Pioneering Spirit


I just wish Poland’s government would show the same kind of pluck and imagination as my own Polish ancestors. They understood the importance of adapting to the times, and the possibility that change can be good. They also made an important decision that significantly improved the lives of their many descendants.

My great grandparents, Simon and Mary Wanzek, were 19th-century Poles from lower Silesia, Poland who left their homeland in search of a better life in the United States. In this respect, they weren’t a lot different from millions of other Europeans who did much the same thing.

It couldn’t have been easy for them, to leave the one place in the world that they knew, recognizing that they’d probably never return. Unable to speak English, they must have sensed that building a new home in a strange land would pose plenty of challenges.

In the 1950s, the Harvard historian Oscar Handlin wrote a book called The Uprooted. Its opening line is famous: “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that immigrants were American history.”

The metaphor of “uprootedness” is appropriate. The word “culture” comes from Latin, in reference to cultivation–the word “agriculture” has the same source. A plant that’s uprooted from the ground soon dies. People who are uprooted from their culture run the same risk, and Handlin reports that many immigrants felt alienated in America.

I never met my great grandparents, so I can’t say for sure what they thought of the United States. But I suspect they liked it here. They had a mess of kids, including my grandfather, who was 4th from the youngest.

They also demonstrated the pioneer spirit, not only in coming to the United States but in how they behaved once they got here. After about seventeen years in southern Minnesota, they heard from a priest, Father John Cieszynski, who had moved to the Dakotas. The farming is excellent, he told them. You should come west, too. So they did.

Ever since, the Wanzeks have been in the Dakotas. We’ve had big families, too. Simon and Mary produced 12 children and many of their kids had the same amount. Do the math. Or visit a Wanzek family reunion. At the last one, we determined there are or were about 800 direct descendants of Simon & Mary Wanzek. That’s bigger than a lot of North Dakota towns!

The point is that my immigrant ancestors from Poland were willing to take a big risk. It’s a risk that paid off handsomely.

I’m tempted to say that when the subject is GM potatoes, the Polish government should be willing to take the same kind of risk. Except that GM crops aren’t a risk at all. They’re a proven technology. They’re safely planted all over the world, including in Europe.

When my great grandparents announced their plans to migrate to America, they almost certainly encountered hordes of pessimists. You can almost hear the naysayers issue their warnings: America is too far away, nobody speaks your language, that unseen land across the ocean can’t possibly be as wonderful as the shipping companies claim in their advertisements, and so on.

A lot of people say the same sort of things about GM crops today. But they’re wrong. I’ve planted biotech crops with great success here in North Dakota. They’re safe, they’re dependable, and they’re only going to get better as the Gene Revolution advances.

When you aren’t curious and open-minded about new possibilities, you only limit yourself. I’m grateful that my great grandparents uprooted themselves from Poland and set down fresh roots in American soil. It might be the best decision they ever made. I know about 800 people who probably would agree.

Whether we live in Jamestown, N.D. or Warsaw, Poland, we’d do well to follow the example of Simon and Mary Wanzek.

Terry Wanzek grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his family farm in North Dakota. Mr. Wanzek serves as a North Dakota Senator and board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (


Terry Wanzek

Terry Wanzek

Terry Wanzek is a fourth generation North Dakota farmer. This family partnership raises spring wheat, corn, soybeans, barley, dry edible beans and sunflowers. Terry was elected to serve as a North Dakota State Senator, providing leadership to the agriculture committee and serving as Senate President Pro Tempore.
Terry volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and continues to provide leadership to the National Association of Wheat Growers and the NoDak Mutual Insurance. He has a degree in Business Administration and Accounting from Jamestown College and completed the Texas A & M Executive Program for Agricultural Producers.

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