For the Nelson family, farming is more than a job. It’s a passion. It’s a love affair. And now, it’s a 100-year tradition.
The Nelson family farm, with a Monticello mailing address but Silver Creek Township location, was recently recognized by the Minnesota State Fair and the Minnesota Farm Bureau as a Century Farm. It has been in the family since 1911. But while the last name has stayed the same for the last 100 years, not much else has.
The farm was originally owned by William M. Nelson, and then was sold to his sons, before they sold the farm to William’s nephew Russell W. Nelson. Russell, and his father Alfred, had been the main farmers on the land since early in the family’s ownership of the property.
Russell was born on the farm in 1915. He officially became the owner in 1961. In between he was still very much a part of the farm. Since 1961, the farm has officially become a part of him. It’s where Russell worked. Where he lived. Where he and wife Mildred raised a family, including their two sons Gary and Ronald and their daughter Janet. And it’s where he survived.
In farming, surviving isn’t always easy. But Russell and family have always found ways to survive through tough times in order to reach the 100-year mark as a family.
In the 1930s, Russell’s dad kept the farm going through the great depression by growing potatoes in an area behind the house that had been a lake. At various times, they relied heavily on milking cows when the crops weren’t producing enough to survive.
Now, Russell’s son Gary is set to put in an irrigation system. Again, it’s a matter of survival for the family farm.
“In this part of the country, that’s something pretty important,” said Gary Nelson. “It sure is dry here.”
While the irrigation will be a major change for the farm, it isn’t the biggest in its history.
“The biggest change I’ve seen is the day we got electricity,” said Russell Nelson, who is now 97 and just recently moved off the farm to a nursing home. “Everything has geared toward electricity. It’s the cheapest hired man that the farmer ever got.”
Electricity came to the farm in the late 1930s and things have continued to evolve since.
“Everything is precision now,” said Gary Nelson. “The technology is unreal.”
Nelson points out machines that can lay a set amount of seed over one part of a field, and then be set to automatically transition to a different seed amount for wetter land that can handle more seed. GPS’s are now another vital part of farming. The quality of seed has continued to improve. But, while almost everything is changing, somehow the things the Nelson family has always loved about farming tend to stay the same.
“It’s the same field,” said Gary Nelson. “You know things like where you might get stuck in the spring.”
And still each year, you see the fruits of your labor and of the land.
“It’s hard when you get a year like this,” said Russell Nelson, of reaping what you sow, one of his most beloved aspects of farming. “But, you still marvel at what Mother Nature can do.”
Of course another thing that hasn’t changed is the hours farming requires.
“It’s still 24/7,” said Gary Nelson.
But, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Farming has brought the Nelson family gifts that have them as ingrained in farming as the seeds they plant each spring.
One, it’s brought them together. It’s been a family affair since forever. It was Russell and his dad. Then it was Russell and his son. Now it’s Russell’s son and his son, as well as daughters, and cousins of the kids who all swing by to help out occasionally.
“As a son, you watch him, and he teaches you, and you help him,” said Gary Nelson, of his father. “And now all of a sudden he helps you. And now, I’m helping my son [Ryan]. It’s a neat progression.”
The farm has also provided opportunity. An opportunity not just to raise a family and get by, but also for some incredible experiences.
“It’s been enjoyable,” said Russell Nelson, of farming. “I’ve had highlights that I’ve never expected in life.”
For example, he was twice chosen to go to Europe on People-To-People Goodwill Tours. Those trips included some of the highlights of his life, including seeing the Berlin Wall, and gaining a new appreciation for the life he had.
“If anyone could have seen that, they would have been proud to be an American,” said Nelson. “You realize how free we were compared to those people living on either side of that wall.”
Russell was also a member of the Minnesota board of the American Dairy Association, an honor that he says doesn’t come easily.
And now, the latest honor, joining just over 9,000 Minnesota farms as a Century Farm.
The honor is marked by a commemorative sign, a certificate signed by the State Fair, Minnesota Farm Bureau presidents, and Governor Mark Dayton, and a presentation at the Wright County Fair last Friday.
But what it signifies is even more important. It marks 100 years of not just farming, but of growing. One hundred years of not just surviving, but thriving. And it marks a significant, and even emotional accomplishment for the Nelson family.
“It’s something that only comes in a century, and everyone can’t have it,” said Russell Nelson. “I just can’t even say how proud I am that we have been able to carry it on.”
“I don’t know how to explain it,” said Gary Nelson, echoing the sentiments of his father. “It’s pretty special. It’s four generations. I’m just really really proud of it. Really happy.”
Surrounding the Century Farm achievement, there has been another big development with the farm. Russell officially signed it over to his son Gary and grandson Ryan. As a group, they’re all excited about the opportunity to continue the Nelson legacy.
“It’s fantastic,” said Gary. “It’s something my dad wanted.”
And, it’s something Ryan wanted. Like his father, and father before him, he was born a farmer, and he was born with a farm, a farm that he is excited to make his.
“You can find better farmland,” admits Ryan. “But there is a pride factor. Value-wise, it’s pretty much priceless. This is home. This is where home is going to be.”
For the Nelson family, home is now a Century Farm.