MINNEAPOLIS -- Miranda and Kaycee Altermatt were just 20 and 22 when their grandfather asked them a question that would alter the course of their lives.
Days earlier their father had been killed in a boating accident, leaving a 1,300-acre family farm in crisis.
“Do you want to farm?” Mark Altermatt asked his granddaughters.
“We’re going to help,” they answered.
“That ain't what I'm asking you,” Mark pressed. “I know you'll help us take the crop out, but I want to know if you want to farm.”
This fall, Kaycee and Miranda completed their fifth harvest, further proving to their neighbors and relatives the sisters are in farming for the long haul.
“I wasn't sure if they were up to it, but I am now,” says Scott Haas, their uncle who drives out from the Twin Cities to lend a hand during harvest.
Perry Altermatt didn’t shelter his daughters from the rigors of farming, but neither Kaycee nor Miranda had planted corn or driven a combine at the time their father passed.
Now 5’2” Kaycee maneuvers a massive John Deere harvester through 12 rows of corn at a time. She looks to her left as her younger sister Miranda pulls up in a tractor pulling a grain cart to offload the shelled corn.
“Terrifying,” is the word Kaycee uses to describe her first time driving the combine.
Yet Miranda, also looking back, sums up the feelings of both siblings. “If we didn't take it over then who would?"
Kaycee and Miranda were Perry’s only children. His only brother, Doug, was killed in a skid loader accident on the farm in the 1980s.
“We lost both boys,” says Barb Altermatt, mother to Doug and Perry, tears welling in her eyes.
Barb and Mark spent more than 50 years building the farm Mark had taken over from his own father.
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“I knew that Mark probably wouldn't have lived himself if he would have had to say, we're going to sell and rent it all out,” Barb says.
“Tradition,” Mark says, "when you build something, you want it to continue to be built.”
That family tradition nearly came to an end on a dark summer night in July of 2012 when a boat being driven by Perry slammed into a bridge on Lake Shetek.
Miranda and her mother, Tammy, the only two other people aboard, both survived the crash.
“You got to go on,” says Tammy, wiping away a tear.
With help from their grandpa, friends and relatives, Kaycee and Miranda have done exactly that.
“They’re learning fast,” Mark proudly says from the seat of his pickup, as the 79-year-old grandpa keeps a watchful eye on the harvest.
In the years since their father’s death, both sisters were married on the farm. Both are now mothers too, Kaycee to 16-month-old Sophie and Miranda to seven-month-old Jackson.
Their grandmothers help with childcare when Miranda and Casey are busy in the fields.
“I’m sure we’re stronger than we ever thought we could be and do more than we ever thought we could,” says Kaycee, who had just completed her bachelor's degree, when fate interrupted her plans to become a CPA.
Miranda had been pursing an associate degree in agriculture business, but like her sister, turned her attention to her family and the farm.
After Perry's death other farmers began speculating that the Altermatt farm would soon be up for sale or rent.
Without Kaycee and Miranda "it would have been the end," says their grandpa. "I would say I’m very proud."
When darkness fell on a third generation farm, the women of the fourth lit the way.