Neubauer family farm moves to 5th generation
By Patricia Buschette
When Joseph and Elizabeth Neubauer arrived in Bird Island in the early 1900s, little did they know that they were establishing a farming tradition -- a tradition that would continue for five generations.
The Neubauer family lived in the Fairfax area, and Joe rented land in Bird Island, commuting by wagon. In 1901, Joe purchased the farm, and the family moved to Bird Island. The family grew, and the work of farming 520 acres was a family affair. Two sons and nine daughters worked on the farming operation, raising corn, oats, barley, and a yard full of livestock.
“It wasn’t the best land around,” said great grandson Mike, as he recalls the stories of the early years on the tract of land south and east of Bird Island. “There was a lot of peat ground and a lot of pasture and no tile.” As Joseph and Elizabeth and their burgeoning family continued their diversified farming operation, Joe liked to try new ventures. And he did, but everything didn’t go exactly to plan. Joe and Elizabeth’s oldest son, Joseph, died in June of 1925, and over the years each of the children moved on. Their other son, Ben, married Agnes Baumgartner in 1927, and the two moved into the farming operation and farmed with Joe.
In 1929, Crystal Sugar’s representative proposed raising beets. Joe was ready, and was quoted saying, “Sugarbeets? I would like to try something different.”
Joe may have taken on something more challenging than he anticipated. The 4-row beet drill and the cultivator were both horse-drawn, and harvesting was done with Nationals, residents of Mexico. Beets were lifted from the ground with a one-row lifter, and leaves were cut off with a beet knife. They were thrown into piles, later to be picked up with a silage fork, loaded into a horse-drawn wagon, and delivered to the beet dump north of Bird Island.
In 1929, the economy was in free fall, and like other farming operations, the farm was nearly lost. It was during those years that their son, Ben, took over the farming operation. In 1931, Joe decided that a 70-year-old man could keep busy in the garden, and Ben took over the operation of the farm. It was in the early 1940s when tractors took the place of horses. Since there were no lights on the tractor, when they worked late at night, a car battery provided light.
In 1942, generational growth brought Ben and Agnes Neubauer’s sons, Gerald and Donald, into the farming operation and a three-way partnership was created. At a young age they were an integral part of production. Don told of cultivating sugarbeets when he was in 8th grade.
A second home was built on the original building site as Gerald and Gloria, Donald and Ruth and their families continued the farming operation.
Just as nine girls and two boys were raised on that farm site in the early 1900s, two generations later, nine boys and two girls called the original farm site home. The next generation grew up together more as brothers and sisters, than cousins. “If we didn’t like the food served at our house, we checked out what our cousins were eating,” Mike said, suggesting that this was not an unusual arrangement.
As reliance on migrant labor continued, their relationship with the Ortiz, Cabrera, and Morales families grew. Their families were raised on the farm site, and, as Mike explained, “we were almost like a little town.” With two Neubauer homes and four homes for migrant labor, there were enough players for two softball teams. “We had ballgames every single night,” Bill said. Hitting the barn signified a home run, unless a window was broken.”
It wasn’t all play as children started helping, “from the ground up,” Don was known to report. There was a well-established seniority system. Equipment was occasionally upgraded, and when beets were to be delivered to the co-op, the newbie was assigned to the inferior truck.
The family mourned the death of Gerald who died in 1985 at the age of 57. The family continued the farming tradition. Don, who handled the operation’s finances, informed the next generation that they would be taking a more active role. “We had to learn fast,” Bill said.
The operation took a giant step forward when two weeks before spring planting in 1992, Don, their father and uncle, informed them they would be assuming ownership of the farm. The details of land price, cost of equipment, and an interest rate were already established.
“1992 was one of the most productive years we had,” Mike said. After celebrating their success, they soberly looked at their options for 1993 and purchased crop insurance.”
“1993 was the worst year possible . . . every farmer remembers 1993,” Mike said. “There was so much rain, and the fields were so wet, the only harvest we had was what was available at the top of the hills.”
In addition to the land they own, Bill and Mike rent acreage. A farm needed tiling, and the owner declined to tile, but promised them a 20-year lease if they would tile it. The agreement was made, but no contract was signed. A few years later they encountered the land owner at a local restaurant, the Broaster.
“We didn’t sign a contract for the lease,” Bill remembers telling the landowner. The owner pulled out a napkin and wrote out the terms, the price of tiling to be prorated over 20 years. The owner died with one year left on the contract. Bill’s wife Janelle had saved the napkin, and the heirs honored the terms of the lease.
The family takes off time from production agriculture to mark the special days. On July 7, 2001, the family hosted a Centennial celebration of the Neubauer farm. The community, family, and friends were invited to “Come to the place where it all started to share family, friends, fun and food!”
The farming operation was celebrated in 2011, chosen by the University of Minnesota Extension as Renville County Farm Family of the Year. The honor gave the Neubauers an opportunity to reflect on where tradition had brought them, and consider the future. Excessive spring rains that year meant later planting. The winds of July meant the loss of sheds – one just two weeks old – and trees that had been a part of the land as far back as the beginning of the Neubauer farming tradition.
The two clearly honor their role in a farming operation that began with their great-grand parents. A celebration was held at the Neubauer farm last November. By now, Gerald and Gloria were both deceased, and Don and his wife Kathy were still living on the farm site. The 120th year commemoration was hosted by Mike and Bill and their families to honor Don Neubauer, and to celebrate with family, friends and neighbors.
It was a festive occasion, and the red carpet was spread out for family and friends to enjoy plates of food including pork chops on a stick, beans and coleslaw, along with several kinds of cookies. They estimate that 300 attended the celebration, including 80 or so members of the Neubauer family. Throughout the day, family and friends mingled and shared memories on the site that will soon be home to the fifth generation.
They have much going for them outside of their farming operation. Mike, who has carpentry experience, has done major work on their home in Bird Island. A strong believer in vocational education, Mike learned carpentry years earlier when he worked with Pat Ryan, a local carpenter.
Bill and his wife Janelle are the founders and organizers of the Tim Orth Memorial Foundation. Bill, who was Tim Orth’s basketball coach, planned a fundraiser in 1996 to assist with treatment for Tim’s inoperable brain tumor. Tim died in 1997, but the foundation continues to assist young people dealing with illness or injury. Over 27 years, the foundation has raised over $4 million. “No one gets paid – there are no costs,” Bill said as help is awarded to those in Central Minnesota with medical needs.
Many changes have happened in 120 years. Don Neubauer, now 93 years old, is in hospice. Mike’s son, Sam, a law officer who teaches drug awareness at the Middle School in Willmar, and Bill’s son Mark, who presently lives on the Neubauer farm site, works with seed genetics at Thurston, Inc., a seed and corn brokerage firm in Olivia.
For both cousins, there is satisfaction continuing the farming operation. “Working the land, enjoying the seasons, and watching the crops grow with the hope of good markets,” Bill thoughtfully said. Were there challenges? “Of course,” Bill said. “Mother nature can give challenges from wind, rain, hail, freeze and drought.” Generations of experience is a reminder, he said, “It is important to keep a good line of equipment to ensure it works good in the field.”
There are other changes outside of the immediate farming operation, Mike said, “Agriculture is getting big, and it is going to continue to get bigger.”
The 2022 crop will be planted under the direction of Mike and Bill. And Mark and Sam will take time off from their jobs to help with the crop.
“We have two more years before we retire,” Bill said, and the Neubauer farm will move to its fifth generation of operation. It is clear that this transition will take place with the same enthusiasm that brought Joseph and Elizabeth to Bird Island.
Both Bill and Mike are looking forward to retirement. “The hope,” Bill said, “is to retire in the near future and give an opportunity to our children to continue the farming operation.”
While they look forward to retirement, they know they will be leaving the farm in good hands.