Jim Nelson

Position Held: Howard County Soil and Water Conservation District, 1968 - 1972; Board Member, Lower Loup NRD, 1972 - time of interview

Interviewer: Jim Barr

Associated NRDs:

Lower Loup


MR. NELSON: I realize what a hard time he had. You could fly that airplane and you could see when you crossed the county line into Sherman.

MR. BARR: Is that right?

MR. NELSON: There was that much less soil conservation and stuff done in Sherman County. One, they were probably a little poorer, not much, but a little bit. But they just -- well, Howard had to have it because of the need for land leveling and I guess SCS sent better men to Howard County. We had some good ones and, you know, at the time I didn't really appreciate or I guess I didn't know what a bad one was.

MR. BARR: Sure, sure. About when did the Howard County Conservation Board or district get started, approximately?

MR. NELSON: I have no idea.

MR. BARR: When did you get involved in it? In the late --

MR. NELSON: 1957 or '8 must be about the time I got on, I think. No, no, I'm wrong there. 1966 we were the award farm.

MR. BARR: Okay.

MR. NELSON: And it's been about '68 that I got -- I didn't even get elected. I guess I got appointed to fill someone's unexpired term. And I guess my term has gone since then, probably since about '68.

MR. BARR: What all did the Howard County district do before they became involved with the natural resource district?

MR. NELSON: So much land leveling. See, the first plotter came in 1963 and we started land leveling, getting ready for irrigation in 1960. We had one of those, I don't recall what the -- Great Plains Program, that's what it was. I think it ran for 10 years. And you had a little segment of each -- you had to do it every year and we did our first waterway and a diversion ditch, I think, to get started and then it kind of went from there. We hired some cousins that had a dirt scraper and we had a small dirt scraper of our own. Are you familiar with what a W6 International looks like?

MR. BARR: Yeah.

MR. NELSON: We had one of them pulling a two and a half yard dirt scraper. It wasn't a pleasant thing to drive, but it got the dirt scraper full. It and the government payment and the cousins’ eight yard Johnson paddle scraper and we bench leveled a whole lot. And we've tore them all up by now. They were too flat. We might have had some in there that were 10th grade. Maximum allowable grade was three-tenths, and that just wasn't enough. Early on when everybody started running out of water in the Farwell project they sent a guy from the University out to do a study and he concluded that the average irrigator put on six inches on the first watering. We was doing the best we could and putting on four, and we were allowed 16. So everybody ran out of water. I was on the Water Policy Task Force. And one of the trips that we took was down into Kansas to see the Bostwick. It's a couple years older than Farwell, I think. Maybe it's even five years older. I'm not just sure. But every problem I saw down there we repeated here in Farwell. Apparently SCS wasn't learning. That's the truth. I don't know if they pay you.

MR. BARR: No, no, this is totally voluntary. I've never worked for Soil Conservation.

MR. NELSON: Well, I don't care if they pay you. What I said is true.

MR. BARR: No, no, this is truly a volunteer basis.

MR. NELSON: They had -- golly, the average irrigator down there was using like 22 inches of water a year, big amounts of water. And what I saw was flat grade, trouble getting the water through, and high water tables. Every mistake that they made we repeated. And, you know, we would have repeated a lot of them in the North Loup project, lots of them. I was having a hassle with the Farwell district over high groundwater in this field north of my house here. I was raising willow trees and frogs up there and it had never been wet before and they come down there, yep, yep, they studied it, yep, it's our water, it's our fault. And they got ready to do something about it and says, hey, wait a minute. This ain't in the project. So I was angry. I didn't think that was fair. I asked a lawyer and well, he said, who owns the project. Well, we do. How does the Farwell project get the money? Well, it's our money. We pay for the water. Oh, the guy says, well, you can sue yourself and you'll probably win, so I didn't. Pay yourself with your own money.

MR. BARR: When did you get aware of the Natural Resource District's idea and how did you get involved and that sort of thing?

MR. NELSON: I'd like to take credit but I don't get any.

MR. BARR: Excuse me a minute. I forgot to introduce. This is Jim Barr. It's June 21st, 2013, and I am talking with Jim Nelson along the Middle Loup River north of Cairo, Nebraska. And I should let you give a little background on yourself. I think you started before I got the recorder going.

MR. NELSON: Today is my birthday. I'm 75 years old. And I've never had a job. I was born and raised on a farm and inherited the same farm and I'm just kind of trying to step back and get out of the way now. But I've been a farmer all my life and loved it.

MR. BARR: Back to the question about the NRD.

MR. NELSON: Yeah, I don't get to take any credit for that. I hadn't been on the Soil and Water Conservation District board that long, but I had been on long enough to realize that county lines were a real big barrier. We had drain problems between us and Hall County and I think a little bit with Merrick County. Whenever we got to the county line things just stopped. And so I guess it was
when -- I'm losing the guy's name at Aurora, Maurice Kremer.

MR. BARR: Right.

MR. NELSON: He must have been a director, too, because he talked about those problems and figured that NRDs would solve it. I guess he was right. I know he was right.

MR. BARR: Along the lines you had mentioned earlier about doing some flying and seeing the difference in the --

MR. NELSON: Yeah, I became aware of the value of good soil conservation district personnel and directors. That goes both ways. When I flew over the county line, I could easily see the difference between the people we had in Howard County and the people in the neighboring county. I won't say which one because that's not really right, but it was sure easily visible. All you had to do was just look where the farm dam stopped and you knew you had crossed the line.

Note: Added comments: “Good, knowledgeable contractors made a big contribution also. Road builders who were out of a job and made the low bid were often less capable.”

MR. BARR: Were you involved in the original board, the interim board of directors for the Loup?

MR. NELSON: Yes, I was. Howard County had six directors and we elected two of our own group to go ahead and I guess they must have picked me because I was the youngest and probably picked Dean Rasmussen because he was in an area that needed the most getting ready for irrigation. So it looked to the rest of them like we were those most likely to need the future.

MR. BARR: And you have been elected ever since?

MR. NELSON: Ever since, yeah, it's 42 years.

MR. BARR: I think so.

MR. NELSON: Yeah, it will be.

MR. BARR: What were some of the challenges you faced as you organized the board and organized offices and that sort of thing?

MR. NELSON: Land leveling. We had two or three guys in the Howard County office drawing up maps all the time. We had, in hindsight, just pretty good men in there. I did some dirt work myself and there were a couple of those guys that were really my favorites because they could stay within the rules and make my day a lot easier. Most of the time, I was hauling my own dirt so I wasn't paid by the hour. Now if I was out working for somebody else and paid by the hour, I might not have seen it quite like those guys did. But, yeah, they were good. And pastures, we still don't know range management here. The Sandhills people come down and drive by our pastures and shake their head and say, what's the matter? I say it in my own house.

MR. BARR: What are some of the examples of that?

MR. NELSON: Overgrazing, just not rotating the pastures. The cedar trees, we've just never been taught. Our fathers didn't know. My father didn't know.

MR. BARR: You're in kind of the southeastern part of the NRD, is that right?

MR. NELSON: No, I'm pretty much in the belly of it.

MR. BARR: In the belly of it, okay, all right.


MR. BARR: Looking throughout the district, what are some of the other challenges or projects or programs that worked out pretty good over either the whole district or other parts of the district?

MR. NELSON: Well, I don't know about a specific answer to your question, but right now every day I look out and see the river running by my house and think, isn't there a little better use for that water today? I don't know. I think about how a reservoir could be embezzling 150 cfs a day all winter long and no one would be aware until July comes and then say, my, isn't this nice.

MR. BARR: Do you have good sites that you could find to do something like that or -- in the area? Or would it have to be further upstream?

MR. NELSON: Not real good. The only one we have thought about a little bit is on the South Loup. It's probably our most critical. And the reservoir would have to be in the neighboring NRD and they would get all the negative part and we'd get all the benefit. And maybe there's not enough flow in that river at that point. I've seen the South Loup River down to where I can step across it.

MR. BARR: Is that right?

MR. NELSON: Oh, yeah. Last summer it got down to I think a foot and a half one day. In 1980 it stopped for 24 hours. My son-in-law's father and son-in-law, they own a piece of land at the mouth of the South Loup River and they saw it dry. But I think last summer it was down to about a foot, one and a half cfs. I know I went up there with the air boat to see the situation and turned around in a hurry, or I turned around the best I could.

MR. BARR: What are some of the things you especially remember about your 40 years, plus years involved in this?

MR. NELSON: Well, we went through a period when everything we did had to have groundwater recharge. And then it began to rain again and we kind of forgot it, but that was the period of the 80s. We went through periods when we really planted a lot of trees for living snow fences and for building sites. I recall once when the Central Platte NRD had a big celebration when, I don't know, they planted a million trees since they began or some occasion with a million trees anyway. And we didn't say anything. We had men on our staff up there who had planted that many trees by themselves.

MR. BARR: Looking -- go ahead.

MR. NELSON: We've done some with range management, not so much where I live here. We just don't have that much range. We went through some awful scary years in the later 1970s when the big splurge of center pivots in the sandy land. Our manager, Dick Beran, I believe it was, had gotten a brochure or two being handed out to the rich people from the east that this was the last frontier, the last easy money or something similar to that. We had almost tearful ranchers coming out of the Sandhills to our meetings and saying, can't you get them stopped? Well, we tried all kinds of things through the back door and everything with county zoning and so on and we couldn't. And then the price of corn fell and that took care of it. Then we reached the point where so many bankers were getting the land back through loan foreclosures and we wondered, will they just let them go and back taxes will take over and the NRD has to seed them to grass and control the leafy spurge which was a problem also. And along came a weed and saved us, marestail. That is a stiff, coarse weed that can keep standing maybe for several years and it served as a cover crop on some of the Sandhills.

MR. BARR: I hadn't heard that.

MR. NELSON: Yeah, we were afraid. Several, I don't know, more than one any way, quarter sections got planted to cedar trees because there was such a demand for native grass seed that it was costing $100 an acre for seed. We've got a bird outside the window that is flying against the window, a Cardinal, a male Cardinal. Did you see it?

MR. BARR: No, not yet.

MR. NELSON: Yeah, I don't know if you can see it from where you're at. It's sitting on one of the chairs up there.

MR. BARR: Oh, yeah.

MR. NELSON: It flies against the window every little bit. It's been doing it for about three weeks.

MR. BARR: He's trying to get in or --

MR. NELSON: He sees his reflection and he's going to beat up on it.

MR. BARR: I'll be darned.

MR. NELSON: The deck out there is covered with purple manure. My wife has concluded that mulberries are part of their diet.

MR. BARR: What are some other things you -- anything else you would like to -- well; maybe I should approach it this way. Based on what you were looking at when you started out in this process and what has happened over the 45 years or so, 50 years that you've been involved either in the Howard County or the NRD, any observations you'd like to make?

MR. NELSON: There was a few things I was certain of. One was that I was dead set against anybody selling their right to irrigate. I was against anybody telling you you couldn't drill irrigation well if you wanted it because I'm sure that all the water under your farm belonged to you. And I had to change my mind.

MR. BARR: Yeah.

MR. NELSON: I've been one of them responsible for that.

MR. BARR: What do you see as some of the things that the NRD is going to be facing in the next 20 years or so?

MR. NELSON: Well, control of groundwater irrigation I'm afraid will continue. I was against most of what I had been doing. I have really growled about the game commission and their control of the water or seemingly trying to control it. You know, they got water rights for a couple of times more water than is in the Platte River and the Loup is a tributary of the Platte. I'm afraid Mike Jess gets some of the credit for that.

MR. BARR: Well, I don't have a whole lot more questions but this is the part just open it up to anything you'd like to offer and --

MR. NELSON: I've rattled too much already. I love the river. My great grandfather emigrated from Sweden and settled down the river a mile and a half or two. Then later on it was said that he couldn't get any work out of his kids because they were in the river all the time instead of working and he moved away a mile and a half or two miles away from the river. But my grandfather kind of moved back closer to the river and lent money to a man who couldn't pay it back and got this piece of land and some more in the 30s. And I bought -- you know, I graduated from high school in 1956 and that was the third consecutive year of nothing through drought. And the bank was leaning on my father for a mortgage on the land. And two of dad's brother-in-laws and a neighbor to the north had drilled deep wells and got irrigation and they were saying, well, you don't have an aquifer where you live to get a good well and that was proven. But my dad got a permit to pump from the river here on this piece of land where the house is, and we irrigated 35 acres, something like that, the first year. Worked like dogs moving sprinklers by hand through tall corn. But we raised some crops. In the meantime, I graduated from high school, fell in love and got married. I was 19. My wife was 18. We've been married 56 years. That was good. But irrigation really helped. In 1966 we got the first water from the Farwell unit. In 1976 my son got a pilot's license. We went from starving to flying an airplane. 1977, I got a little airplane and a license to fly. Imagine us guys going from that kind of living to flying. None of us went to college. No telling how far we could have got. Yeah, at one time I had one and a half airplanes and probably flew both of them a combined 50 hours a year. Last year Mike flew the airplane seven hours. I bought an Aeronca Champ. Are you familiar with airplanes?

MR. BARR: No, I'm not.

MR. NELSON: The Aeronca is a real small, light airplane. One sits behind the other. This one was made for the Army in 1947. It had no electrical system so you turned the prop by hand to start it. It's a fabric covered airplane, weighs 700 pounds. But, anyway, I took lessons in it. Had a woman instructor and women's rights were the thing then and she was really that. To prove we could do it she got a couple of little receivers is all they were. You couldn't transmit with it. So you put the receiver in your pocket and the bug in your ear and you were ready. We got our lessons at the Grand Island airport with the control tower. Call them on the phone and say we'd like permission to taxi and to take off on a given runway and what’s your condition and so on. Okay, when you get out there and we're ready for you to takeoff, we'll tell you and you'll hear it in your ear. You flop your runs on your wings in response and go to it. When you want to land again you told them, you know, about what time you came in and you got into the traffic pattern and you flew around and around and they would see you out there and tell you (that) you were clear to land. You'd rock your wings and you'd do your thing. So she proved we could do it. And we did. About that time the son graduated from high school. He graduated in '76. But before he graduated he had a license to fly and half an airplane. He made round bales for the neighbors. I believe he might have been -- God, I could go to jail for it, but was he eight years old when he could run the dirt scraper? God, it might be. He was born in '58. Eight years would have been '66. He might have been. 1970 we bought a farm and we did major leveling on that and that was away from home. He was 12 then. Geez, OSHA would have put me in jail forever.

MR. BARR: Well, I know the feeling. I ran a Ford 9N into the ditch when I was about five. Anyhow, that's -- well, I don't want to keep you too long but if there's anything else you'd like to --

MR. NELSON: I'm glad you're keeping me. I needed the rest.

MR. BARR: Okay, if there are any last things you would like to add, go ahead at this point.

MR. NELSON: Well, if there is anything that the NRD probably needs to do, it's to teach those in the transition area between the farming area and the range land how to mange the small amounts of range land they have. Got a lot to learn and this dry weather is teaching it to you in the toughest terms.

MR. BARR: Well, thank you very much for your time and contribution.

(End of first recording. Begin second recording.)

MR. NELSON: It occurred real early in the years of the water policy task force. We were having dinner one day and I sat down to dinner with a lady who I knew was representing I believe the Game Commission or she was representing wildlife, I guess, more technically right on that. She had had occasion to go on big game hunts in other continents even and I knew that her goal for the water in the river was directly opposite from what mine must have been. And I really was a bit uncomfortable about how to go about a conversation with her. And I started out this way. I said, you know, I'm a Christian and I feel that God has left us as stewards on the resources on our land and water and I feel like God is watching us. And she said, you know, I do, too. And we never argued.

MR. BARR: Thank you.