Sisters carry on family legacy in wake of tragedy

Colleen Kottke
Kaycee (in the combine) and Miranda harvesting corn

LAMBERTON, MN – Lives and plans can change in an instant.

Kaycee Altermatt and her younger sister, Miranda, had just begun carving out career paths when a tragic accident in 2012 claimed the life of their father, forcing them to make a life-changing decision.

Despite the overwhelming grief that the family was experiencing, their grandfather, Mark Altermatt, knew that the family farm was at a critical crossroad. For years now, the girl’s father, Perry Altermatt, had been working with him in running the family’s 1300 acre corn/soybean farm in southwestern Minnesota.

Now Mark’s partner and Kaycee and Miranda’s father was gone. The girls, then 20 and 22, were Perry’s only children. His older brother, Doug, 23, was killed on the farm in a skid loader accident in 1984.

Perry Altermatt

“My first thought was that the girls should take over,” Mark said of that summer day 4 ½ years ago. “I asked them if they wanted to farm and they said sure, we’ll help. I said, that’s not what I’m asking. Will you run the farm?”

Much to Mark’s relief, both women agreed.

“We needed to figure something out as fall was coming,” Miranda said. “We just answered yes right then and there. We didn’t even have to discuss it. If we didn’t take over, who would?”

Taking charge

While Kaycee and Miranda had pitched in around the farm while growing up, the two soon realized their father had big shoes to fill and they had much to learn.

“A lot of people had doubts that they could do it,” Mark said. “I was probably the only guy that didn’t.”

With their grandpa serving as their mentor, and help from friends and their mother Tammy’s relatives, Kaycee and Miranda began the task of learning the ins and outs of the operation. As a large crop operation, two of the most important pieces of equipment are the planter and combine – machinery their father had operated.

Since Miranda had operated the grain cart, off-loading shelled corn as their father navigated the fields, she would continue in that capacity. However, the women felt it was important for both of them to determine where their strengths lay.

“It was a lot of trial and error,” Kaycee said with a laugh. “We both planned to try everything and who was better at it would stick with it.”

The first spring Kaycee tried her hand at planting the corn while Miranda took on the challenge of planting the soybeans.

“She was much better at planting than I was so she’s done it ever since,” Kaycee said. “She had run the grain cart in the past and knew what she was doing out there so I decided I would learn to drive the combine.”

Kaycee Altermatt snuggles with her young daughter Sophie. Kaycee’s plans to earn her CPA degree was put on the back burner when her father died in a tragic boating accident in 1984. With the help of her sister and grandfather, Kaycee is running the family crop farm.

The diminutive Kaycee said guiding the 12-row John Deere combine down the cornfield for the first time was a bit daunting. However, the two have become quite the team, with Kaycee driving the lumbering combine down the field while Miranda pulls up alongside to offload the corn.

During harvest and planting time, the sisters estimate that they put in 13-hour days. As new mothers, the women are grateful for the babysitting services of their mother and grandma who keep an eye on Kaycee’s daughter Sophie and Miranda’s son, Jackson.

Get by with a little help

Becoming proficient at operating large farm equipment was one hurdle that the sisters managed to clear. Choosing the right seed and fertilizer were other challenges that they needed a bit of advice.

“We had no idea what we were doing that first year. Our seed salesman was a big help. He explained to us what to look at, including our soil type and placing the seed accordingly,” Kaycee said. “Neither of us had a background in agronomy so this was especially helpful.”

Since their father’s death, the sisters say the community has been generous in reaching out to them, offering a helping hand or some welcome advice.

“They’re all very willing to help and answer question,” Kaycee said. “There hasn’t been anyone that we’ve meet over the past four years that isn’t willing to help us any way that they can by explaining stuff to us so that we understand. It’s taught us a lot.”

“Not being afraid to ask questions has really taken us a long way,” Miranda added.

Miranda’s husband, Jereme Loose, has also been a godsend.

Miranda Loose is grateful that her mother and grandmother are able to care for her son, Jackson, while she puts in long hours during planting and harvest time on the family farm.

“He’s a good mechanic and if anything breaks down he’s over here to fix it and get us back up and running again,” said Miranda who lives 5 miles from the home farm.

Kaycee’s education has also proved to be invaluable. She had just finished up her bachelor’s degree the winter before the accident and had planned to return to school to become a CPA.

“I do all of the farm’s bookwork with a little help from my grandmother (Barb),” Kaycee said. “She also helps us watch the markets. We store quite a bit of grain on the farm. We also sit down and discuss as a team when it’s time to sell.”

Into the future

The night his son Perry died, Mark feared that the farm would pass from the family too.

Mark’s father had purchased the 160 acre farm in 1954, and over the years since purchasing it from his father in 1960, Mark and Barb have expanded that small farm into a 1300 acre operation – one that he expected to pass on to his sons.

“Keeping the farm in the family is very important to me. You work hard for years and you hope that it will continue for future generations,” Mark said. “It was hard to imagine renting it out or selling it had the girls said no. I have a lot of faith in them and their father would be so proud of them.”

With Kaycee and Miranda carrying the fourth generation’s banner, they hope that their own children will continue the family’s legacy into the fifth generation.

“Some people doubted that we could do this, but anyone can do it if you stick with it,” Miranda said.

Kaycee agrees.

“The best feeling is that we we’re keeping the farm going,” Kaycee said. “Our goal is to stay up to date with the new technology that’s coming out and keep the farm moving forward into the future.”