Precision technology and good people make this Iowa farm grow
It’s the dog days of summer in central Iowa, a slow time for most crop farmers, but Dave Nelson projects an aura of urgency. He thinks fast, acts fast, even walks fast. It doesn’t take long to figure out why this young producer is successful and what makes him tick.
He can quickly shift a discussion from people management to new technology, and he often operates simultaneously on two discussion platforms. But precision ag is his love, and it shows as his gestures expand and his face brightens. "It’s a piece of my comparative advantage," Nelson says. "For me, it’s important to be an early adopter."
Farming full time for just five years, Nelson is a new breed of cutting edge producers—full of hope, optimism and excitement for the future of agriculture. "I see opportunities to grow," he says. However, Nelson is acutely aware that the history of agriculture is a cyclical one. To get ready for the turning of the current cycle, he’s armed himself with a war chest of ideas and strategies to stay competitive. It is one of several reasons why Nelson was selected as a 2013 Top Producer of the Year finalist.
"We can survive a period of $4 corn if we have to," Nelson says. A huge part of the Nelson Family Farms’ business strategy is to be precise with inputs on each acre, keeping costs as low as possible. "I’m not competitive when it comes to sports, but I am when it comes to farming and my business," says Nelson, a youthful 38. "I like challenges; I’m a perfectionist."
"I am not competitive when it comes to sports, but I am when it comes to farming."
Part of that is keeping his pulse on each piece of equipment that he and his wife, Fonda, use in partnership with his parents, Gary and Karma, to farm more than 3,500 acres. "I called Dad from a meeting in St. Louis one day to ask him why the sprayer was not running," he explains. "He said, ‘what do you mean; we are working.’ I had to tell him that I was tracking what each piece of equipment was doing from my iPad."
Hooked Early. At just four months old, Nelson was already riding in the tractor cab with his father—early imprinting. Nelson even wanted to drop out of high school because he loved farming so much. But no opportunity existed for him to come back to the farm. After graduating, he attended Iowa State University and studied agronomy, which opened the door to an eight-year stint with Monsanto, followed by two years with Ziegler CAT.
In 2008, Nelson seized the opportunity to come back to the farm by purchasing Brokaw Supply Co. in Fort Dodge, Iowa, with his father. Brokaw specializes in sprayer and fertilizer application equipment, sales and service. The company’s sales have increased more than seven-fold.
Without that opportunity, Nelson would not have started farming when he did. "There are always ways to get home to farm, but sometimes you have to make those opportunities for yourself," Nelson says.
In the corporate world, Nelson not only learned goal setting, budgeting and other business skills useful on the farm, but he also honed his people skills and grew to understand the value of developing relationships with people who know more than he does.
Nelson also picked up the art of marketing. "Does John Deere advertise its products? Does Pizza Hut advertise what differentiates its pizza from the competition?" Nelson asks. His experience convinced him that farmers need to do that, too.
This prompted him to publish a 16-page quarterly newsletter for present and potential landlords,
creating a Nelson Family Farms brand and a website that landlords can use with individual, secure logins so they can receive the latest information on each of their fields.
"We are poised to pull the trigger at any moment on an operation or a grain sale."
"Portraying yourself in a professional manner to your customers is very important," Nelson says.
But the No. 1 reason why Nelson wanted to leave the corporate world was to farm with his father. The business benefits from their different strengths and personalities. "I am the quick, gung-ho, let’s do it if it makes sense partner," he says, noting that Gary is methodical and reflective. "I speed him up and he slows me down, so at the end of the day, we’re just about right. As a team, we marry experience with youth, so farm managers know our operation will be around for decades, Nelson explains. "This is a huge comparative advantage, and we use it all the time."
- November 2013