Growing up on a farm, Rick Nelson came to realize what he liked — and didn't like — about farming.
"I knew I didn't like chores," he said. "I don't like redundant tasks. I don't want to do the same thing today as yesterday."
The daily demands of caring for livestock weren't for him.
Instead, give him something analytical, let him figure out how to solve a problem, how to make improvements.
Nelson, 62, who farms about 2,100 acres in the Paxton area, said he likes looking at partial budgets and figuring out what will happen if you increase — or decrease — a particular line item.
"I look at the little pieces that are going to change, then I think through all the causes and effects of what's going to happen," he said.
Nelson, the 2014 News-Gazette Farm Leader, got a degree in agricultural economics from the University of Illinois in 1974.
Since then, he has had plenty of opportunities beyond the farm to apply what he's learned.
You might say he's become very "cooperative."
Consider his record:
— In 1982, Nelson joined the board of directors of what would become Heritage FS, a farmer-owned cooperative that today serves Ford, Iroquois and four other counties. He's been on that board for 33 years and its treasurer for 30 years.
— In 1988, he joined the board of directors of the Ludlow Co-Op Elevator Co., which today has nine grain elevators in Champaign, Ford and Iroquois counties. He's been on that board 27 years and its president for 21 years.
— Since 1990, Nelson has been on the board of directors of Growmark, the Bloomington-based agricultural supply cooperative that provides services in 40 states and Ontario, Canada, and has annual revenues of more than $1 billion. Nelson has been vice chair of that board since 2004.
Just how did Nelson come to serve such long tenures on so many co-op boards?
His dad, Stanley Nelson, had served on the FS board in the early 1970s, and when the co-op later sought a director, Rick Nelson said, "OK, I'll try it for a year or two."
Then, when the grain elevator co-op sounded him out about serving on its board, Nelson realized it "may be a challenge to balance the two" but he'd give it a shot.
When it came time for grain co-ops to choose a district director to serve on the Growmark board, Nelson threw his hat in the ring. Again, he wasn't certain he had time for it, but he'd try.
Apparently things worked out.
Nelson said the cooperative meetings are like "mini-vacations" for him — because his brain can focus on topics different from those he deals with regularly in his corn-and-soybeans farming operation.
John Reifsteck, who farms west of Champaign and chairs the Growmark board, has known Nelson for more than 20 years and describes him as "thoughtful, smart, articulate."
"He's very thorough about how he goes about things, both on the farm and in working together on the cooperative," Reifsteck said. "It's very important to Rick that we get things right."
Reifsteck said he counts on Nelson to bring good information to policy discussions.
"You know that when Rick has a chance to weigh in on a subject, he's done his research," Reifsteck said.
"If you haven't done your homework, he will have. I'll sometimes think, 'What's Rick going to say about this?' I try to anticipate the questions Rick would have."
Nelson said he devotes about 60 days a year to work for the cooperatives.
Then, there's his own farming operation.
He's the fourth generation of Nelsons to till the land west of Paxton.
His great-grandparents, John and Hannah Nelson, both of Swedish heritage, were tenant farmers on the property from 1910 to 1918.
Their son, Ellven, and his wife, Mabel, farmed there until 1957, when their son, Stanley, and his wife Alice, moved there.
And since 1988, their son, Rick, and his wife, Patricia Grohler Nelson, have made the farm their home.
They have two sons, Christopher, 32, and Michael, 28.
Christopher and his wife Sharon are pastors in Oberlin, Kan., and they have a 21/2-year-old son, Carter.
Mike, who farms with his dad, is married to Amanda. Their son, Owen, was born Jan. 26 of this year.
Rick Nelson graduated from Paxton High School in 1970, got his bachelor's degree from the UI and came back to the farm to work for his dad. Stanley Nelson not only grew corn and soybeans but also raised hogs, did earth-moving work and had a crop-spraying business.
Rick first met Patricia when his sister, Colleen — who worked with Patricia at the Switchcraft plant in Paxton — brought her by the farm.
Rick recalls looking rather "grubby" at the time.
"I wasn't real impressed," Patricia recalled.
But apparently he cleaned up pretty well.
They began dating in July 1975 and were married Nov. 12, 1977.
In 1980, Rick Nelson rented 160 acres of farmland separate from his dad. Five years later, he and his dad changed their operating structure so that they became joint tenants on all the farmland they had.
In 1996, Stanley Nelson formally "retired" and became Rick's employee.
Today Stanley, 86, still makes parts runs for the farming operation. He and Alice live in Elliott, about 6 miles west of the farm.
Rick's son, Mike, a music buff, went to Parkland College, thinking he would become a technical engineer doing recording work for bands.
But he decided to shift to agriculture and joined the farming operation full-time in 2008.
Rick Nelson said he, his father and son all approach farming in slightly different ways.
"I think we're similar, but we're generationally different," he explained.
His dad, Stanley, "was always analytical — I remember him running the numbers," Rick said. In many ways, Mike is developing the same techniques, with added help from the Internet.
Rick said his own inclination when encountering a problem is to hunt up a technical manual.
When Mike solves a problem, he makes use of online dialogue and chat rooms, asking others what they think the answer might be.
Nelson was named a Master Farmer of Illinois by Prairie Farmer magazine in 2009.
Since then, he has served as a "Cultivating Master Farmers" mentor, working with young producers.
"I'm always amazed watching Rick in a meeting," said Rod Stoll, who got to know Nelson through the mentoring program.
"He's a great articulator and speaker and an empathetic and aggressive listener," Stoll said.
"You can watch him when discussions happen, and he's processing, listening and feeling with the different parties," said Stoll, the vice president for marketplace engagement at Farm Credit Illinois. "I always wait for him to impart his ... great rich wisdom."
Jim Niewold, who lives about 4 miles from Nelson, has known him since they were kids in 4-H.
Niewold has competed with Nelson for land — and has worked with him, on behalf of area farmers, in negotiating with companies once interested in putting wind farms in that area.
"He's willing to listen to different points of view, but he's also willing to take a stance," Niewold said.
"He's very good at facilitating a good discussion among opposing views, and he's also willing to take leadership."
Niewold, who nominated Nelson for the Master Farmer award, called Nelson "an honest person" who believes that cooperatives can make things better not only for himself but "for others around us too."
"Rick also does a good job of farming," Niewold added. "He tries to stay toward the front of major shifts in equipment and technology and is willing to try new things as they come along."
With a name like Rick Nelson, it's only natural he has a bent for music.
But don't confuse him with Ozzie and Harriet's son who put "Poor Little Fool," "Hello, Mary Lou" and "Garden Party" on the pop charts.
This Rick Nelson is a drummer and vocalist who played in bands through the '60s, '70s and early '80s.
He was part of the Marauders, Forgotten Brotherhood, Zachariah and his most successful band, Slipstream, which performed the final show at the old Chances R nightclub in Champaign.
Nelson and son Michael also played in a Christian pop band, and Rick later ran the sound board for Michael's band.
Rick also played drums with the praise team at his church, Evangelical Covenant Church of Paxton.
The Nelsons have been very involved with that church. Patricia spent 21 years as the church secretary before retiring.
Rick served as the church chairman from 1998 to 2001 and from 2007 to 2010. He has been chairman of the long-term planning committee and an adult Sunday school class leader for 17 years.
He is also involved in Gideons International.
"My nickname for him is Reverend Nelson," Stoll said. "I always call on him for the invocation. He has the most eloquent, beautiful ways to speak to the Lord before a meal.
"He is such a grounded man. He's got reason to be proud, but he is always grounded and humble."
Keeping himself busy
In addition to being on the board of directors of co-ops, Rick Nelson has been involved in other projects, serving as:
— Development committee member for the One Earth Energy ethanol plant in Gibson City.
— Co-chairman of the Ford County Farmers Wind Energy Committee from 2010 to 2012.
— Secretary of the Nickel Plate Trust, a group of landowners who bought 41 miles of right of way from the Norfolk Southern Railroad and transferred tracts to adjacent landowners.