Farmer Mike Nelson of Paxton, Ill., says his greatest role model in his farming career is likely his father, Rick Nelson, a 2009 Prairie Farmer Master Farmer.
“Growing up with my dad is probably where I get a lot of my farming drive. I was lucky enough to be born into it. You could say I started farming almost as soon as I was old enough to walk,” says Mike, the fifth generation on the Nelson farm.
It’s no wonder, then, that he would follow his father’s footsteps and apply to the Cultivating Master Farmers program, a two-year schedule of gatherings between young farmers and Master Farmer award recipients sponsored by Farm Credit Illinois, Compeer Financial, Illinois Farm Bureau, Growmark, Bayer and Prairie Farmer.
Rick has served as a Master Farmer mentor in the CMF group in the past, and has held leadership roles across his community, including serving as vice chairman of the Growmark board of directors. Those lessons of service and community went deep, and Mike has served on the Heritage FS board of directors since 2017.
“My dad has always been very focused on the numbers and details,” Mike says, referring to spreadsheets Rick had built over the years. Rick’s business management knowledge has helped dozens of young farmers in the Cultivating Master Farmers program understand and track their own financials.
“I’ve taken those same types of spreadsheets and started building some of my own,” says Mike, who farms 900 acres as part of the family’s 2,600-acre operation. “I like to be heavily involved in my own finances. I think it’s important to know your own numbers, so every winter I spend a lot of time doing analysis and projections. Even though it takes a lot of time, it helps to figure out what’s worth spending money on. Plus, you don’t need to pay for a service.”
Mike harvests alongside his father, doing whatever job is needed to keep the operation’s two combines running. While he says he doesn’t have many assets yet himself, he will work up to it.
“It just takes time for a young farmer to build a strong balance sheet,” he says.
Family of faith
Before returning to the family farm full time, Mike was a student at Parkland College studying ag business management and traveling the Midwest playing in a Christian rock band. At one performance in Missouri 15 years ago, he met his future wife, Mandi.
“We hit it off right away. He had super long hair back in the day. He was cool,” Mandi says, adding, “He’s still cool now, just with a shorter haircut.”
A fitness instructor and professional baker, Mandi married Mike in 2008. They have a 4-year-old son named Owen.
“I don’t get to be involved as much as I want to in the farm because of my own stuff, but I get to cook for Mike and help out when I can,” Mandi says.
The two say faith is an essential part of their lives and drives many of their decisions. Mike is heavily involved at their church, Evangelical Covenant Church in Paxton, serving on multiple boards and committees, teaching Sunday school, and helping to lead music.