South Dakota man, woman are homesteaders for TV

Farm Forum

SIOUX FALLS (AP) — Nothing happens fast on the prairie.

That’s one of the lessons Paul and Heidi Van Veldhuizen learned after spending three months as homesteaders in western South Dakota. If they accomplished one or two or three things in the hours from sunrise to sunset, the Sioux Falls couple says, well, that made it a great day.

They’re back home now with a fresh appreciation for what’s important in life, and they’re not referring to their cell phones.

“It’s definitely changed my perspective on life and where I want to go now,” Paul says. “It changes priorities. You look at families and friends and who’s important to you.”

It was a case of history books coming alive, Heidi says, and it was a lesson for their four children.

“We tell our kids to look up and disconnect, and hopefully we showed them how to do that,” she says.

The Van Veldhuizens are receiving a refresher on those life lessons on Tuesdays, as they watch their adventures unfold on a six-week National Geographic Channel reality show, “The Pioneers.” Joining them on the adventure were three other South Dakota couples.

The show was shot on leased ranch land northwest of Timber Lake during the summer.

A family friend posted information on the search for wannabe pioneers on Facebook, and Paul brought it to Heidi’s attention. She immediately was intrigued because of her family history: Three of her four grandparents were pioneers, settling in the Hand County and Brown County areas. Land owned by the family of her maternal grandmother, the late Lorraine Anderson, has earned Century Farm status.

Heidi grew up hearing her grandparents’ stories. Several years ago, to celebrate the 90th birthday of her paternal grandmother, Doris Haber of Sioux Falls, she packed up her children and the six of them returned to the farm where Haber was raised.

“It was one of the best days I’ve had,” Heidi says. “As we drove along the stories poured out of her. When we got to Ree Heights, the house was still there, surrounded by trees they planted. It was the house her parents built and the well her parents dug.”

Taking on the role of pioneers gave her a chance to live her ancestors’ history, Heidi says. It gave her the opportunity to see whether she could face the challenges they had.

“I think we kind of wanted to know if we were as strong as they were,” she says.

“Do you come from the same background?” 42-year-old Paul says. “Do you have what it takes to do that? That was one of the challenges.”

Another challenge, particularly for him: disengaging from technology.

“That was a change for me, a hard change,” he says. “Once you got into it, you didn’t think about it. You slowed down tremendously. The amount of time it took to do anything — find food, hunt food, build their home — is just outstanding. And we could go back. They couldn’t.”

It wasn’t just the chosen couples learning a different way of life, either. Both Van Veldhuizens praised the crew for their efforts.

“They’re doing it following us with a 50-pound camera,” Heidi says. “The bugs are attacking us, but they’re attacking them, too, and they have to hold still with the camera.”

Nothing was scripted, the Van Veldhuizens say. On the first episode, the tongue of a wagon breaks, and that really happened, causing the men to look at the tools they had brought along and figure out how to make the repair.

“In the end, you’re very proud of what you did,” Paul says. “Going into this experiment, I think I thought, I don’t think I can do that. But you go for it.”

“You were amazing,” Heidi tells her husband.

“So were you,” he responds.

They call the adventure “a journey of faith,” and that holds several meanings. The show allowed them to be open with their religious beliefs, and despite their diverse backgrounds, the four couples built a community of faith during the summer.

The couple, married for 18 years, celebrated Heidi’s 40th birthday on the prairie. He spent much of the day building a hitching post while she and the other women were trying to find food.

What exactly does that mean?

“You’ll have to tune in,” Heidi says. “I don’t want to ruin the surprise for you.”