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3 Open Minutes with Jerry Nelson, author of Dear County Agent Guy

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 12 September 2016

Twenty years ago, while out checking his drowning crops, fourth-generation dairy farmer Jerry Nelson decided to write a letter to his county extension agent. That tongue-in-cheek letter can now be found in his recently published book, Dear County Agent Guy: Calf Pulling, Husband Training and Other Curious Dispatches from a Midwestern Dairy Farmer.

The book is a collection of heartwarming and hilarious short stories about Nelson’s experiences with family, farming and life in the country. Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee interviewed Nelson to find out how a fourth-generation dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota, became a published author.

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Q. Have you always enjoyed writing?

A. NELSON: I’ve always been a reader. I can say that for sure. Ever since I was a little kid, I was the kind of kid that, if I had to wait in a waiting room, I was fine as long as I had a Reader’s Digest or some other magazine to read. I did writing only as I had to during school. I wanted to be a farmer, so writing was kind of low on my list of priorities of skills to acquire.

Q. What prompted you to write the original letter to your county agent?

A. NELSON: In 1996, we were especially wet. As you know, there is nothing a farmer can do about wet weather. You can’t go out and disc. You can’t mow the ditches. All you can do is look at the wet misery out there.

One day, I was driving around looking at my fields, and I could see cattails were beginning to grow where there should have been rows of corn, and so out of sheer frustration I went home and figured out how to use the word processor on the computer.

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I wrote a spoof letter to Mel Kloster, my county extension agent and a close friend, by the way, asking if he didn’t know of some cheap and effective herbicides to control the cattails in my corn – and while he’s at it, maybe he could help me get rid of the ducks and the power boats out there that were ruining my corn too. That was the genesis of the whole thing.

Mel encouraged me to get the letter published somewhere, and my reaction was, “You’ve got to be kidding.” I barely graduated from high school, and I’ve got no writing or journalism experience whatsoever, but I followed through with his suggestion and eventually got that original letter published in our little local weekly newspaper, the Volga Tribune. I’ve been doing a column every week ever since.

Q. What motivated you to turn it into a book?

A. NELSON: Over the years, readers would come up to me and say, “You should really do a book.” My wife and I were like, “Well, maybe they’re right.” So we looked into the idea of publishing and went to the South Dakota Festival of Books. There was this event going on there called Pitchapalooza. It’s held by David Henry Sterry – who is an actor and a writer – and his wife, Arielle Eckstut – who is a literary agent and also a writer.

Together, they had written a book called The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. The idea behind the event is that you would buy a copy of their book and it would earn you the right to get up in front of the assembled, and you would have 60 seconds to explain why your book should be published. The winner would be introduced to a literary agent who would be interested in representing them.

I didn’t win, but I talked to Arielle and David afterward, and they said, “You’ve got an interesting idea, but nobody does collections anymore.” They put me in touch with Danielle Svetcov, who works for a literary agency in San Francisco.

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She said, “This is interesting, but nobody does collections. Why don’t you put together a proposal?” I did and she emailed it to some editors. Lo and behold, Bruce Tracy at Workman Publishing got back to me. He said, “Nobody does collections anymore, but in your case I think I’ll make an exception.” That was kind of cool to hear all of these “No, but maybes,” and eventually it all turned into a “Yes.”

Dear County Agent Guy

Q. Throughout your book, you found humor in so many scenarios. Is that important when farming?

A. NELSON: Yeah, absolutely, it’s essential. Like they say, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry – and if given the choice, why not laugh? That’s the way I see it. You need a sense of humor to get through farming. Sometimes there are situations where that’s the best thing to do is to laugh a little bit, and that’s how you get through it.

Q. You often talked about stories your father told you or that you shared with your sons. Is storytelling a tradition in your family?

A. NELSON: Human beings are story-telling species. Stories are how we keep alive the history of who we are and where we are from. I think it’s important that we tell stories to our kids and keep alive the idea of “This is who we are.”

Q. Do you feel it is important to capture the farming way of life for others?

A. NELSON: Yes, absolutely it’s important. So few Americans are actual farmers anymore. As you know, when this country was brand-new, about 95 percent of Americans were farmers; now it’s down to 1 or 2 percent. Many of those Americans are a couple of generations removed. They no longer have an aunt or a grandpa or grandma who was a farmer.

We need to keep explaining to them what farming is, why it’s important and why it’s a unique way of life. It’s not just a business; it is a way of life. We need to keep telling our story. I think people that read my book can maybe get a little bit of a sense of some of the things that farmers go through on a day-to-day basis, and you get a better appreciation of what farming is.

Q. Why might dairy producers want to read this book?

A. NELSON: I think they can hopefully get a little fun from it. Like they say, “Misery loves company,” and sometimes I have stories of things that have gone wrong for me. Or anybody who’s raised kids or have ever had an electric fence, hopefully they will get a little fun out of that.

Some of the more serious pieces, the more contemplative pieces, I like to think about those as tiny celebrations of life, like my piece about Uncle Wilmer, which was a shock when he passed away. He was a very good friend, not just an uncle and a neighbor I had known my whole life.

We all suffer those losses as we go through life, and hopefully this will put a little perspective on it so that you can see that you’re not alone. For the most part, I hope people simply get a little enjoyment out of the book and maybe smile a time or two, and then maybe think a little bit about life and what happens to a farmer as he moves through life.  end mark

Jerry Nelson
  • Jerry Nelson

  • Author of Dear County Agent Guy
  • Fourth-generation dairy farmer

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