Members in Focus: Dave & Donna Johnson, Otter Tail County
For Dave Johnson of Fergus Falls, his first memory of Minnesota Farmers Union was a picnic on Long Lake when he was 8 years old.
“The only reason I went is because we could play softball,” he said with a chuckle.
Some years later, our organization’s meaning to him would go far beyond sports. The longtime president of West Otter Tail County Farmers Union, and 30-year Executive Committee member, has devoted many years of his life to MFU’s success. He concluded his tenure on the Executive Committee this past February.
Farming and teaching
Dave grew up on a family farm in Fergus Falls, with grains and a small livestock operation. Attending Concordia College in Moorhead, he graduated with an education degree and went into teaching in 1960. But he and his wife Donna, whom he married in 1961, couldn’t stay away from the farm.
“Dave used to do some custom work for one of the neighbors, who said, ‘I’m going to sell you my farm someday,’” Donna said. “Eventually he did, and it was 100 acres.”
That was the start of the Johnsons’ grain operation. The house at their farm place was built in 1904 by immigrants, whose family became good friends of Dave’s parents. It is in the same neighborhood that Dave grew up in; his brother took over their home farm.
Meanwhile, Dave taught several subjects, from physical education to business, and coached basketball, in the small town of Herman, 36 miles south of their farm. Donna worked in town until the birth of their first of three sons, Doug.
“My wife has been very instrumental,” Dave said. “Some days she’d put the bassinet in the truck and haul grain to town while I was at school. I’d come home and fill up the truck or combine at night, then she’d do the same thing the next day.”
Dave taught in Herman for six years, then went to Campbell, which was closer to home, until 1975. At one point, he applied for a teaching job in Fergus Falls.
“I would have rented out my farm because I really enjoyed teaching,” he said. “A few days after my interview, the principal called and said that the superintendent wanted to hire someone right out of college so they could pay them less than they’d have to pay me. I think I made up my mind after that that I was going to go farm.”
It was around that time that they bought more farmland next to the acres they already had.
“In 1973, the U.S. sold a bunch of grain and wheat to Russia. They had a famine there,” Dave recalled. “Wheat that was normally $3.50-$4 was $6.50/bushel. I could have paid for (the land) in one year. You never do that though. I got very fortunate.”
By the time they were done buying land, the Johnsons owned nearly 1,000 acres (which Donna’s boss once joked to her that was the number needed to farm). They made the farm a corporation, which made it easier for Dave to transfer the operation to his second son, Darren, who took over in 1996 and farms the land today.
“(Darren) is doing a very good job on keeping machinery updated,” Dave said. “We don’t buy too many new pieces of equipment, but we have good used equipment. That’s one of the secrets to keeping on with farming in these tough times.”
One of the most efficient
The Johnsons have seen their farm through the hard times of the 1980s and into today. What’s Dave’s advice?
“Just tighten things down,” he said. “Instead of buying new machinery, we just got by with what we had. I think just about every year, we had a bottom line in the black. My nephew works for Farm Credit Services, and he says we’ve got one of the most efficient operations he’s come into contact with.
“You don’t have to buy machinery every year just because the neighbors did.”
Dave also admitted that they’ve gotten a lot of good luck.
“We’ve gotten good crops when we needed them,” he said. “1976 was an extremely dry year. We made it through, put up an irrigation system that year. Now we have three irrigation systems. That’s one more variable you have control over.”
Dave recalled that after his early encounters with Farmers Union, the organization’s presence in his community diminished.
Things changed when then-MFU President Cy Carpenter approached him in 1977 about running to become the next county president. Dave was elected and planned a free dinner in the nearby town of Elizabeth, then held monthly county meetings. Dave became a consistent attendee of the state convention, National Farmers Union Convention and the NFU Legislative Fly-in.
To revive Farmers Union in his area, he had help from Clyde Allebach, the late father of Farmers Union Insurance Agency President & General Manager Rodney Allebach.
“He was really the first person who kept it going and got people enthused about Farmers Union in this part of the state,” Dave said. “He had a pickup that was fueled by burning wood chips. It was quite a conversation piece.”
He also cited the leadership and staff of MFU over the years, each adding something to the organization that made it more viable.
“And (MFU General Counsel) Dave Velde,” he said. “He’s done tremendous by us.”
Ten years into his being a county president, a spot on the Executive Committee opened up in the middle of the year. Then-Field Services Director Ron Hauglie approached Dave about running for that spot. Dave did that, too.
“I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I found out what business organizations have to go through to survive. Farmers Union has really come along. I look forward to many good things for MFU in the coming years.”
A good life
Now Dave and Donna enjoy living by Lake Jewett, a house they built in 1996 when Darren began farming the land. They have seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Son Doug lives in Jordan, Minn., while Darren and youngest son Davy live nearby.
Looking back on his life, Dave is glad he’s taken the path he did: farming.
“I’m going to be 80 years old in a couple months, and I still get to drive tractor and combine, which I love to do,” he said. “What more could you ask for?”