Nell family patriarch loved giving tours of Dodge Co. farm

Gloria Hafemeister
The Nell family of FWR Nell Farms of Juneau is looking forward to hosting the Dodge County Dairy brunch on June 6, a year after they had originally planned to host the event.   Last year’s dairy celebration was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

JUNEAU – The Nell family of FWR Nell Farms of Juneau is looking forward to hosting the Dodge County Dairy brunch on June 6, a year after they had originally planned to host the event. Like many other events across Wisconsin, last year’s dairy celebration was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the brunch and activities that go with it remain the same, some things will be different in 2021.

For one thing, the patriarch of the family, Fritz Nell, loved giving tours of his family’s farm and was eager for the family to host the event last year. He was pleased when they agreed to host it this year but unfortunately passed away May 1, just a month prior to this year’s brunch.

Nell's obituary described him as “a lifelong farmer who he enjoyed working with his family which is now 5 generations". The farm became FWR Nell Farms in 1980 when it was incorporated. Fritz served as president of FWR Nell Farms up until his passing. He also took pride in being the official farm tour guide. He enjoyed seeing the expressions of people when they saw the farm for the first time.

While Nell enjoyed all aspects of farming, he particularly liked driving semi at harvesting time and did so up until a couple of years before his death.

Different business model

Another reason this year’s event will be different than last year’s planned event is that the family made the decision in February 2021 to sell the dairy herd. The family says the decision had nothing to do with the pandemic or the dairy economy, adding that the sale had been 'planned for some time'.

The “W” and “R” in FWR Nell Farms stand for Wally and Ron, Fritz’s two sons who farmed with him all their lives. Wally was in charge of the dairy portion of the farm while Ron worked more with the crops.

When Wally reached retirement age he decided to quit milking cows. He continues on in other aspects of the farm together with his brother and the next generation of Nell farmers – Ryan and Tracy.

Ron serves as the overall farm manager and his wife Debbie and their daughter Tracy handle all the recordkeeping. Tracy also helps with the beef cattle and chores. Ryan is in charge of the cropping and equipment.

Although there are no more dairy animals on the farm, the Nell family farm still houses livestock, raising about about 500 head of beef cattle. The main focus is cropping their 2200 acres of land.

“It’s a little different this year,” said Ryan. “We still had some alfalfa land and sold the hay to an area dairy farmer. We will rotate out of that, though, and just concentrate on corn, soybeans and wheat.”

Ryan joined the family business after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. At his dad’s suggestion, Ryan worked off the farm for about a year but says he really enjoys being a part of the family business. He particularly enjoys experimenting with different cropping strategies.

He is active in the local Healthy Soil-Healthy Water farmer-led group and has hosted events at FWR Nell farm. He says he learns a lot from that group.

Ryan employs strip tillage and has established cover crops as a means of building healthier soil and preventing erosion. It's not as simple as it sounds, he points out, adding that he is always experimenting and tweaking things to improve the soil and production.

His latest experiments involve with early planting of soybeans – really early.  He tried a few acres in December and also in March.  The jury is still out on how successful that idea will be but he keeps careful records and test strips to monitor results.

The Juneau man is also experimenting with wider rows to avoid problems with molds in the soybeans.

He says he will miss the dairy manure because it provided a lot of natural nutrients to the crops but they will still have manure from the beef cattle.

“Without as much wheat ground that we had because of the dairy manure and without corn silage we will need to manage manure a little different,” he says. “We plan to spread a very thin layer on more acres.”

With the new manure management system he expects they will be able to get away with less tillage.

Rayn enjoys being in the tractor planting crops but says, “We don’t drive our tractors, we have auto-steering and everything is programmed in advance to do the planting.”

Getting ready

As the brunch nears and with the crops in the ground, he and his family have been busy cleaning out their sheds and power washing the interior to provide a place for the tables to accommodate the brunch. The farm's large shop area will provide a place for the numerous activities for kids attending the event as well as educational displays.

“Even if we don’t have dairy cows for visitors to see we still have the calf barn and we do have calves here," he said, "and visitors always like to see the machinery that we will have parked out on display.”

He says the family is taking extra precautions this year due to safety concerns about COVID.

“We are cleaning out more area for the tables than we would have in the past so we can spread them out more," he says. "Some things will be done a little differently but for the most part it will be much like previous brunches.”

Brenda Conley, Dodge County’s dairy ambassador, says “We (volunteers) will all be wearing masks and gloves, and volunteers will be dishing up plates rather than having attendees handle them.”

Conley says the committee will be more diligent on the cleaning of tables in between guests.

"We will be asking the visitors to please throw their own garbage out…condiments like our syrup is all going to be in individual packages this year,” she said.

Conley is happy the family has agreed to host the event because she believes it is important to show the public where their food comes from and what farmers actually do. 

Russ Kottke, chairman of Dodge County’s Dairy Promotion Committee also happens to be the County Board chairman and knows how important to showcase the agricultural industry’s contributions to Dodge County’s economy.

"The county generates about $152 million annually in milk sales," he said, adding that there are more than 10,000 jobs in the county tied to agriculture.

The Nell’s say they are impressed with the number of people who have stepped forward to help with the event: setting up, working at the event as well as cleaning up afterwards. Among the volunteers are other farmers and 4-H'ers but many hail from the businesses the Nell family and other farmers do business with.

The June 6 event will be Dodge County’s 41st brunch. Past events have attracted anywhere from 1500 – 2500 visitors. The committee is not quite sure what to expect this year.

Many counties have opted to host drive-through events or have passed again on hosting an event. This may mean some people will be more eager to attend so they can actually eat on the farm and walk around to see things.

On the other hand, some question whether attendance may be lower due to still-existing concerns about COVID.

Conley says the committee is prepared for extra attendees and the Nell family has plenty of space for tables. If weather permits, they may also put tables outside. Conley says most of the tables will be transported to the farm , which will also serve as the parking area.

Visitors will be transported to the event via one of four busses. This means less wait time and more available seating for social distancing.

Conley is happy the event will be held because it is the only fund-raiser for the group.  Proceeds from the event are used for scholarships, helping 4-H clubs with dairy promotion activities and promoting agricultural education in the county.

The Nell family and dairy volunteers look forward to the event which will run from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday, June 6, at FWR Farms Parking will be at the Dodge County Fairgrounds on Highway 33. The menu will consist of scrambled eggs mixed with ham and cheese, pancakes, ice cream, milk and cheese, including deep fried cheese curds. Admission is $8 per person - $5 for ages 5 – 11; 4 and under free. Live music will be provided by the Twin Lakes Trio.