EDMORE — Ryan Peterson lives on a gravel road bordering Isabella County and Montcalm County, the sort of road that kicks up buckets full of dust when he’s rumbling through in his pickup truck.
The 17-year-old doesn’t mind getting dirty though.
He spends his mornings working at an automobile shop or on the family farm as part of Montabella High School’s community as school program.
His school afternoons are often spent working on his senior project, a homemade biodiesel refinery.
After school, he heads back home to pick rocks out of potato fields or climb on a tractor to work acres of bean, corn and wheat.
“I don’t mind working as long as I get stuff done,” he says. “That’s the reward, seeing stuff get done.”
Ryan is set to graduate from Montabella High School this Sunday. He is graduating sixth in his class. He was named homecoming king last year, but he’s more likely to wear a baseball cap than a crown while he does homework or plows the fields.
No father would be more proud of his son.
The Peterson family — Bill and Ileen and their sons, Nathan and Ryan — had been looking for a family cottage up north. They finally found one they loved. In March 2013, Bill and Ileen headed north to the cottage to clean snow off the roof of their pending purchase while their sons went about their daily classes.
Ryan, then a junior, was at school when he got a phone call from his uncle Bob Peterson saying Bill had a heart attack and Ryan should come home.
“I didn’t know how bad it was,” Ryan said. “I got home and Bob told me he had passed away.
“So that was that,” he summarized plainly. “He was only 52.”
The father and son had always been close, working the fields side by side in the summer, riding snowmobiles side by side in the winter and working in the shop, where they perfected Bill’s side business of welding roll cages and lift kits for Rangers.
“He was fun, he was a joker,” Ryan recalled. “You always try to do good by your parents. He’d never say, ‘Oh, you did a great job.’ He’d say, ‘Oh, that’s not too bad,’ then I knew I did good. When you did hear a compliment you knew it was something special.”
The shock of unexpectedly losing Bill was traumatic for the entire family. Ilene decided to move forward with the purchase of the cottage up north. It was the family’s last memory of Bill.
“It was Bill’s dream,” she said. “It’s hard because you remember how sad you were but it’s also neat because it brings back some of the memories, a lot of good memories.”
Ryan kept going to school every day, but it was a bit of a blur for awhile.
“I’m sure if you asked my teachers they wouldn’t say I dropped off the deep end, but there might have been a noticeable lack of effort, you could say,” he said. “School didn’t seem as important as other things.”
Things like family and the farm.
Lee Peterson started the family farm in 1947 after serving in World War II and returning to his hometown of Edmore, where his father ran the country elevator. When Lee grew older, he passed the 1,200 farmable acres on to his sons, Bill and Bob, after they attended college and learned the ropes. Although Lee is technically retired from the farm, he still cuts his own wood, drives a tractor and dispenses farming advice.
The Peterson brothers had always split farming duties. Bill did the planting and spraying while Bob handled business and harvesting duties. With the sudden loss of Bill that March, spring loomed with uncertainty for the Peterson family.
“That first year, it was tough, just trying to figure everything out,” Ryan said. “It came time to plant and it came down to Bob to do the planning because who else is going to?”
It took time, but Bob gradually began to figure out his brother’s system. The family hired someone to help with spraying that first year, which was provided relief.
Ileen works full-time as a dental hygienist in Alma and Nathan was attending his first year at Ferris State University plus completing an internship, so Ryan did all he could to support his uncle as soon as school was done for the day.
Mick Gifford, a family friend who lives in Blanchard, proved to be a godsend, according to Ryan.
“He stuck around all year from start to finish, getting in the fields in the spring all the way through, every day of the year,” he said. “He’d come by in the morning and say what’s going on today, how can I help? He spread fertilizer, he drove the tractor, he was out there as much as he could be.”
The Peterson family managed to make a success of the farm that first year without Bill, thanks to multiple friends and the farming community in general, according to Ilene.
Harvey’s Milling in Carson City and Raymond’s Farm Equipment in Fremont, where Nathan was interning, both provided invaluable help above and beyond typical customer service with issues such as computer programming the farm’s planter so the spring planting could be done.
“The farming community, I’m finding out, is really a tight-knit community,” Ilene said. “I remember one day people were there in the field all night, they just worked and worked and worked. What got us through was our friends and the farming community. What we didn’t know, they taught us.”
In the meantime, Ryan was still going to school. A fast runner, he joined the track team, but had to drop out after a few weeks to stay on top of farming. His track team picture is still listed in the yearbook, a testament to his school’s support.
Ryan began his senior year last autumn, during which he was crowned homecoming king. Montabella High School Principal Shane Riley, who was announcing homecoming court during halftime of the football game, went a little off script when naming Ryan as king. He quoted some lyrics from “A Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams Jr.
“That was done intentionally for two reasons,” Riley said. “The first reason was that Ryan has never been shy about being proud of his rural heritage and farming background. The second reason was because after losing his father, Ryan demonstrated to all of us around him how to deal with the loss of a loved one and still live life to its fullest. He is an excellent example to his peers and the adults around him and he has shown how a country boy can survive.”
Earlier this year, Ryan was given Montabella’s I Dare You award in honor of his respectful and mature demeanor at school. He is graduating sixth in his class and received a good grade on his senior class project, a biodiesel refinery. Riley says the refinery machine shows an extremely high level of intellectual curiosity, which has driven Ryan through school and will lead him to even greater things down the road.
Ryan obtained vegetable oil for the refinery from Beardslee’s Restaurant in Edmore. The machine refines the vegetable oil into diesel fuel. Ryan keeps the refinery safely housed in his father’s workshop.
“Out of all the different things I like to do, that was one project I stuck with,” said Ryan of the refinery. “I got it done. It wasn’t too complicated. It’s just chemistry.”
Ryan also continues to work on his father’s welding business making roll cage and lift kit inventions for Rangers, some of which he sells to Lakeside Motor Sports and others which he ships as far away as Alaska, Canada and Texas.
“Dad believed in quality,” he said. “Everything he built, he built it heavy and he built it right.”
So far, so good
Ryan is looking forward to graduating from Montabella High School this Sunday. He will be attending Michigan State University this autumn, where he plans to earn a two-year degree in agriculture industries. He will be going to school along with his brother, Nathan, who recently graduated from Ferris State University and plans to earn a degree in agriculture business at MSU.
What will happen to the family farm while the Peterson brothers are away at school?
“That’s an easy question and that’s a tough question,” Ryan said. “That’s the hard part. I really don’t know. We’ll figure it out.”
The Peterson family will likely continue to rent out about 80 acres of the farm to local potato farmers, which will help. Lee says he’s proud of both his grandsons and he hopes the farm will go into their hands as the years pass.
“He’s a very capable individual,” said Lee of Ryan. “He made seemingly the necessary adjustments and all. He’s a very willing worker. He’s really quite talented. I kind of call him ‘old folks,’ he’s seemingly wise beyond his years.
“Hopefully they’ll carry it on,” he said. “It’s a nice place to raise kids. We’re very proud of their grandsons, both of them.”
Ilene believes the farm is in capable hands thanks to her father-in-law, brother-in-law and two sons.
“I think Ryan’s got a lot of his father’s genes,” she said. “Ryan has been a big support for me. He really is mature beyond his years. For a 17-year-old, he’s very responsible. He worries a lot about other people. Instead of us taking care of him, he tends to want to take care of everyone else. I kind of attribute that to growing up on the farm. He does have a strong faith in God too.”
The family continues to work the farm together this spring.
“So far, so good,” Ryan says.
Montabella High School
What: Montabella High School commencement
When: 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Montabella High School elementary gymnasium
Number of Graduates: 47
Top Honors: Valedictorian Sarah Miller and Salutatorian Christian Watson
Class Colors: Navy and white
Class Flower: White rose
Class Song: “Don’t Blink” by Kenny Chesney
Class Motto: “What lies ahead of us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”