had the means to transport the pole ashore. So Joe, Mike, their nephew, their sister, and another nephew formed an installation team that erected what Joe hopes will be a permanent symbol of his Catholic faith.
There’s an interesting twist to the story: the wood used for the cross – the two boards (16ft and 6½ft) in Joe’s garage – had been cut from a felled oak tree on Kawalek’s farm in the 1970s. A man from Lakeville — Joe’s former colleague — wanted to build a wooden plank fence for his horses and bought some wood from the Kawaleks. In 1985, Joe and his wife, Eileen, bought the same house and noticed the scraps of boards in their garage. They sat there until 2020, when Joe started thinking about what to do with it.
This year marked the 100and birthday of his mother, who died in 1998 and who had spent most of her life at the Onamia farm, having moved there with her parents when she was 5 years old. Joe wanted to commemorate this centenary and also decided “it’s time to do something” with the wooden planks.
After the 40-foot cross was installed, Joe formed a daily ritual of walking to the cross at sunrise each time he spent the night on land. He visits throughout spring, summer, and fall, especially during tree planting time.
“I guess it’s simple,” he said of his desire to erect the cross. “That’s what you should do.”
It also blends in with the surroundings, which feature a mix of pine, hardwood, natural grass, and cropland, as well as wildlife like white-tailed deer that roam the acreage. Joe started planting trees to help wildlife, especially deer, thrive.
“It’s peaceful,” he said, of spending time on the farm, and he considers being there a spiritual experience — one he’s happy to share with others. Each year, he and Mike choose a day or two in the spring to invite other family members to come and help with the tree planting. To his delight, the crew sometimes spans three generations.
They will be planting with an old model tractor that Mike found and bought about 10 years ago. They also do a part of it the old fashioned way, with shovels and elbow grease. The survival rate of their planted trees is around 60% and evidence of their success abounds on the property. They plant about 1,000 to 2,000 trees each year, including white pine, red pine, white cedar, red cedar, black spruce, white spruce, and balsam. This year, they are planting 1,000 red pines, plus 500 chokecherries and 500 mulberry trees. The original planting was 1,000 red pines in 1977 and 1,000 red pines and 1,000 white pines in 1978.
“All by hand,” Joe said of those first two years. “It took days to plant” all of them.
The crown jewel of the property is a 50-foot white pine that the family transplanted from part of the farm to a location near the farm in 1925. They used a sled to haul the tree, then still under 7 feet, across the property. at a location near the highway, where it is still seen and admired today.
Most pines don’t last that long, Joe said, because harvesting is necessary to ensure the trees regenerate. About a third are harvested at about 40 years old, another third go down 30 to 50 years after that, and the last third are removed at about 150 years old, Joe said. A year ago, he hired a logger to harvest a third of the original trees from 1977 and 1978, which he estimated at between 200 and 300 trees. He said there were at least 500 left and they were between 30 and 40 feet tall. The logger brings the trees to a local sawmill, where they are processed into lumber.
As he looks to the future, Joe will continue to run the pine farm, which he simply calls “taking care of what has been given to us.” He hopes to add a pew and wildflowers near the cross and plans to invite a local priest to come and celebrate mass in front.
The way he applies his faith to the task of planting and growing pine trees is more lived than spoken. He summarizes it thus: “The world belongs to God, and we must take care of it.
Category: Local News