2021: Stephan and Kristian Melson

The Minnesota Pork Board recognizes Stephan and Kristian Melson of Trimont, Minnesota, as this year’s Environmental Steward of the Year award recipient.

Farmers and those whose occupations impact the environment are no longer applauded for taking steps in the right direction on behalf of sustainable practices, for being an environmental steward is now expected. Each year, the general public pays more and more attention to the impact businesses of all sorts have on the environment. However, those who go above and beyond in their efforts deserve not only an applause, but industry recognition to set the standard high for others.

Fifth generation pig farmers and brothers, Stephan and Kristian Melson, grew up on a family farm in Trimont, Minnesota. They farmed alongside their father and uncle from a young age, but officially immersed themselves in the business in 2016.

Stephan started his career farming after attending college at the University of Minnesota studying Agriculture Education and Agronomy. He also worked as a salesman at the local co-op for some time, but now spends his time doubling as an independent crop consultant and farmer.

The younger of the two brothers, Kristian, attended Ridgewater College in Willmar, gaining expertise in the field of welding, while also spending several years working as a mechanic at a co-op as well as participating in field work.

Once both brothers completed their initial introduction to jobs outside of their home farm, they decided it was time to begin working alongside their father and uncle again.

Returning to the Farm

The Melson brothers know being a young farmer in today’s climate is tough. Farming poses a high risk, high reward situation that makes entry into the profession difficult, especially if there isn’t access to land or equipment through family connections. Add that to the public’s heightened interest in sustainability, there is a lot of pressure on today’s farmers.

The world of agriculture is constantly evolving, and new minds with big ideas, tech-centered philosophies, and willing mindsets are necessary for continued growth. The Melson brothers know they’ll have to be innovative and adaptable to be successful farmers. When two determined, intelligent, business-minded brothers in their twenties return home with the hopes to someday take over their family farm, they have many people rooting for them.

For the Melson brothers, coming back home to farm was always in their plan.

“I personally don’t think I ever planned on not coming back to the farm,” Stephan stated. “I always assumed I would farm, and I always pictured Kristian doing it with me by my side.”

In 2016, Kristian and Stephan began renting land and participating in daily chores in the barn. When 2018 came around, they fully invested in the business and built their own pig barn.

When asked the highlight of his career thus far, Kristian noted, “Building the barn and seeing our plans come to fruition was very stressful, but very fun. I will never forget the first time we put pigs in our newly built barn. It was so rewarding, and knowing that the barn was ours, not anyone else’s, was the best feeling.”

Bright Young Minds

As young farmers, the Melson brothers understand there is much to learn in the world of agriculture. They believe if you enter into farming as a young farmer and simply stick to the ways and practices of previous generations, you will fail to make progress. They believe in “having an open mind to make progress in any area of life.”

However, Stephan specifically pointed out the necessity of having realistic goals. Through daily experiences in his career with United AgTech, he sees the potential and “new life” younger generations bring into an operation. There needs to be a balance between maintaining a farm’s current status and branching out and adapting when the right opportunity presents itself.

“We know that our farming venture can only be successful if we strive to continuously improve,” explained Stephan. “When we built the barn, we wanted to invest in something that would provide returns but also reduce inefficiencies. Having an environmentally sustainable barn shows up on our balance sheet. It’s the right thing to do for our farm and our business.”

Jay Moore, Director of Environmental Services at New Fashion Pork, stated, “I remember my first serious conversation with Stephan and Kristian about farming, pork production, and politics. Stephan and Kristian were still in college, but the two young men were ready to step out on their own. I knew then that they would be a force and would pursue their goals aggressively and with integrity. My observations were correct, as they continue the legacy of the Melson family for being great neighbors and conservationists.”

Hopes for the Future

When asked what they hope to accomplish in their 30-40 year tenure of farming, both brothers agreed they want to be the best farmers they can be from protecting the environment and natural resources to implementing viable new practices to improve efficiency. Their goal is to constantly do more with less while continually trying to reduce their environmental impact.

They already have practices in place that prove their commitment to environmental sustainability. For instance, instead of spreading commercial fertilizers, the Melsons apply manure as a natural fertilizer to nourish their crops.

“We don’t see the benefit in using more fertilizer,” Stephan stated. “We inject the manure into the ground, building soil health and reducing the risk for runoff. By injecting manure, there is less nutrient runoff lost to volatilization. Not only is this a benefit to us because our crop yields are higher, but it is also a benefit to the environment. Through injection, our crops are able to utilize 80-100% of the nitrogen within the year, versus topical application that can only utilize roughly 35%.”

The Melson brothers believe in leaving the land and environment better than when they took it over. Preserving the land and leaving it in great shape so future generations can have productive farms is of the utmost importance.

Being good stewards goes beyond the environment. People and rural communities are critical to the sustainability of pig farms for the future.

Kristian and Stephan’s love for their community runs deep, as they have lived in their township nearly their entire life. Keeping their community beautiful will always be an integral part of their careers. This is why each of their barn sites are well-kept, featuring towering trees to lift smells, create an aesthetically pleasing sight, and provide a habitat for wildlife.

In reference to environmental stewardship, Kristian noted, “We farmers care for the land more than the average person. We make our living off the land and are out in the elements in almost everything we do. Unfortunately, most people don’t have a connection to the farm anymore. It doesn’t take much to get disconnected, and because of that, most people don’t understand farming practices.”

Managing Misconceptions

In today’s social landscape, misinformation poses one of the greatest threats for farmers both from a food safety standpoint as well as with farming practices.

“Many people don’t understand how valuable manure is,” noted Kristian. “People believe it is just waste, but it is a useful, natural fertilizer. But when people drive around and smell a pig barn, they feel differently and become afraid that the manure will be in their drinking water. They don’t understand how thoroughly we manage our manure application.”

As an independent crop consultant, Stephan understands the reality of resistance – be it weed resistance, insecticide resistance, and antibiotic resistance.

“Unfortunately, we see resistance rising in all different areas on the farm,” described Stephan. “It’s getting harder to control weeds, and it’s also getting more expensive, because as chemicals become less effective, higher application rates are necessary to do the job. We need to be proactive in this space to make sure we are doing what’s right from an environmental standpoint.”

He describes the same situation applies for antibiotic resistance in pigs. Their pigs aren’t treated unless it’s absolutely necessary, and when they are, each individual pig is assessed one-by-one and only treated for a limited amount of time to prevent resistance from occurring. The treatments are timed, written down, and recorded.

Kristian described their philosophy when it comes to farming as this, “I want to be known for doing things well and taking care of pigs to the best of my ability. I’ve seen my dad and uncle set the stage well for us, as good things are tied to the Melson name. Stephan and I will do our best to continue that legacy and make sure we always do what is right for our neighbors, our pigs, and the environment.”