Rural Bigelow farm is Nobles County’s first to be recognized for 150 years in the family By Julie Buntjer email@example.com BIGELOW — Nobles County is now home to its first officially recognized sesquicentennial farm, and it’s in Bigelow Township. Matt and Alisa Russell are the fifth-generation owners of the property originally settled by Matt’s great-greatgrandfather, Robert Bird, in 1871, at age 35. Back then, the railroad owned every other section of land, shared Matt’s dad, Jim Russell. The railroad was charging a dollar or $2 per acre for the southwest Minnesota virgin prairie, but Robert wasn’t about to pay for land when he could claim a piece for free. A former Scottish seaman living in Pennsylvania, Robert ran a mule team for the Army and, once in Worthington, he hired someone with a buggy to take him out and show him available land. “When he came, the railroad wasn’t even to Bigelow yet,” Jim noted. “The No. 1 reason why Robert Bird wanted to be in the middle of the United States was
because he didn’t want any of his children to be sailors. He wanted to be as far away from the sea as possible.” Robert found his slice of heaven on earth in a 160-acre parcel three miles straight east of Bigelow. He put up a flag and sent word to his wife, Dora — a peasant working for a German landlord — of their claim. By the time she arrived, the railroad was completed and she was the first person to ever step off the passenger train at the Bigelow Depot. Following her instructions to the homestead, Dora — who lived to be 78 — had often shared the story of her arrival. “She said it looked pretty flat, but there were hills and valleys,” Jim shared. Since the land was all virgin prairie, the grass was six feet tall, and she was worried about what was lurking within it. “She would run through the valley and get to the next knoll and see the flag, then run through the next valley again.” Dora, 16 years younger than Robert, was just 18 when they were mar-
electricity — even though the REA hadn’t expanded into their neighborhood yet. A second renovation was done by Matt and Alisa in 2013. “We gutted the whole house,” Matt said. “It was all horsehair and pig hair plaster. The chimney was like the Rock of Gibraltar.” As the chimney was removed brick by brick, Jim said he felt bad about giving just one stipulation when he and wife, Cindy, traded homes with Matt and Alisa — do not tear the house down. While the original home was completely renovatSpecial to The Globe ed, the original basement Three generations of the Russell family gathered on the farm for this photo on April 11, 2021. Shown are Adam (from left), Nathan, Jim, Cindy, Alisa and Matt. — hand-dug by Matt’s Harry, Behind them stands the home were all six generations of the Russell family grandfather, during one winter in the have lived through the years. It was built in 1905, and renovated twice since. 1940s — remains. As for ried. Because she was a friend to the Native on their homestead while the rest of the homestead, used to having so lit- Americans. raising four children — Matt said four buildings tle in life, owning land “She didn’t have much, daughters Margaret and were removed in the last made her feel as though but she’d feed them,” Marian and sons Rudy 14 years, including three she was rich. shared Jim, adding that and Fred. The sons built hog houses and a stor“They never had a crop during the uprising, a a two-story, three-bed- age shed. Three buildings the first five years — group of Native Ameri- room home on the farm have withstood the test they had grasshoppers or cans killed some foes near in 1905, two years after of time for more than a century — the house, the fires,” Jim said. “(Rob- Lake Ocheda, but they their dad’s death. ert) wanted to leave and had strict instructions not The home was remod- barn (built in the 1910s) she said, ‘I’m not leaving to harm the family that eled in 1940 by third-gen- and a granary built some— I have a farm here.’” was always kind to them. eration owners Harry and time between the two. In those early years on It’s believed Robert and Evelyn Russell to include the farm, Dora became Dora lived in a sod house indoor plumbing and 150 YEARS: Page 6
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From farm to consumer, Fairland Farms fills a niche By Ryan McGaughey firstname.lastname@example.org FULDA — For much of his youth, Austin Williams looked forward to going somewhere else. He grew up between Dundee and Kinbrae, his folks’ and grandparents’ farms just a mile apart. “I was ready to go off and do something out of the area up until probably my senior year of high school,” Austin shared. “Then I started really liking being around the farm.” He graduated from North Dakota State University in ag systems management. Now, Austin is back on the family farm, married and working with his family. In addition, he’s helped form Fairland Farms, a business offering a variety of pork products. It’s been a longtime dream for the Williams clan, and the business has grown rapidly since the launch of its website in January.
A partner in life
Austin initially met his wife, Bekah, at a church convention in Illinois, and in 2018 they began keeping in touch via social media. “I was in Michigan and working at that point as a medical sonographer at the University of Michigan,” Bekah said. “I’d gone to Grand Valley State University, near Grand Rapids.” “I was living in Iowa, working for John Deere in the Des Moines region,” Austin added. “It seemed like a good time to come back as part of the family farm, and she was looking to maybe move somewhere new and decided to move to Sioux Falls.” Bekah has now worked for Avera McKennan in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for more than a year. In the meantime, the couple became engaged in the summer of 2020 and married in September.
“We’re very ambitious, apparently,” Bekah said with a laugh. “All of last year, too, we actually started talking about starting a meat company.”
All in the family … and the feed
“We’d talked about it as a family over the past several years,” Austin added about the new business. “When I moved back, I really found a new passion with livestock. I was more in the field before and working with John Deere farm equipment and more on the crop farming side, but I bought my first group of pigs to raise and got really passionate about it — how we raise them, how we feed them. “We raise them so differently than the norm, and that brings real goodness to the meat.”
FAIRLAND: Page 3
Ryan McGaughey/The Globe
Bekah and Austin Williams stand inside the storage room for their Fairland Foods pork products in WKHLUEXLOGLQJRႇ86LQ)XOGD
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FAIRLAND From Page 2
One critical component to raising pigs — and to the ultimate success of Fairland Farms — is the hogs’ diet. “We feed them ourselves with a smoothie-style feed,” Austin described. “I have to credit our dad (Rod Williams); he’s always looking for new ways to feed livestock and grow crops. He’s the one that began pursuing this smoothie-style feed back in 2008.” “He just officially got the patent for one ingredient in the blend,” Bekah noted. Rod and Tyson Williams, Austin’s dad and brother, respectively, are the founders of Richfeed, a separate company that — as described in a promotional flier — provides a patented “liquid feed ration, harnessing specific ethanol byproducts that are rich in nutrients and healthful for livestock.” The feed ration “benefits the pig, the producer, the (Heron Lake BioEnergy) ethanol plant and the environment.” Austin describes the feed as more palatable, easier to consume and
Ryan McGaughey/The Globe
Austin and Bekah Williams stand with their freezer van outside of their Fairland Farms building in Fulda. faster to digest than typical dry feed, and less abrasive in a pig’s intestinal tract. As another bonus, the feed uses ethanol products “that otherwise would need to be processed through drying and extraction,” allowing for increased ethanol production. “Heron Lake BioEnergy has worked with my dad and us for ways to make this work,” Austin said. “They want to innovate, too.”
had a love for this country life, and just growing up and visiting the farm was so special,” she said. “Both my grandparents farmed — my dad grew up on a wheat farm out in Montana, and my mom grew up on a dairy farm in Michigan.” One of Bekah’s primary roles in the operation of Fairland Farms — the name comes from one of the Williams’ growing farms — is making people become aware of A personal touch both the company and While Bekah grew its products. up just outside of Ann “We made an account Arbor, Michigan, she’s on Facebook and Insno stranger to farming. tagram under Fairland “I think I’ve always Farms, and that’s where
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a lot of our business is coming from,” she explained. “We try to stay pretty active on them, as that’s where people are finding things. We want people to see the faces
of the people they’re getting their meat from. We’re telling a story and sharing it as an experience. It’s more meaningful, maybe, when you’re supporting a specific family.” Shortly after Bekah and Austin were married last fall, they observed an increased demand for pork products and decided to pursue shipping their meat nationwide. Small-town lockers, though, don’t perform inspections at the level required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for shipping, so the Williamses worked with a U.S.D.A.-inspected meat processor in Olivia, Minnesota. That facility is also owned by a farm family that uses all local employees and supports local families
there, Austin said. “All our meat is hand-processed and hand-trimmed, and they even barrel-age cure our bacon and ham,” Bekah noted. “Our pork is just different, and we think the meat is more tender and more flavorful. There’s good marbling that aids in that tenderness … and we’ve had so many people come back and say, ‘This the juiciest pork I’ve ever had.’” Austin said the smoothie-type feed consumed by their pigs helps their animals develop intramuscular fat that holds the moisture of the meat when it’s cooked. That helps explain the juiciness, he stated.
FAIRLAND: Page 4
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FAIRLAND From Page 3
Once the meat is processed in Olivia, Fairland Farms picks it up in a freezer van and transports it back to Fulda. That’s where the pork products are packaged and ready for pick-up, local delivery or to be mailed in insulated boxes with dry ice to keep the meat fresh, along with food preparation ideas and hand-written notes for each customer. “We wish we could hand-deliver to everyone around the U.S.,” said Austin, noting that since meat was initially ready for ordering on Feb. 6, pork products have been shipped to 24 different states. “We’re only two people,” Bekah chimed in with a chuckle. “But this is maybe the next closest thing to still feeling like we’re delivering it,” Austin added. Long-distance customers also have the option of returning their box, via media mail, to Fairland Farms and then getting a discount on their next order.
Fairland Farms means family
Fairland Farms represents a way of connect-
Ryan McGaughey/The Globe
A personalized card from Austin and Rebekah “Bekah” Williams comes with each shipped order of Fairland Farms meat. ing the growing of the animals, the farming of the land and the marketing of the meat together, Austin said. And, perhaps most importantly, the effort is truly a family affair. “We wanted to do something that would encompass the entire family being involved,” Austin stated. As Bekah continues to manage Fairland Farms’ social media presence, the website fairlandfarms. com offers a complete list of the company’s inventory. Austin said the farm is able to sell by the cut, as opposed to the whole hog, and has enough pigs so that orders will be able to be fulfilled year-round. The ability to fulfill meat orders across the nation
is something that both Bekah and Austin value, considering the COVID-19 pandemic. “With how everyone has adjusted with the state we’re in — for example, where and how you pick up your groceries — we thought this kind of falls along those lines,” Bekah said. “You can order meat from us, and it will come right to your doorstep.” “At the same time, we’re using local ingredients for our feed … and as a result helping the local economy, too,” Austin chimed in. “We like to say we’re the faces you’ll most likely see associated with Fairland Farms, but it’s the whole family and tribe helping together that makes this all possible,” he added.
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150 YEARS From Page 1
Following Robert Bird’s death in 1903, Dora remained the owner of the farm until her death in 1930. She and her sons maintained the property, while daughter Margaret — who married Monroe Russell, a boy who lived just three miles south of the Bird farm — moved to Montana. They returned to rural Bigelow following the unexpected deaths of her two brothers and took over the family farm. Margaret and Monroe Russell, who gave birth to son Harry in 1917 in Baker, Montana, and later added daughter Marian, owned the rural Bigelow farm from 1939 to 1963. Harry grew up helping his dad in the farming operation, which at that time consisted of growing corn, small grains and alfalfa, as well as raising horses and cattle. It was Monroe who invested in the farm’s first tractor, and there’s a story to go along with it. Monroe was plowing the west 80 and drove right through the fence and kept on going. “He was holding onto the steering wheel and hollering ‘Whoa!’” shared Jim with a laugh. That’s what happens when a guy who’s
always farmed with horses does what comes naturally. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t ever ask Gramps about it — he’s still mad.’” After Harry and his wife, Evelyn, were married in 1943, they settled on the Russell farm, moving into the smaller of three houses on the homestead. Harry’s parents remained in the main house, and the third house was occupied by Monroe’s hired hand. “When I was a little kid, we switched places and Monroe and Margaret lived in the little house in our back yard for about 10 years,” Jim said, noting that his grandparents moved to Worthington in 1963. That’s when Harry took over the family farm completely. It was during Harry and Evelyn’s ownership that the farm really expanded. The couple purchased adjoining 80-acre parcels to the north and east, as well as a quarter section a mile to the north where they’d eventually build a new home in 1975. They constructed a stock pond in 1958 that now provides hours of fishing enjoyment for the Russell clan with its bass and bluegill populations. Harry and Evelyn raised five children on the farm as well as a lot of cattle and sheep. Jim, the third oldest, recalled many memories of
farm life and chores, from feeding the pesky sheep to rounding up the stock cows on horseback every day after school (a tunnel was built underneath U.S. 59 when Monroe Russell sold some land for its construction, and that was used to bring the cattle up from the feed yard to the farmstead). “We hated feeding sheep because they’d crowd you and you couldn’t get to the bunk,” said Jim, noting that he’d try to get his brothers to help. Younger brother Donn was willing, but a mean ewe attacked him two nights in a row, knocking him to the ground. Jim said he told Donn that perhaps it was his red coat that the ewe didn’t like, so the third night, he offered to switch coats with Donn. “The ewe came toward me and just veered off and knocked (Donn) over in the manure,” Jim recalled. “That was the last time he helped me with the sheep chores.” Another story involved older brother Jerry, who was picked on by an old, mean buck in the sheep herd. Jerry had picked up a large rock one day, and when the buck came at him, Jerry stuck the rock out and the buck head-butted it.
150 YEARS: Page 7
Special to The Globe
Top: A painting of the Russell farm, dated 1910, shows the original house, which was constructed by Fred and Rudy Bird, sons of the couple who homesteaded the property three miles east of Bigelow. Right: The Russell farm expanded with the construction of three new hog barns in 2002, as shown in this aerial photo taken in 2005.
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150 YEARS From Page 6
“The buck hit that and fell right over,” Jim said with a laugh. Jerry, thinking he’d just killed the animal, was terrified about having to give the news to his dad. That wasn’t necessary, though, as the buck soon shook his head and got up. During the Armistice Day blizzard of 1940, the Russells were caught unprepared and lost about half of their roughly 400-head sheep flock in the storm because they weren’t able to find their way home. They eventually sold the remaining sheep and began custom grazing for a neighboring sheep farmer. Jim said their family grew a lot of corn for silage, small grain and baled about 100 acres of alfalfa every summer. The feed and hay was fed to their 120-head of Hereford stock cows and 350 to 400 head of feeder cattle that Harry bought in Montana. By 1975, Harry and Evelyn moved into their new home a mile north of the Russell farm, and Jim and his wife, Cindy, moved in. Shortly thereafter, Harry sold the two smaller houses on the
Special to The Globe
Evelyn and Harry Russell were the third-generation owners of the Russell family farm in Bigelow Township. property, and they were moved into Bigelow and are still in use today. Jim said it was never his plan to go into farming — it was the dream of his older brother, Jerry, to take over the family farm. Jim had gone on to lineman school and was injured on a job in Little Falls. Around that time, Jerry was killed during his tour of duty in Vietnam. “That’s how things change,” Jim said. As the fourth-generation farm owners, Jim and Cindy got out of the cattle business during their first year on the
farm and began a farrow-to-finish hog operation within the next few years. They raised three children on the farm — Matt, Ann and Susan. Hogs remain a part of the operation today, with Matt and Alisa custom feeding 3,000 head in a trio of barns they constructed in 2001. They feed for Jackson-based New Fashion Pork. Matt began custom feeding hogs at age 15 and continued that through two years at then-Worthington Community College. He graduated from South Dakota State Uni-
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 21, 2021 | 7
versity in agronomy and returned to the area, accepting a job as agronomist at United Co-op Elevator in Bigelow. By then, Jim was farming while also working for his brother, Dan, in Russell Drainage. Matt’s step into the family family operation “just kind of happened,” he said. He and wife, Alisa, married in 1996 and moved into Matt’s grandmother Hinsch’s house in Bigelow the following year. It’s that house that Matt and his parents traded in 2007. As the farm’s fifth-generation residents, Matt and Alisa were already heavily invested in ag business. Matt became a Pioneer seed dealer in 2000 and was custom feeding hogs, while Alisa, now a third-grade teacher at Prairie Elementary,
worked alongside him to raise their two sons, Nate and Adam. The two will become the sixth-generation owners of the Russell family farm. “They both have that love,” said Matt, adding that Nate leaves later this month to join a custom wheat harvesting operation based in Conde, South Dakota. Adam, meanwhile, graduates this spring from Mitchell Tech as an electrician. He has secured a job with Marmen Energy in Brandon, South Dakota, sponsors of his college scholarship. With technology changing so much during their generations on the farm, Matt said he wished his sons had the experience of walking beans and doing some of the other tasks that farm kids often groaned about having to do.
“They didn’t ride the bean buggy, either, but they picked rock,” Matt said. At age 50, Matt still has plenty of years to continue farming the land — now 260 acres — before the farm transitions to the next generation. The tillable acres are planted strictly to corn and soybeans these days, and Jim still helps with planting and harvest. Cindy, meanwhile, retired in December 2019 after 31 years with a local ophthalmology clinic. The Russells — and the Bird family before them — have made a living, and a whole lot of memories on the land in Section 32 of Bigelow Township. “To quote my mother, ‘When you hear about the good old days, some of them weren’t that good — they were just old,” Jim quipped.
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The AgWeek Today's Farm tab from Spring 2021, featuring Nobles County's first sesquicentennial farm family!