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Mellmers cultivate crops, family

REEDER — Not everything goes according to plan on the Mike and Heidi Mellmer farm in western Adams County.

For example, there was the time last summer when the group of goats the family cares for escaped during a rainstorm. After noticing the jailbreak, a team of Mellmers eventually tracked down six of the seven escapees, but not before some light moments trekking through a muddy field.

“They ran a long ways away,” said 12-year-old Quinn, who, besides fending off grief from her four older brothers, is primarily responsible for taking care of the goats. “We were chasing them around in this muddy field, so we had kind of a hard time with that, but we captured all but one of them.”

Like what is often the case on a family farm, the Mellmers don’t usually make a phone call when animals run off or machinery breaks down — they tend to fix the problem themselves.

“I just remember Mike falling down in the mud when we were chasing those goats,” said Heidi with a laugh. “They ended up about five miles from the farm. It was quite the adventure.”

Joined in order by Dalton, 20, Preston, 18, Damon, 16, Jaxon, 13, and Quinn, Mike and Heidi began building up to what is now a 4,300-acre operation a few years after they married in 1987. Mike’s parents, Roy and Marlyes Mellmer began farming about 600 acres on the homestead in 1974 before giving way to Mike and Heidi in the 1990s.

“I’m from Reeder, but I didn’t grow up on a farm,” Heidi said. “The only experience I had with a farm growing was from my dad doing some custom harvesting for people. My dad grew up on a farm when he was a kid, but he was a carpenter by trade and we always lived in town. Since moving to the country, though, I’ll never live in town again. I love the country and it’s a great place to raise kids.”

At one time, the Mellmers tended to more than 100 cows, but Mike said the decision was made to cut out the ranching aspect of the operation a few years ago, in part to simplify things. Today, the Mellmers grow several different crops — including corn, sunflowers, durum, barley, spring wheat and canola — on a rotational basis.

The couple dabbled in other small business ventures — including, at different times, a gas station and repair shop, hardware store, bar and beauty shop — but said farming and running other businesses got to be too much and was cutting into family time.

Though he does repair work at his shop, Mike, a diesel mechanic by trade, said that being his own boss frees him up to volunteer and serve on various local boards and agencies, something that Heidi also does, along with driving school bus and running a mail route part-time.  

“We’ve been there, done that,” Mike said. “This is the lifestyle for us. I really like the freedom of not having to answer to anybody but myself and my wife. It’s a great lifestyle and environment for kids to grow up in and learn the value of hard work. All of our kids help out with just about everything — I haven’t been in a combine in years. My daughter is mad because she only got to run combine a little bit this fall, but it’ll be coming up sooner than she thinks.”

Though living and working on the farm comes with its unique challenges, the Mellmer kids seem to all appreciate the various lessens and skills learned while earning a living off the land.

“I really like getting out and doing hands-on things like what my dad has me do,” Damon said. “Living on a farm kind of sets you up for life. It teaches you hard work and how to be to work on time and get things done. I’m thankful for growing up on a farm — I think it’s going to help me out for the rest of my life.”

Earlier this year, the Mellmers were recognized as winners of the 2013 Conservation Achievement Award for Adams County, which was given out by the county’s soil conservation district. The award wasn’t the first received by the family from the conservation district — in 2011, the Mellmers won a tree care award.

“We just got a phone call one day that explained that the board picked us for the (conservation) award,” Heidi said. “It was nice to be recognized. We were happy to get it. It was fun to get the tree care award, too. My kids think I’m crazy, but I’m kind of fussy about my trees. I weed all of our trees by hand and mow around them — and we have quite a few that we’ve planted. It’s in the thousands. Those trees are kind of like my crop.”

After Dalton left home to study diesel technology at North Dakota State College of Science in Whapeton (he is currently working an internship in Beulah), Preston, a senior at Scranton High School, assumed the role of the oldest brother — at least when Dalton isn’t home helping out.

“Some of the bigger farming operations around here,” Preston said. “They’ll call West Plains or somebody to come out and fix their machinery when something breaks, but us, we never call anyone. We do everything ourselves.”

Preston said he’s considering following in Dalton’s footsteps and studying diesel mechanics after high school, but added he also has his eye on possibly returning to Reeder to farm, something his parents would welcome, even though, as Mike said, running a family farm is a bit of a dying breed in American agriculture.

“Farming is going corporate,” Mike said. “There’s no way around that. If you want to stay in it, you just have to follow along and get bigger. Farming has been very lucrative the past few years, but the costs have really gone up, too.”

Though he said he doesn’t always enjoy the jobs that fall to him in the sibling pecking order — like shoveling rotten grain — Jaxon said he likes living and working on the farm, especially driving (surprise, surprise) combine.

“I think if I lived in town or in a city, it’d get pretty boring,” Jaxon said. “This way, I don’t have to sit inside a lot.”

With four older brothers, the date that eventually comes to pick up Quinn for the prom might have a lump in his throat, but, for now, Quinn’s brothers seem intent on toughening her up.

“They beat me up a lot,” said Quinn with a laugh. “But they make me tough. At least, that’s what everybody tells me.”

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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