Combines and Violins: How Moriah Gross Uses Music to Connect South Dakotans With Agriculture

Music and agriculture are two of Moriah Gross’s great loves. Six years ago, her passions intertwined when she founded Pierre’s first youth orchestra and invited students and their families to her farm for a sunflower-themed photoshoot.

“What makes our orchestra truly unique is that we live in God’s country, and our county [Sully County] is the top sunflower producer in the U.S.,” said Moriah. “It made sense to combine the two in celebration of the beauty that surrounds us in the fields.”

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Since then, it’s become an annual tradition. She decides on a marketing theme for the year, invites her students and their families out to the farm for the photoshoot, where the families also pick sweet corn. Moriah and her husband, Austin, a fourth-generation farmer from Onida, feel it’s a great opportunity to answer questions about food and farming. 

“Conversations about how we grow food can happen 30 miles away or sitting next to someone at a baseball game. I always look forward to the opportunity,” explained Moriah.

Combines and Violins

Moriah grew up on a family ranch near Mankato, Kansas, growing milo, wheat and sunflowers, and raising Angus cattle. She spent summers with her family custom harvesting wheat for other farmers, traveling from Texas to the Canadian border. She learned how to drive a combine, grain cart and tractor. Her time in the cab and caring for cattle turned out to be helpful for her career as a musician.

“I remember singing with my mom in the combine to bluegrass and country western music,” said Moriah. “Later, my dad added a radio to the barn, so we listened to music during calving season.”

Moriah began playing the violin when she was 7 and joined the orchestra in middle school. By the time she graduated from college, she had mastered the violin, viola, cello, double bass, guitar and piano. With all this experience and a love for wide open spaces, it just made sense to move to Pierre to start The Pierre Youth Orchestra, eventually becoming its executive director. What she didn’t plan on was meeting and marrying Austin.

“I never thought I’d be lucky enough to marry a farmer,” said Moriah. Since Austin’s family regularly opens the farm to youth and hunting groups, Moriah knew he’d welcome the orchestra with open arms.

Questions and Conversations

The annual orchestra photoshoot generates interesting questions about everything from how they grow crops to the equipment they use on the farm. Some families are surprised to find out that most of the sweet corn they grow is GMO.

“We still grow one traditional sweet corn variety for sentimental reasons, but the other five are GMOs,” explained Austin. “It’s fun to explain how each one has been carefully bred to enhance its color or flavor.” GMOs make up 94 percent of the soybean and 89 percent of the corn crops grown in the U.S. They also happen to be two of South Dakota’s top crops.

This year, the orchestra held its first community fundraiser at the Fort Pierre farmers market. Austin and Moriah donated 1,500 ears of sweet corn for the event. Naturally, shoppers asked about different types of sweet corn and if it’s organic.

“People think organic means the corn is healthier in some way. The truth is it doesn’t matter,” said Moriah. “The sweet corn we grow is nutritionally the same as organic and both are safe to eat.”

One day, she hopes to turn the photoshoot into a concert to bring more people to the Pierre and Onida communities to enjoy music on the farm. Until then, she and Austin continue planting seeds of knowledge whenever they can and watching them grow.

If you have questions for Moriah and Austin, share them in the comments below. Love reading stories about South Dakota farm families? Here’s one about Eunice who’s been growing crops and irises on her family farm for nearly 90 years.


Photos Courtesy of Grandpre Photography & Moriah Gross.