Humorist Jerry Nelson: Recovering Dairyman

Dear County Agent Guy author Jerry Nelson says farming has provided him fodder, as well as lessons, for his slap-your-knee, laugh-out-loud musings.

By Nancy Dorman-Hickson | Photos By Jay Pickthorn

ORDER THE BOOK: CLICK HERE to order Calf Pulling, Husband Training, and Other Curious Dispatches from a Midwestern Dairy Farmer.

“It’s entirely possible that my ancestors used mastodons to pull their plows,” writes Jerry Nelson in his book Dear County Agent Guy. His “sturdy Norwegian pioneer” relatives settled in barren, treeless, pre-statehood South Dakota, and said, “‘Yeah, we can live here.’”

Jerry Nelson

Jerry Nelson

Nelson and his wife, Julie, still reside in a house his grandfather built in Volga, S.D. A fourth-generation farmer, Jerry milked cows twice a day straight out of high school until 2002. Then he sold the herd, leased his land and turned to writing fulltime.

He became a writer almost by accident. After an extremely wet year, Nelson wrote a playful letter to his county agent, asking him how to rid his corn of ducks and cattails. The letter led to a syndicated column, now read by some 250,000 people; script writing for Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion; and the book released this spring (Workman Publishing, $14.95 U.S./$21.95 Can.). Keillor praised the farmer-turned-author for his “true voice, the slow twang;” others have compared him to humorist Dave Barry.

Daily life inspires Nelson. “I try to keep a rural perspective on things,” he says, which explains the book’s subtitle: Calf Pulling, Husband Training, and Other Curious Dispatches from a Midwestern Dairy Farmer. That includes describing his wife’s reaction when he asked for her help in recapturing loose cows on their wedding night—while she was still wearing her wedding dress. “My wife looked down at her white gown…and stomped into the house,” he writes.

Despite that beginning, the couple has stayed in holy matrimony for 35 years and are parents to two grown sons. His wife even serves as his first reader and editor, and, often, his writing topic.

“I’ll have zero ideas and I’ll say to my wife, ‘What am I going to write about?’ She’ll say, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll say something and you’ll put it in the paper.’” He laughs and admits, “Guilty. She’s been a really good sport about it.”

Looking back, Nelson says, “Dairy farming helped me prepare to do a column. Milking cows twice a day for 24 years, you learn to work and you learn to stick with it.”