Widow, ex-wife move in together to keep a horse farm aliveby Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio,
Paul Tosto, Minnesota Public Radio
Randall, Minn. — Kim Otterson always loved the 140 acres of rolling fields and trees in Morrison County, from the day she walked it as a newlywed to the day she gave it up in divorce.
Though she moved to Oklahoma after her 12-year marriage amicably ended in 2004, Otterson longed to return to central Minnesota to look for land of her own.
Now she's back in Randall for a few months, to ride out the recession with Jess Benson, her ex-husband's widow.
The two farm women have come up with an unusual arrangement to make it through personal tragedy, and a tough time in the horse industry.
Glenn Benson, a horse breeder, died from heart failure last May at 58. He left his wife, 36, with a farm to run. She was unprepared and overwhelmed.
"I was not a farm kid at all," Jess Benson said. "One of my challenges is learning the farm without him here, all the stuff he did, knew, trying to figure out how not to run out of hay."
Benson struggled to keep the farm going and work her 40-hour-a-week customer service job she telecommutes to in the Twin Cities.
A mutual friend suggested the two women help each other for a while. That would allow Otterson to take her time finding the right farm and avoid burning through her down payment. Benson would get an experienced farm hand who knew the farm better than anybody.
The two women had met once through friends in the horse business. At the time, Otterson was married to Glenn, but they were nearing the end. Benson married him in 2006.
When Otterson talks about her ex-husband and their life together, she's gentle.
"I loved Glenn," she said. "When we got married, you'd see the little old farmer couples going down the road, I thought someday that's going to be us. It didn't work out that way."
After the divorce, she and her ex-husband remained friends.
So for Benson, the idea of her husband's ex-wife moving in to help her run the farm wasn't that strange:
"In a way to me she was kind of family, like a cousin that I don't know real well or something," she said.
Otterson moved in after Thanksgiving and the women forged an easy partnership. They take turns putting wood in the stove and caring for an old horse. When Benson has to work in the cities, Kim does her chores.
"If something needs to be done and I know Jess doesn't have time and I do, then there's no reason not to do it," Otterson said. "We each buy our own groceries, and cook our own meals."
Otterson admits at first it was tough to move back to the only farm she'd ever owned. Her connection to the land brings out her emotions.
"There was never a time I didn't come past that hill and look out over those fields and think 'Wow, what a neat place,' " she said.
Both women are proud of the farm, which has a corn field, a hill of trees and pasture. It lies between two parcels of state land, which should keep development at bay.
Benson, who spent most of her savings after her husband's death, wants to hold the farm together and not sell off any chunks. She doesn't want to sell all of the farm's 30 horses but has to part with most of them. For her, the drop in horse prices couldn't have come at a worse time.
A stallion named Jackson demonstrates just how much values have crashed. In about 2002, Otterson and her ex-husband obtained a bank loan and paid $40,000 for the well-pedigreed stallion. Though the horse has paid for himself through stud fees over the years, he's now a liability.
Now Benson hopes she can get six grand for him. Of course, he's older now and has a little arthritis. With mail-order horse semen available from Texas, she worries that no one needs Jackson.
Otterson remembers better days for the horse business, when at a horse sale in Verndale, even mares with generic pedigrees would sell for $5,000 each.
"I can remember sitting there with Glenn saying 'we need to go home and load everybody in the trailer and bring them up and get rid of them because this is ridiculous,' " she said. "But we didn't do that of course. But at that time, people thought, I think, that it looked like easy money."
Just as in real estate, speculators drove prices too high -- and the bubble burst. Now there's a glut of horses that can be expensive to maintain, Otterson said. The horses here eat 600 pounds of hay a day.
She hopes Benson can make it. She wants the farm to stay in the hands of someone who loves it as much as she does.
The farm's good neighbors should help.
"One of the really great things about this area is the people," Otterson said. "I think maybe in some parts of the country as farms have gotten bigger, farmers have gotten more isolated, but here it's still like it's always been, where if the neighbor needs help, you go help the neighbor.
"She's got some really great neighbors here and part of the learning process is figuring out who to call."
As Otterson wants to buy her own farm this summer, the arrangement with Benson is temporary. The economy and Glenn's death just happened to bring them together for a time.
But she said their unusual arrangement has helped them both.
"Not everybody's going to think it's OK," Otterson said. "That's fine. But I think if people approach things with an open mind and an open heart, they tend to work. "
For a while, at least, they'll keep working the farm together. That could help Benson get a better handle on things.
"I know I still have a long ways to go," she said. "I'm not in a hurry for her to leave!"
Sasha Aslanian is a metro reporter for MPR News.