This is the second in a series of articles, to be published July in the Cambridge News and Deerfield Independent, about local families who have shown at area agriculture fairs for generations.
Showing fair animals is something taught by generations of farm families – but parents and grandparents aren’t the only mentors.
Older siblings, too, have a huge influence, say members of the Nelson family, who have ties to both Cambridge and Deerfield.
Holly Nelson, who grew up in Deerfield is, respectively, six and three years younger than her siblings, Rich and Chris.
Nelson won countless awards herself showing beef cattle, winning reserve grand champion steer at the Dane County Fair at age 10, and culminating with grand champion steer at Dane County at age 17.
She credits her eldest brother, Richard, largely for getting her hooked.
“I don’t remember when Richie didn’t show. We have photos of me at like, three years old, holding the halter with him,” recalls Nelson, who said she and her brother showed beef cattle in the days when Deerfield High School still had an FFA. “I just always wanted to be like him.”
The FFA was disbanded at Deerfield a couple of years after she graduated in 1986, when its longtime advisor retired, Nelson said.
Today, three decades later, Nelson’s teenage children, Sophie and Kaden Grieser, keep their fair pigs at their father’s longtime family farm outside Cambridge.
Tim Grieser showed dairy cattle as a teen in Dane County.
Like their mother, Sophie and Kaden Grieser credit older siblings, Jens and Chase Grieser, now age 24 and 21, for spurring their interest.
Kaden and Sophie Grieser, who have shown pigs at both the Stoughton Fair and Jefferson County Fair, were in elementary school when their older brothers began showing pigs. The older boys, about 10 years ago, worked with their father to remake a long-abandoned pig barn on their farm into a useable project space.
Sophie and Kaden Grieser have gone on to win major area fair awards, including grand champion and supreme champion for their pigs at Stoughton and Jefferson County.
One warm morning last month, the teens, who are now members of Cambridge High School’s FFA after participating in Cambridge 4-H through grade school, were tending about a half-dozen pigs that were just weeks from showing.
The pigs, who ultimately weigh in at close to 300 pounds, arrived at the farm in March at about three months old, weighing about 40 pounds.
They’ve since been fed a specialized, pre-mixed diet of ground corn, soybeans and other ingredients, are walked daily, and are carefully monitored and regularly weighed to ensure they hit fair weight regulations.
“It was a big influence on us, when Jens got his first pigs,” Sophie recalls. “I think I was in first or second grade, and I was super excited,” especially when her Cambridge Elementary School class would visit the Severson Learning Center, the school district’s school farm. For the first couple of years, before their own barn was redone, Jens kept his pigs at the SLC, and she recalls proudly pointing them out to classmates.
How animals are fed and prepped for the fair has changed dramatically in the years since Holly and her father, Fred Nelson, who also grew up in Deerfield and was an FFA member in the 1950s, participated. The picture has especially changed in the amount of fat content that judges are looking for in a prize-winning animal, which has widely fluctuated over the years.
But what remains constant is the focus on bringing to the fair an animal that will meet judges’ highest expectations and will attract top buyers at a meat animal sale.
Fred Nelson has been an ever-present part of the family’s fair scene.
Nelson, who first showed steer in Stoughton at what was then the Dane County Fair in 1955, and won top honors as a teen, grew up to own his own cattle hauling business.
For Nelson’s children and grandchildren, having him haul their animals, and those of friends and other FFA members, is a special summer memory. Nelson finally retired two years ago but before his did, each of Holly Nelson and Tim Griesers’ four children got to experience his involvement on that level.
“It was always nice rolling up to the fair in that big trailer,” Kaden Grieser recalls.
“We looked pretty cool doing that,” Sophie agreed.
“I think it’s pretty cool, knowing that three generations of our family have done this, and that hopefully generations to come will, too,” Kaden added.
Sophie also shows dairy cows, but Kaden said after a short-lived attempt at showing sheep, he now sticks with pigs.
Both Holly and Fred Nelson say they have been mostly hands-off with their children’s fair projects, believing the work needs to be done by the kids.
“I helped some but really I thought ‘it’s their project they’ve got to do it,’” Fred said. “I pretty much stood back.”
“I don’t know anything about pigs,” Holly Nelson similarly says. “It’s their project.”
That, Fred says, is an old philosophy that his parents held when he was a teen showing beef cattle.
“Nobody helped me,” Fred recalls.
Parents and grandparents, can, however, be found beaming in the stands.
Fred Nelson recalls, watching Holly win reserve grand champion her first year at the Dane County fair at age 10 in 1979, “the buttons popping off my shirt.”
Today, “I have a good feeling that my grandkids are still doing this, and they are doing a good job. I have to be proud of that,” he added.
In Fred Nelson’s day, youth exhibitors were allowed to sleep in the barns. Not that he was in the same barn as many of his friends.
Most of his friends, in the 1950s, showed dairy cows, Fred recalls.
“Every farm around here had cows,” he recalled. “But I wasn’t interested in dairy. I just liked (beef) better than milking cows.”
Sleeping in the barns was no longer allowed by the time Holly Nelson began showing steer. But a sense of camaraderie remains, her children say, among youth hanging out in the barns during fair season.
“Everybody knows everybody, and everyone is there for the week,” Sophie Grieser said. “It’s just so fun.”