Riverkeepers: Sister Kay and Annette Fernholz

Sisters Kay (left) and Annette Fernholz
Photo courtesy of Fernholz sisters.

“When you look at the bloodstream of the earth – it’s the water, the rivers. And that measures the health of our earth.”
– Kay Fernholz

Growing up in western Minnesota, Sisters Kay and Annette Fernholz loved the creek that ran through their family farm, its banks lined with trees.

“It was like a creek for all seasons,” Sister Kay recalls. “In the winter time we could take our sleds out there and sail down those banks that held the creek. It was a space for recreation, for re-creating ourselves.”

More than a half-century later, the Fernholz sisters’ love of Minnesota’s land and water won them the title of RiverKeepers, an annual award given by Clean Up the River Environment (CURE).

CURE cited the sisters’ long-term commitment, saying that, “they have truly been farmers that have grown clean water in addition to bountiful food and deep connections.” That fits right in with this year’s RiverKeepers theme of “Growing Clean Water: Connecting Agriculture and Stewardship.”

The sisters’ lives have come full circle, bringing both back to the family and eleven acres of the 240-acre farm near Madison, Minnesota, where they grew up. Their acreage is small, but their mission is big: to connect and educate people, both farmers and non-farmers, to the needs of the land and waters of Minnesota.

Farmstead transitions

The sisters left the farm to go to the School Sisters of Notre Dame Academy in Mankato after eighth grade — first Kay, and then Annette the next year. Both joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame order, teaching in elementary schools and then working in rural parishes for years. Sister Kay became a pastoral worker in New Ulm Diocese, and Sister Annette worked with Native American parishes in Minnesota and Oklahoma, and with the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, an advocate for small family farms.

As they worked in rural communities, Sister Annette says, they saw “farming communities breaking down and populations leaving farms.” Those changes came to the community where Gertie and Armond Fernholz had raised their nine children.

When they were young, Sister Annette says, their cattle would graze on the ditch banks next to the little creek. “The creek had trees on both sides of the stream and a little hill on each side, “she says. “I don’t think it was a natural tributary, but to us, it was a very beautiful space. … It was the only body of water that flowed through this farm. It flowed through to the Minnesota River.”

As smaller farms were swallowed up in bigger operations, waterways suffered. The stream they knew as a beautiful creek was only part of a drainage system, and bigger farmers dredged the drainage ditches, dynamited and bulldozed the trees.

Now the water runs deep and fast and dirty, draining rain and run-off from fields – and then dries up. “It’s a cesspool” of chemical run-off and fertilizers, Sister Annette says. Soil and chemical run-off affect not only the Fernholz creek, but also most Minnesota lakes and streams.

“When my dad saw them doing that, it just about broke his heart,” Sister Kay says. “Blasting out those beautiful trees – they had become part of us. My dad pleaded with the people who were doing that, [and] they finally saved two cottonwoods.”

Commitment to stewardship

In 1996, the sisters returned to the farm to take care of their parents. That was the beginning of their Earthrise Farm, which takes its name from an astronaut’s report on the first moon landing: “We have seen the splendor of Earth rise above the horizon of the moon.”

Today they have a community gathering place in a century-old schoolhouse and a yurt for farm-stay visitors, as well as organic gardens and chickens and greenhouses.

Brothers Carmen, Chuck and Tom Fernholz farm the 240 acres as an organic farm, “an oasis in the midst of conventional operators,” Sister Annette says. The sisters speak warmly of their brothers’ commitment to stewardship of land and water.

In their own work, the sisters emphasize a “radical hospitality” that brings together people from the immediate community and from around the world. They cite the example of a young woman from Beijing who interned on Earthrise Farm in 2008, and she returned to start China’s first community-supported agriculture farms.

In naming Sisters Kay and Annette RiverKeepers, CURE said that “The Fernholz sisters are a perfect fit” for the organization’s theme of “Growing Clean Water: Connecting Agriculture and Stewardship.”

Sisters Kay and Annette agree that land and water are integrally connected. One example, they say, is the need for buffer strips along the banks of waterways to protect from agrochemical and soil run-off.

The RiverKeepers award is engraved with a verse from the biblical book of Amos: Let justice roll down like a river, integrity like a never failing stream. Trying to live out that verse, the Sister-sisters’ spirituality informs their understanding of radical hospitality, connections between people, and stewardship of the farm and river environment.

“I look at the rivers and the earth itself as a living body,” Sister Kay says. “One of the first things when you go to a doctor, the doctor says, let’s get some blood tests. … It’s similar to that when you look at the bloodstream of the earth – it’s the water, the rivers. And that measures the health of our earth.”

FFI: www.cureriver.org/