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Plowing through life

Greenwald farmer has more than 50 plowing trophies

“This is the seed,” said Bernie Nietfeld. He was referring to a photograph of himself and three other local farmers who competed in a 1954 Stearns County plowing contest. It is an apt analogy for a Greenwald farmer whose family has been in the seed business for four generations.

Bernie, who incidentally won that 1954 contest, is largely responsible for restoring the official plowing contests on state, national and worldwide levels. It has sent him and wife, Delphine, around the world to Norway, where he was treated to an elegant, boozy dinner; Kenya, where he went on safari; Northern Ireland; New Zealand; Canada; England; China; Austria; and Spain. His travels won him a case full of impressive trophies. He hasn’t actually counted them, but they appear to number around 50.

Asked about the tallest trophy, he said that it was just for a state contest, but “They got bigger and bigger every year.”

Bernie Nietfeld, of Greenwald, with one of his many plowing competition trophies. Photo by Jean Paschke

He was presented trophies by presidential candidates Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater. He even made the cover of the Minneapolis Tribune Sunday supplement Picture in 1965, grinning from his tractor seat, his farm in the background. He had just won the level land plowing division of the National Plowing Contest in Buffalo, North Dakota, and was on his way to compete in Norway. He noted that Delphine once won a women’s plowing match, but since it was arranged at the last minute, there was no trophy.

After many wins he was no longer eligible to compete, but coached potential winners, including his son, Dan.

“I think I was a good coach,” he said modestly. Dan thought I was too tough on him, but the next year he won the nationals. I try to work on their minds. The mind is a very important thing when competing.” Rule changes in 2012 allowed him to compete again.

Bernie was born in 1929 on a farm in Greenwald that is now still family owned. At various times the farm raised hogs, dairy and beef cattle, wheat and soy, but its main crop has been certified seed and hybrid corn. He and Delphine raised kids Tim, Mary, Marlene, Roger, Danny, Kenny, Ruth, Ronnie and Joe.

Bernie explained that the Soil Conservation Service, with help from local agents, organized the National Plowing Competition in 1952, to promote contour plowing and other soil conservation benefits. Categories were contour and level land, on county, regional, state and national levels. He competed first in 1954 and didn’t plow again until 1964, when he won his first national.

Then the national board decided they wanted nothing more to do with the contest, giving as a reason that they couldn’t find a suitable site. But some questions of legality came into play as well, if the association were to be turned over to others.

“It could have been the last rites of the National Plowing Association,” Bernie said. Determined not to let this tradition die, he talked to the Paynesville Jaycees, who had just organized a successful snowmobile race.

“The president said they could put on a state contest. I said, not good enough. We need to have a national match. A few weeks later they said they could do a national match.” But the national board was still reluctant to come on board. As president of the Minnesota Plowing Association, Bernie again went into action. He persuaded the Jaycees to sponsor a National Invitational Plowing Match, set for the fall of 1964. At Bernie’s invitation, National Plowmen from many states and the old board of directors met along with an attorney to explain corporate law.

“Before the night was over,” he said, “the old board resigned, sanctioned a new board, and like they say, the rest is history.”

Some of Bernie’s trophies accumulated over the years. Photo by Jean Paschke

Although it may seem as though plowing was his major interest and activity through his life, Bernie has been an avid amateur photographer and ice fisherman. The comfortable home he shares with Delphine displays many of his favorite photographs as well as some major fishing trophies. One of those pictures of his farm he took from the cockpit of his Piper Cherokee when he was a member and founder of the Riverside Flyers, based out of Melrose.

He is proud of the fool-the-eye diorama he created in the family room, which he called “my picture window,” with a real stuffed pheasant flying past an autumn scene that appears behind an almost real window. His trophy case also displays his awards from the Greenwald Lions and Knights of Columbus, and his bowling awards.

Summing up his 89 years, he said, “I’ve lived a very exciting life, no doubt about it.” There are many, especially the thousands who take part in and support the plowing championships that he brought back to life, who would agree and add that Bernie’s life has also been productive and history making.

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