Minnesota Soybean Business

‘A learning experience’: Minnesota farmers welcome international students

When teenagers who grew up in other countries imagine living in the United States, they most likely picture an urban area like New York City or perhaps a California beach town. They probably don’t consider rural Minnesota.

But international exchange students who spend their time in small town Minnesota are privy to a unique experience, especially when it involves the farm.

“I tell my students that their exchange year is going to be what they make of it,” said Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC) Director Patrick O’Leary. “I don’t want them to worry about living in a small town. It’s a learning experience and what they choose to take home from it is what it will be. If they want it to be great, it’ll be great.”

O’Leary, who farms near Benson, has hosted 23 international exchange students across nearly two decades, even hosting two students at once a handful of times. 

“It all started with me asking a simple question, with no real intent behind it,” O’Leary said. “My parents hosted a couple of students through 4-H on a short-term basis and then they hosted a student for a full year. I happened to ask someone who worked with the exchange program if single people could host, just out of curiosity, and about three weeks later I got a phone call from her saying she had the perfect student for me.”

Council Director Patrick O’Leary (right) hosts international students while managing his farming operation in Swift County and often stays in touch with past students by visiting their home soil.

For Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA) Vice President Darin Johnson, hosting exchange students gave him an even deeper appreciation for “normal” sights that may not be so ordinary to others.

“I’ll never forget when we brought her home from the airport,” said Johnson, who’s raised three children with his wife, Rachel. “By the time we got home, it was dark out and as we started driving through the rural areas, the first thing she said to us was, ‘I’ve never seen stars before.’ It blew my mind. We take so many things for granted.”

The Johnson family has hosted two international exchange students. The first hailed from Hong Kong and the second was Lebanese. Their first student, Wynn, fully embraced life on the farm.

“She wanted to try everything,” Johnson said. “She was never afraid to lend a hand. My son likes to square bale ditches, so she got to hop on the bale rack and help stack bales. At one point we stopped and she’s like, ‘You teach me to drive tractor.’”

‘Shock’ and awe

Even for students who have been exposed to agriculture in their home countries, Minnesota farms are an entirely different ball game. Sam Ziegler, farmer and GreenSeam director, and his family hosted Arnau, an international exchange student from Catalonia who grew up around his uncle’s orchard farm. 

“They don’t even have a perception of Minnesota agriculture because they’re so far removed from it,” said Ziegler, whose father, Earl, is a longtime MSGA director. “Their farms are just so vastly different. So, I think it was a complete shock for him.” 

During his year studying in Minnesota, Arnau (second to left) saw a world of difference between his uncle’s orchard farm in Catalonia and GreenSeam Director Sam Ziegler’s family operation near Good Thunder. 

Minnesota’s wide-open spaces were another factor that caught Arnau off guard. 

“The space and the scope and the size was very foreign to him,” Ziegler said. “In Catalonia, he walked to school, to his friends’ houses, everywhere. So, when he got to the farm, where we are miles from town, it was a big change for him.” 

Despite the unfamiliarity, Arnau was quickly enraptured by the farm. 

“He jumped right in with the family, learning how to drive different machinery,” Ziegler said. “He’s actually studying mechanical engineering, so he absolutely loved all of the equipment around the farm.” 

Like O’Leary, the start of Neal and Joni Anderson’s hosting experience started somewhat unexpectedly. 

“Our son played soccer with an exchange student, so we knew him pretty well,” said Neal Anderson, who farms near Norseland in Nicollet County. “The school guidance counselor called us and asked if he could spend time with us over the winter break and eventually that segued into him moving in with us.” 

After hosting three students, the Anderson family noticed that the quiet of the farm roared loudly in their students’ ears. 

“They were a little bit afraid because it was so quiet on the farm,” Joni Anderson said. “They weren’t used to that. They were used to the noise of the big city, like cars going by on the street and honking horns – there’s so much action going on. On the farm, all you can hear are the crickets.” 

Fond farm farewells 

Bidding farewell to students who’ve grown close to their hosts can prove difficult for some families. 

“The hardest thing about hosting is that I have to say goodbye to these kids,” O’Leary said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of year I’ve had, saying goodbye to these kids is unbelievably difficult for me. It has to do with the fact that I don’t know when I’m going to see them again.” 

But for some host families, goodbye isn’t forever. 

“I’ve visited about three-fourths of the students I’ve hosted,” O’Leary said. “Every time that I go and do that, the appreciation that their family shows for me and what I’ve done for their sons is incredible. The relationships that I’ve built with some of these students – some of which have spanned 18 years – is why I keep hosting.” 

In summer 2023, the Ziegler family spent nearly two weeks in Catalonia visiting Arnau and his family – even spending time at his uncle’s orchard. 

“His parents took the entire 12 days off from work so that they could be with us,” Ziegler said. “We got up bright and early every morning and weren’t eating supper until about midnight. We fit as much into the trip as we could. We were so grateful for the experience and the friendships we got to build.” 

Minnesota and the Johnson family made quite the impact on Wynn, who has come back to visit Wells five times since her time as an exchange student. 

“She usually visits us every other summer,” Johnson said. “It’s funny because her favorite food she discovered here was shake and bake chicken, so that’s the one thing that whenever she comes back, we have to have.” 

Though international exchange students may not expect to get placed in rural Minnesota, it’s clear that the impact that those small communities and farm families have last a lifetime. 


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