Rural North Dakota couple cook up 'farmboy breakfasts' to bring neighbors together
After JoAnn Schatz convinced her husband, Kirby, that their farming neighbors might benefit from sitting down together for special 'farmboy' breakfasts, something wonderful started to happen.
ELGIN, N.D. — It’s the belly laughs that go straight to JoAnn Schatz’s heart.
Whenever Kirby and JoAnn Schatz host their weekly "farmboy breakfasts" at their farm northwest of Elgin, JoAnn sets out the egg bake, the sausage, the fried potatoes and her homemade caramel rolls — then scoots to her office.
After all, that's the whole point to these breakfasts, she explains. Without the distraction of spouses or family members, farmers can sit down and break bread together. In doing so, they hopefully can reach out through the physical distance, cold winters and stoic independence that isolates them.
Suddenly, there is space for them to connect over shared farming challenges and experiences.
From her office, Schatz can hear the rumble of masculine voices as they talk machinery woes, weather and crop prices. And on occasion, when she pops into the kitchen to refresh her cup of coffee, someone in the group will crack a joke that makes the whole group burst into appreciative laughter.
“My heart soars when I hear the belly laughing,” JoAnn says as she sits in their welcoming, open-concept rambler, which is finished with barn wood, repurposed tin siding and other “rustic chic” details. “It’s why I’m doing this.”
In those moments, JoAnn knows they've accomplished something much more important than a simple breakfast between neighbors.
They’ve forged connections which can make the demanding work of farming a little easier.
After all, farming is a tough business. Farmers usually work independently, operating within the confines of their own land and sometimes miles away from the nearest neighbor. They aren’t apt to share their problems or worries — partly because, even though farmers may be friends, they may also be competitors, Kirby says.
Factor in the external issues — unpredictable commodity prices, trade wars, financial worries, extreme weather and elevated risk for physical injury — and it's little wonder why the National Institutes of Health report that farmers experience increased rates of mental illness compared to the general population.
But what if a simple act — just breakfast between neighbors — gave farmers a chance to network, connect and troubleshoot? Wouldn't that make their demanding work seem just a little less overwhelming?
JoAnn suspected it would.
High school sweethearts, lifetime partners
Kirby and JoAnn live on the Schatz spread, which was farmed by Kirby’s parents before them. The first-born son of four kids, Kirby grew up working hard: milking dairy cows, taking care of pigs and beef cattle, working the fields alongside his dad, Kenny, and younger brother, Kerry.
JoAnn was the girl next door, at least by rural standards. The second youngest of nine kids, she grew up on a farm just three miles south of the Schatz place.
While her mom was an excellent cook, JoAnn wasn't mother’s helper growing up. Instead, she was recruited to work in the fields — although her mom got her out of bed Saturday mornings to flex her farm-girl muscles by working the bread dough.
“At the time, I thought it was a punishment but, all in all, it was a gift because you really do learn what the dough should feel like.” says JoAnn, now known for her feather-light caramel rolls.
JoAnn and Kirby rode the school bus together and started dating when she was 16. Over four decades and two grown daughters later, the high school sweethearts are still married.
After high school, Kirby earned a football scholarship to Minot State University. They married during college but had no plans to farm after graduation.
“There was a gentleman who offered to rent him his land if he wanted and, well, a farm boy can’t really refuse that, so that was it,” JoAnn says.
Adds Kirby, with a grin: “To my credit, though, I did do a couple of job interviews. I did put on a suit and tie.”
As they settled into farm life, JoAnn realized how much she loved to entertain family and friends.
All those job aptitude tests she’d taken in school were right. “It always came back that my spiritual gift was hospitality, so it made sense,” she says.
Back then, hospitality was more of a hobby than a job. For much of their marriage, she worked off the farm — most recently in administration at an abrasives manufacturer in nearby Glen Ullin.
Even so, hosting opportunities would crop up. Drawn to southwestern North Dakota’s excellent pheasant hunting, hunters from all over traveled to their area in the fall. They needed access to hunting land, lodging and home-cooked meals, which the Schatzes were happy to provide.
“I cooked my head off,” she recalls. “So then I started saving my bonuses and extra money, because I knew I wanted to have a new kitchen someday.”
JoAnn retired in 2017, which gave her more time to entertain.
By then, she had landed the kitchen/entertainment space of her dreams by working with Ron Rhoden, an experienced designer and former restaurateur living in Glen Ullin.
Rhoden dramatically altered the floor plan. Walls were removed to create an open kitchen plan which worked perfectly with JoAnn’s workflow. A window-filled living room was added to the west side of the original house, creating one open, welcoming space.
Idea hatched by farm wives
JoAnn was ready for business. She called her catering/event business, “The Table LLC," because “all hard things and celebrations happen around the table.”
“I don’t advertise. I figure whatever God brings to me, then I think it’s up to him and I just go forward with it," she says.
Since then, she has hosted events ranging from scrapbooking sessions and yoga retreats to Bible studies.
Another monthly gathering is reserved for farm wives. “Sometimes, we would do spiritual things. Sometimes, we would just get together and hang out and support each other.”
During those get-togethers, the women would comment that a similar fellowship could help their spouses.
JoAnn agreed. “Farmers do not take time for themselves,” she says. “And once that relationship is built, it’s an opportunity to talk about the hard things when they meet on the back 40, right?”
We gather together
While JoAnn loved the idea, her husband needed more convincing.
“It took me two years to talk him into it,” she says. “Because it was new, it’s not a thing. He was worried, ‘What are they going to think?’”
“For me, it’s hard to invite people in,” admits Kirby, who is more likely to listen and observe than grab center stage. “I’m not that open.”
But, at last, he agreed.
The first breakfast was held four years ago, in early January. JoAnn invited neighbors within a 15- to 20-mile radius via group text.
“The idea was, you come in your chore clothes, stay as long as you want, and if you’ve got to pick up and go right away, that’s fine,” JoAnn says. “We just want to get together and chat a little bit.”
Six men showed up the first time, although the number eventually could swell to 12 or more. The Schatzes continued inviting farmers every Thursday, from January through mid-March — when most got too busy with calving season.
There was no agenda. The men talked about machinery and weather, cattle and crops. It wasn't a "spill your guts" support group. Even so, the weekly coffee-and-breakfast sessions seemed to slowly open up communication and trust.
The neighbors sometimes offered to pay the Schatzes for JoAnn’s lumberjack-worthy breakfasts and their hospitality. The couple always refused.
“They say, ‘What do we owe you?’ and we say, 'Absolutely nothing,'” JoAnn says. “If they can connect and be a community, that’s what we want.”
Even so, one of the older gentlemen in the crowd occasionally hides a $20 bill somewhere in the house.
“He said, ‘Well, nobody does this anymore," Kirby says. "They used to, but, as he said, we don’t anymore because it’s gotten so cutthroat.”
'We don't get together to gossip'
By visiting regularly, the farmers have been able to troubleshoot and help out others who have struggled with some aspect of their operations. "We don't get together to gossip," Kirby says. "We get together to help one another."
When a couple of them had trouble getting their local elevators to accept their wheat, Kirby put them in contact with his brother-in-law’s elevator, where they have a color-sorting grain cleaner that could clean out the ergot and other unwanted material from their grain.
The farmers reported back to thank Kirby. By transporting the grain to that elevator, one farmer was able to sell eight semi-loads of grain at a healthy price. Without Kirby's tip, the grain would have been a complete loss. “You saved my bacon,” he told Kirby.
Kirby was happy to help. He's reached a point in his life in which he's satisfied with his operation of 1,400 acres, where he runs beef cattle and raises wheat, corn, canola and soybeans.
“To me, that’s what it’s about,” he says. “I don’t want to compete with anybody.”
JoAnn couldn’t help but notice how her husband, with his calm energy and excellent listening skills, seemed to create a sense of trust among the other farmers.
“Kirby is quiet and peaceful, and he’s a good listener,” she says. “I’ll see when they’re leaving, some of those young farmers will stand out there and kick the dirt till everyone is gone, and then they’ll talk to him."
The support goes both ways. A couple years ago, Kirby had back surgery. That spring, he had strained his back by carrying calves, and he was hurting. “I was walking crooked,” he recalls.
The couple had driven to the place owned by one of their breakfast regulars, also a seed dealer, to load a pallet of corn seed. “I loaded it on the pickup and they saw how I was struggling,” he recalls, his voice shaking at the memory. When they returned home, they were preparing to manually lift the heavy bags so they could dump them into the planter. "They were 50-pound bags," Kirby recalls. "That's hard to do even with a healthy back."
Just then, one of the seed dealers called and offered to lend him their seed tender and show him how to operate it. Seed tenders make it easy to haul bulk quantities of seed directly to the field where conveyors will unload it quickly and effortlessly into a planter’s boxes. "I just had to hold a plastic tube into the hopper while the motor ran," Kirby says, laughing.
“He never had to handle a bag,” JoAnn adds. “And I know it was because of farmboy breakfasts."
Today, both firmly believe the breakfasts have so enhanced neighborhood goodwill that they encourage other rural communities to try it.
As JoAnn points out, people don’t need to be chefs or seasoned hostesses to try it. They just need to open their homes to their neighbors.
“Honestly, you could buy the rolls,” she says. “It’s just the idea of getting people together.”