An Enduring Legacy

After a devastating loss, a young farmer and her family resolve to carry on.

By Nancy Dorman-Hickson | Photos By Christy Couch Lee

Emma Nelson was 24 when her father, Bruce Prange, died suddenly in 2011. The New Palestine, Indiana, farmer, 57, left behind his wife and farm co-owner Paula, Emma and her older sisters, Martha, Laura, and Sarah. His death heralded an uncertain future for their 1,400-acre corn and soybean farm, which had been owned by Pranges for more than a century.

Emma (left) and her mother, Paula, share a quiet moment on the family farmstead.

Emma (left) and her mother, Paula, share a quiet moment on the family farmstead.

Paula was far from farm-savvy when she married, but the city girl soon learned to feed pigs, drive a tractor and keep the books. Parkinson’s disease has slowed her physical participation now, but she still does the bookkeeping. Daughter Sarah helps with that as well as marketing, while Martha and Laura work off-farm.

Emma always planned to farm. She completed a master’s in ministerial leadership not long after her father’s passing, but considered church consulting a side job option. Since her teens, Emma had sat in on seed meetings, hauled chemicals and picked up parts for the family’s farm equipment. In college, she returned often to help and, after she and Ryan Nelson married in 2010, they moved closer to the farm.

“My dad and I talked about going into farming 50-50,” albeit slowly and gradually, she says. Then Bruce died. Emma’s mom told her, “You don’t have to. But if the farm is something you want to take care of, then come take care of it.”

The Adjustment Period

“Dad passed away in July, so we had a little bit of time before harvest,” Emma says. For the most far-flung of their acreage, the family accepted harvest help from neighbors. “Other than those 57 acres, however, we harvested the rest of the 1,400 acres ourselves,” says Emma. “We figured if we couldn’t do it that first year, maybe we had no business continuing to do it at all.”

While Emma whole-heartedly heeded the call, she knew she had a lot to learn. As a farm kid, she’d done most everything there was to do in the field, including drive the combine and auger cart in the fall, pull the seed drill in the spring, and haul anhydrous. Yet, she’d not yet performed any management tasks, like setting up rotations or planned fertilizer applications, nor had she—and this is what Emma says concerned her the most—driven equipment to and from their ground via the area’s congested roadways.

Only 15 minutes from Indianapolis, urbanized New Palestine has roads flanked by mailboxes, poles and other obstacles waiting to foil even an experienced ag equipment driver. Paula remembers Emma’s first run as an emotional smorgasbord. “I was petrified for her, and sad and proud all at the same time,” the mother says. Fortunately, all went well.

There were other things, too, that gave her pause, such as using their new sprayer. “One of the service people at MacAllister’s [the equipment dealership with which the family does business] came out and we sprayed water for about an hour, just to make sure I could make all my turns and that everything worked perfectly,” Emma says. “He spent a lot of extra time with me.”

With a touch of chagrin, she remembers how her inexperience showed that first year. Prior to Bruce’s death, she says, “I had only run the drill for a couple of years and had planted corn once.” She laughs. “Those rows my first spring weren’t pretty. There were strips left that first spring, too.”

Emma and husband, Ryan, can’t pass up the opportunity to shoot some hoops.

Emma and husband, Ryan, can’t pass up the opportunity to shoot some hoops.

Once, she made a mistake with the sprayer and left behind yellow roadside grass. “I had the right kind of tips, but they were in 30-inch spacing instead of 15,” she explains. “It created a mist. The grass came back, thank goodness.”

Even now, six years later, Emma admits: “I’m still kind of nauseous and excited on that first day of harvest every year. After that, I calm down.” She grins and adds, “I still call Mom when I get to the field so she knows I haven’t run over anyone.”

She’s learned, too, to tackle challenges head on. “I was never like, ‘I don’t even want to touch that because I don’t know anything about it.’ It was more, ‘Learn as much as you can so you don’t have to hire somebody because that’s another expense.’” Given high input costs and low market prices, stretching money is a priority.

Technology tests her as well. “It’s changed so much just in the last six years since Dad’s been gone,” says Emma. “Everything now is so data-driven. You have to decide how far you want to take the technology and how much is really required.”

Next Steps, New Plans

During that first fall, she says, “I don’t think I was even worried about yield. I just wanted to get it out and have everyone be safe.” Now she’s comfortable enough to vary practices a bit.

Emma shows off the McAllister Ag calendar that features her farm and tractor.

Emma shows off the MacAllister calendar that features her farm and tractor.

“We’ve got some plans in place this year to hopefully get a bit more out of each acre, like increasing the fertilizer to maximize the yield potential,” she says. She hopes to better her sample, too. “It was terrible that first year with lots of pods or stalks.”

She and Ryan also plan on raising a few cows for freezer beef and extra income. In addition to selling real estate, Ryan now works on the farm, as does Jason, Sarah’s husband.

Since Bruce’s death, Prange Farms has purchased two of the tracts previously rented—the first, 62 acres, and, most recently, 285 acres. “Even if we were to lose some of our other rented ground, I believe this will allow us enough acreage to seal our ability to keep farming,” Paula says.

Emma, who turned 30 in April 2017, appreciates that she’s become more comfortable with her responsibilities. “But you know we miss Dad all the time,” she says. “We still find ourselves saying, ‘OK, Dad, what are we supposed to do about this?’”