Farm Horizons, August 2011

Neatons of Watertown are 2011 Wright Co. farm family

By Linda Scherer

Paul and Holly Neaton’s farm in Watertown is now into its fifth generation of farmers who work the land, and still find time to educate and promote agriculture in their community.

The 225-acre farm, with an additional 750 acres rented, supports crops, sheep, chickens, and several acres of organic vegetables, which are part of a program called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

For the last 11 years, Neaton’s sheep have been part of the Miracle of Birth Center at the Minnesota State Fair. Close to a million people walk through the birth center each year to watch as the lambs are being born, along with calves and piglets. The agricultural education exhibit, which Holly Neaton co-chairs, is one of the most popular places at the fair, according to Paul.

The younger Neatons, Nick and his wife, Amy, take care of a large garden which currently has 18 CSA shareholders who receive produce each week, including the Minnesota governor and two Wright County commissioners. Nick and Amy welcome help or questions from customers who want to come out to the farm and learn about the vegetables and how they are grown.

These are just some of the ways the Neatons have demonstrated their commitment to agriculture and agriculture production, and why they were recognized by their local county extension committee as the 2011 Wright County Farm Family of the Year.

They are one of 75 farm families from around the state, one from each participating county, to be honored this year, by the University of Minnesota for promoting agriculture in the area.

The Neaton farm was originally purchased in 1883, by Paul’s great-grandfather, Dennis Neaton, and for three generations, it was a dairy farm. When Paul bought the farm in 1971, he no longer wanted to have dairy cows.

“I never cared much for animals,” Paul said. “I like to crop farm. I had steers for a few years.”

In his early years of farming, Paul was on his own and had little money to get started. He would plant his crops and then help haul sweet corn to supplement his income. After he could afford his own truck, he started Neaton Trucking, hauling grain, sweet corn, sugar beets, and gravel. For 30 years, he hauled grain to the Cities and hauled gravel back. He also hauled sweet corn for the Green Giant canning factory for 22 years.

Today, he still hauls gravel, but he only hauls grain for himself.

Holly grew up in the city and moved to Watertown, near St. Mary’s of Czestochowa Church, the summer before her senior year of high school. Moving to the country meant she was able to get the horse she always wanted and it was her horse’s need for hay that brought her to the Neaton farm, where she met Paul.

While Paul didn’t care for animals, Holly not only liked animals, she wanted to become a veterinarian. As part of her senior year, she was on the work studies program, driving around with the veterinarian in Watertown in the afternoon helping him make his rounds.

A momentous year for the Neatons was 1975, when Holly was accepted into veterinarian school and the couple got married. After Holly graduated from veterinarian school in 1979, she became a partner in the clinic in Watertown, where she specialized in dairy animals, beef, and some horses.

To make life even more interesting, the couple’s three sons arrived on the scene. Nick was born in 1982. He and Amy live near Montrose. Sam was born in 1986, is married, and lives in Texas. Peter was born in 1988, and after graduating from a college in Vermont, majoring in nutrition, he decided to try commercial fishing off the coast of Alaska.

While the boys were growing up, the farm had chickens, calves, pigs, and ducks because the boys had to have their 4H projects, according to Holly. And then, the sheep arrived.

Holly had accompanied one of her clients to help buy sheep and decided to buy some for the Neaton farm, too.

“I always liked sheep and thought they are kind of low-maintenance. I think we started with six,” she said.

That was 23 years ago. Now the farm has between 300 and 400 Polypay sheep at all times.

“Polypay are an all-purpose whiteface breed. They were kind of new when I started, but they have become very popular,” Holly said. “They are good mothers, they milk a lot, lamb easy, and lamb out of season . . . and have nice wool. They have become a lot more popular since we first got them.”

For sheep, the gestation time is five months. The Neatons rotate their ewes, trying to have them lamb three times in two years. Each ewe averages two or three lambs per birth. Lambing takes place four times a year on the farm and each time, about 40 lambs are born.

Miracle of Birth Center at state fair

Holly has been co-chair of Miracle of Birth Center at the Minnesota State Fair, since it began.

“Holly and two other vets started this whole thing,” Paul said about the Miracle of Birth Center at the fair. “It’s unbelievable how many people hang out there.”

According to the Miracle of Birth website, “it’s the most beloved free exhibit on the fairgrounds.”

This will be the 11th year the Neatons have provided sheep to lamb there. Holly has been synchronizing ewes to come into heat so they are bred to have their lambs during one of the 12 days of the fair.

This year, Holly has 18 ewes that will be taken in three groups every five days. The ewes were each given an ultrasound after 40 days to insure they were carrying a lamb.

“People come and watch for hours and hours and hours,” Paul said. “It’s nice for people who want their kids or grandkids to see.”

There are large cooling fans in the center to keep the animals comfortable and according to Holly, the animals don’t seem to mind the attention.

“She used to be down there the whole 12 days of the fair,” Paul said.

“Now I am just down there about one-third of the time,” Holly said. “We have over 100 vets and vet students that will come from all over to help,” Holly said.

“I think it’s good for the large animal vets that are out of state, for them to see how interested people are in their profession,” Holly said, “and how important it’s for them to take care of the animals on the farm.”

In 1997, with three boys in multiple activities, the sheep, and other farming activities, the Neatons decided to slow their life’s daily pace and sell their part of the veterinary practice in Watertown where Holly had worked for 18 years.

“Dairy was leaving the area and I wanted to stay with the larger animals,” Holly said.

She reduced her hours to three days a week when she started to work for Beckman Coulter in Chaska, a clinic that has goats, burrows, rabbits, and mice, and manufactures antibodies with their test kits for human testing.

“There are about 1,000 people who work for the company and we have an animal facility in Maple Plain. I am the attending veterinarian,” Holly said.

Outside of the farm, the Neatons have been active in several organizations. Paul was on the Watertown-Mayer School Board for 12 years, and Holy Trinity Church grounds and finance committees.

Holly has been on the Minnesota Board of Animal Health for the last six years, and is an honorary FFA member and a member of the Minnesota Lamb and Wool Producers Association.

CSA produce makes eating healthy easy

Nick and Amy started planting vegetables on the Neaton family farm two years ago and call their CSA business, “The Sweet Beet Farm.“

Currently, the couple have 18 CSA members, including the Minnesota governor and two Wright County commissioners, who each purchased a share of the Neaton garden and, in return, are promised a box of fresh vegetables each week throughout the growing season.

Planning what vegetables to plant begins in the winter. First, the couple figures out what they want to harvest. Then, they take a look at each variety to find out how long the germination time is. That’s how they schedule when they need to plant.

“We are continually planting,” Nick said. “We are still planting now (Aug. 1). We plant every week or two throughout the season.”

It’s called succession planting. An example is planting green beans. They do several plantings a few weeks apart so when one planting is through producing, another one begins.

“Last year we had a really hard time with succession planting and knowing how much to plant and when,” Amy said. “We just kind of went at it and would say, ‘well, it’s about time we put these seeds in the ground.’ But this winter we sat down and scheduled out everything, every harvest that we need to seed, and that has really helped us.”

When the couple isn’t planting, they are weeding or harvesting.

Amy estimates she spends 70 hours gardening a week, but she’s including the time off the farm when she’s working for an organic farmer who has been in the business for 15 years.

Gardening has been a big part of Amy’s life, starting in her mother’s garden many years ago.

“I grew up gardening,” Amy said. “My mom canned everything from the garden. She really tried to grow as many vegetables as she could for the family. Nothing big like we are doing now. It was our chore during the summer to go out and work in the garden. We started when we were, like, 7 years old.”

Nick estimates he spends 15 to 20 hours per week in the garden. He is also the 4-H coordinator for Wright County. He finds it amazing that he has found his way back to the farm and all the work that goes with it.

“The fact that I am sitting here right now is a pure miracle,” Nick said referring to his working on the farm. “If you would have told me 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you. Even five years ago. Farming is too much work and you’re never done working,” Nick said.

Nick traveled a lot after college, trying different jobs, and that’s when he discovered he liked the idea of organic farming.

He worked at Gale Woods Farm in Mound for a couple of years, teaching farm education. His title was farm educator.

“It was kind of like an Old McDonald’s farm. They had every kind of animal and big gardens and they had a CSA program out there, too, that I helped out with,” Nick said.

So why does the couple work so hard to grow vegetables for others?

“We like to be outside, and I think that growing our own food is really satisfying,” Amy said, “and learning to be proficient at it so we can share it with others.”

Nick likes using the land efficiently.

“We don’t need to use a great deal of land,” Nick said. “We are feeding 20-plus families with two-and-one-half acres and we could do more if we wanted. In an area like this, where land prices are high, it’s a good deal because you can make a living on less land.

Besides the CSA produce, the Neatons sell chickens, lamb, and eggs.

Nick and Amy still have two more CSA shares available. Anyone interested can contact Nick at (952) 807-8324.

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