Time for a heart-warming story to cheer up an otherwise cold and dreary day — at least out here in the wilds of Western Washington state.

For all the political bantering over rural economic development, at the end of the day, farming remains the core of what powers rural America. For a variety of reasons—some understandable, some unfortunate—farming as a profession is appealing to fewer and fewer people, and as farms are abandoned, sold off, brokered off to developers, the population, and thus the economic vitality, of so many counties across the much of the country are struggling to maintain schools, roads and other infrastructure.

A huge infusion of federal funding would make a big difference, but that’s unlikely to happen. In the absence of such investment, a turnaround has to happen one farmer at a time.

Here’s the story of exactly such an entrepreneur: Joshua Nuessmeier, a 32-year-old who lives in Faribault County, Minnesota, which is just north of the border with Iowa. Here’s an excerpt from his story, as reported in the Faribault County Register newspaper.

“A farm once filled with the hustle and bustle of chores and furious farming laid still for over 20 years. Now, with the determination of one grandson, the farm is up and moving again.”

According to the story, Nuessmeier, whose farm is located near Blue Earth, Minn. — which is apparently the hometown of the Jolly Green Giant, judging from the Chamber of Commerce-type photo array to which web visitors to the town’s site are treated — took over his grandfather’s farm five years ago. He said that once his grandparents, Donald and Irene Boettcher, retired, the family was reluctant to to begin raising livestock again, which his grandfather abandoned in the early 1970s.

Nuessmeier decided to resume farming, and return to small-scale animal husbandry after an absence of more than 40 years.

“I’m pretty much starting over and rebuilding the facilities from scratch,” he told the newspaper, “installing waterlines, restoring power to buildings, building fences and keeping up with repairs.”

All that is part and parcel of running farm, no matter what crops or farm animals are involved. What Nuessmeier is doing to begin raising pigs and cattle again, however, is ironic: A departure from “conventional” production, but in some ways, a return to how his grandfather operated.

A return to proven methods

Currently, according to the newspaper, Nussmeier has 50 to 70 hogs on his farm at one time, and about 20 head of beef cattle. He also has a flock of egg-layers and a few goats.

The pig and cattle rations are primarily ground corn and soybean meal, along with hay. In addition, the animals have free access to pasture areas to supplement the forage.

“What I’m trying to do is raise my livestock the old-fashioned way, on dirt and in the pasture,” he said. “It gives the animals a better temperament, which produces better meat. I’m growing livestock for the flavor, and what people remember what meat tasted like 30 to 40 years ago.”

Now, nothing Nuessmeier’s doing is all that radical. Providing access to grazing area for cattle, or pasture for pigs was standard procedure for many small-scale growers a couple generations ago. Most of them did so because it was cheaper to let livestock mature by grazing on grass or allowing pigs to supplement their rations by rooting around fields and woodlots. Saved on feed costs and made management a little less labor-intensive.

Now, the impetus is more on the marketing, rather than the management, of the beef and pork being produced.

Just consider the language of the article, written for a rural audience that, even if they’re not active farmers, are likely related to or descendants of farming families:

“The [Nuessmeier] farm allows the animals to roam openly inside fenced-in spaces. While larger scaled farms have many pigs or cows confined into small pens, these animals have the constant option to be in their shelters, or to roam around their pens. Some sows are separated from the other pigs as they give birth and raise their piglets on the farm, while the young pigs roam around with the cattle, the goats, and the ever-present chickens.”

If this were 1970s, when Joshua’s grandfather stopped raising pigs, the response from the good citizens of Faribault County would have been, “So?”

Now, that paragraph raises eyebrows. Farm animals allowed to “roam around?” How interesting—certainly for the paper’s reporter.

Nuessmeier, who is a full-time student working towards a degree in animal science, grinds his own feed mixes his own vitamin and mineral additives and said he doesn’t use antibiotics with his pigs because he feels that faster growth produces leaner animals whose meat doesn’t have as much flavor.

“I have nothing against the big guys,” he said. “There is room for both of us in the world. I have just found a niche market that truly works for me as a farmer.”

His market extends as far north as the Twin Cities and as far south as Spencer, Iowa, he said, although the prime market is local, right there in Faribault County, where he uses two local processing plants for his animals. He said he sells half or whole hogs, and quarters, halves or whole beef.

That’s all great, and no doubt Nuessmeier will continue to be successful. What isn’t mentioned in the story is the hard work, the dedication, the commitment — the capital — it takes to resume raising cattle and pigs.

It takes an extraordinary effort, and an extraordinary individual, to be honest, and I can only offer this observation:

I wish there were couple thousand more people just like Joshua Nuessmeier. 


The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist.