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Weeds: Missing two good friends

Photo courtesy of the Fuchs family Nicole Fuchs loved farming

It was a tough winter here west of Sleepy Eye. I don’t mean the weather. It was soft as far as winters go. I mean the loss of two good people.

As we turn toward spring, a crop will get planted. It always does. But I won’t be waving in my tractor cab to Nicole Fuchs and Dennis Sellner in theirs. Nicole and Dennis were two of my favorites, and our farming community is going to miss them.

Nicole grew up south of me, the daughter of Joe and Cindy Steffl. From young on, I would see her out helping her dad across the line fence, a real farmer’s daughter. After college, she came back to work on the farm and her family’s carpentry business. Those were a fit for her, as I can’t imagine Nicole being happy either sitting or being inside too long.

Nicole was, simply put, good at things. As a kid, she was one of the best players in sports she tried. That led to college volleyball career. She was a skilled farmer. I teased her that it wasn’t good for my ego farming next to them as they were always done before me. Nicole was an excellent carpenter. Their family built a porch onto our house. I can picture Nicole being up on a rafter swinging a hammer one minute and the next on the ground working through the architect’s plans.

Nicole was good at things like smiling, too. She had a wonderful disposition, ever cheery and positive. She said nice things about my writing. Not because she always agreed with me, but because that’s the type of person she was.

Photo by David Buckland Dennis Sellner, in a 1991 photo exhibit.

Seven years ago, when Nicole was 30, headaches began that would lead to diagnosing and battling a rare form of cancer, chordoma. It doesn’t mean much that it’s rare when it happens to someone you know. Like I said, Nicole was good at things. Fighting cancer was also something she was good at, facing numerous surgeries and treatments nobly and courageously, always concerned about those around her.

Nicole and her husband Paul ended up living on the home farm when Joe and Cindy built a new house. It’s a good place to raise their boys, Brecken and Corbin. That will fall to Paul now. Paul walked the path the last seven years with Nicole with grace and fortitude. Blessedly, he will be aided by loving families that surround them.

Dennis Sellner was a fixture in the neighborhood by the time I came home to farm. He was one of the people I talked up as I took a crash course in farming. About every third sentence with him was a laugh, so learning was fun.

For a while Dennis sold Keltgen seed. Seed Order Days were in his heated workshop, and that was something to look forward to in mid-winter. Dennis’ wife Mary created a grand spread of food, there was a beer in the fridge, usually a card game, and lots of good farm talk. Pam wondered why it took four hours to place my seed order.

Near the end of last fall’s harvest, I was driving the gravel road past the Sellners. Dennis was pulled over and looking at an odd assemblage of bones on the side of the road and into the ditch. It turned out to be a deer but led to some interesting speculation.

Dennis was in his usual good spirits. I wish I’d have known that would be our last talk. That’s a thing I’ve noticed. When I hear of a friend’s passing, my first thought is, “Oh, I wish I could talk to them one more time.”

Dennis appeared in an early version of this column. Exactly thirty years ago, the photograph you see here was part of an exhibit at the Brown County Historical Society. It was a collection by British artist David Buckland.

Buckland had been commissioned to take photographs of a cross section of people involved in Midwest agriculture. He had some connection to here, so it had a strong local flavor. Besides Dennis, there were photos of Bob Greibel and sons, Jim and Elaine Braulick, and Sleepy Eye Farmers Elevator staff. The exhibit, called “The Agri-Economy” began at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts before moving around the Midwest.

Two photos stood out to me as a poetic juxtaposition. I wrote this in 1991:

“One pair of photographs leapt to my attention. Dennis Sellner farms down the road from me. Next to him is Robbin Johnson, Cargill’s Vice President of Public Relations who I met once at a workshop. Mr. Johnson’s job is to shed the best possible light on his company’s activities. He is basically a highly paid apologist for Cargill and he’s good at it. He is articulate and handsome, forceful, but not threatening.

Dennis is good at what he does, too. He works hard, farms hard, and hunts hard. I doubt either would do well in the other’s world. Mr. Johnson would have a tough go of baling hay for six hours under a July sun. I’m sure Dennis would struggle to get through one teleconference, much less eight hours in a suit and tie.

Here then, we have two players in American agriculture from very different places. Dennis, his family, his cows and fields, are firmly rooted in the family farm tradition. Robbin Johnson is an executive from the world’s largest and most powerful private company.

Oddly, they depend on each other: Dennis, on the markets Cargill offers; Cargill, on the commodities Dennis supplies. They are also locked in a struggle to define the future of farming. Cargill and other corporations are expanding their grasp into the production level which historically belonged to farmers like Dennis.”

Thirty years later, I won’t go into how that struggle has evolved. Suffice it to say there are 200,000 less farmers today.

Regardless, like I said, a crop will get planted. Sadly, Nicole and Dennis won’t be part of that in 2021. But in the way that winter gloom relinquishes to the warmth of spring, the story of my two friends turns to renewal. Nicole’s boys are smitten with farming and will be tagging along with Paul. Dennis brought his grandson Lee into his operation and passed his skills on.

I will think of Nicole and Dennis when I see their fields. I will think of them when the perfect green sprouts push out of the soil. Their time here has ended, but the work goes on.

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