Longtime Kandiyohi County FSA director to retire
WILLMAR — Wes Nelson has spent his entire career helping farmers maneuver through the ever-changing — and always complicated — federal farm programs administered at county offices of the federal Farm Service Agency.
And while farmers appreciate his attention to the tedious details of complying with those programs, Nelson has also used his position as executive director at the Kandiyohi County office to educate non-farmers about what's happening in the broad world of agriculture through his weekly news columns published in the West Central Tribune and radio shows broadcast on two Willmar stations.
At the end of the month, all that will end.
After 38 years as a county executive director, including 36 years at the Kandiyohi County office, Nelson is retiring at the end of March.
A retirement party will be from 1 to 4 p.m. March 28 at the FSA office in the USDA Farm Service Center, 1005 High Ave. N.E., Willmar.
"I'll miss the farmers and I'll miss my staff," said Nelson, 62, during a recent interview at his office.
Although he has been knee-deep in the business and government side of agriculture for nearly four decades and he grew up on a farm — his parents still own their rented farmland in Meeker County — Nelson will not be farming when he retires.
So much has changed with farm technology, precision agriculture and seed and animal genetics from when he worked on the family farm that Nelson said he wouldn't even know how to start some of the tractors used today.
Nelson never intended to have a career in agriculture.
He graduated from the University of Minnesota in Morris in 1979 with degrees in social science psychology and secondary education. But after student-teaching, he realized he didn't want to be a teacher.
A family farm friend suggested he look at working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A few months later he was accepted into a USDA nine-month training program for what was then known as the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Services. It's now called the Farm Service Agency.
He spent two years working as a county executive director for the Chippewa County office before moving to Kandiyohi County in March of 1982.
The early 1980s were tough times for agriculture, when Nelson saw hard-working farmers brought down by low commodity prices, extremely high interest rates and plummeting land values that launched a full-scale ag crisis.
There were many good years in between then and now, but Nelson said the current low commodity prices and high input costs that have nagged farmers for the last six years means ag is "one bad crop away from a real disaster."
Unlike in the 1980s, land values that have remained strong, interest rates that are relatively low and improved seed genetics that produces bumper crops even in drought conditions have helped some farmers stay on the positive side of the narrow profit margins, Nelson said.
Changes in ag
Through the years Nelson has seen a decline in the number of full-time farmers but an increase in the number of people who farm part-time, or have hobby farms.
He's also seen a big increase in the number of women who are directly involved with farm operations and come to the FSA office to complete necessary program paperwork.
In the past, he said, it was common to see farmers in the office with missing hands and fingers or crippled legs from farming accidents. Farm equipment is safer now, and farming involves less physical work, but Nelson said "fatigue" is a common health risk for farmers that can lead to accidents.
Looking to the future, Nelson said the high cost of land and equipment makes it very difficult for young people to get a start farming, unless they have a family connection.
As older farmers without heirs get out of the business and sell their land to the highest bidder, it oftentimes means a big farm gets bigger.
Transitioning farms to the next generation is a topic that people have been avoiding — but needs to be discussed on a broad scale, Nelson said.
The federal farm bill expires this year and Nelson said expected changes in the new bill are a big concern to farmers.
Whatever Congress approves in D.C. will be implemented by the staff at county FSA offices.
That task has gotten more complicated over the years.
Nelson points to a wall of bookshelves in his office holding 115 thick manuals detailing every aspect of the current farm bill.
When he started his career, Nelson said there were about 15 manuals on the shelf.
Ag producers are eager to know who will replace Nelson but not even Nelson knows the answer to that.
He said positions in the system typically are not advertised until after an employee officially leaves, and even then not all positions are immediately posted.
Kevin Beekman retired in December as the county executive director for Renville County and Nelson said that position has not yet been posted.
Nelson said he's optimistic that a full-time director will eventually be hired for the Willmar office. In the interim, Jamie Vanderweyst from the Meeker County office will oversee the Kandiyohi County office a couple days a week.
Nelson said there are numerous unfilled USDA positions in county offices, which may be happening because the Trump administration is launching a makeover of the USDA that creates a new umbrella organization called Farm Production and Conservation.
With a new farm bill in the works and the upcoming changes to the structure of USDA, Nelson said the timing was right for him to retire now.
Nelson is looking for a part-time job but said he and his wife, Marilyn, will now have more time to volunteer at church and community organizations and to explore more recreation trails on their bicycles.