Farmers Union celebrates South Dakota farm and ranch families

Farm Forum

HURON — To join with the United Nations in celebrating the International Year of Family Farming, South Dakota Farmers Union will highlight a South Dakota farm or ranch family each month. This month South Dakota Farmers Union features the Mueller family of Ethan.

Farming near Mitchell for almost 130 years, the Mueller family traces their South Dakota farm roots back to Great-Grandpa Adolf. A Wisconsin carpenter and farmer, Adolf packed up his young family and moved to the Ethan area after friends wrote him of the rich soil and farming opportunities South Dakota offered. That was in 1885.

Five generations later, Delmar Mueller, 63, and his sons, Jay, 35, and Derek, 31, continue the family farming tradition.

Supporting three families on the farm has not been simple. To make things work, Jay has an off-farm job and the men run quite the diversified operation. They grow corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. They also raise a cow/calf herd, do some custom farming and silage work and operate custom feeding operations, which include backgrounding cattle and finishing feeder pigs.

Since the time Delmar began farming full-time in 1986, conservation has played an important role in their field and land management. Over the years Delmar and his sons have planted shelter belts and returned marginal acres to pastureland. The fields have been no-till since the early ‘90s and the Muellers follow small grain harvest with cover crops, which include millet, Sudan grass and a mix of legumes and root crops to maintain soil health, prevent erosion and improve water infiltration.

“If you don’t take care of the land, it won’t take care of you. Plain and simple,” explained Derek. “The land is our livelihood and we are conscious of how we treat it.”

Visit to read their complete story and view a photo gallery. Or, read on to learn more:

Paving the way for the next generation through blood, sweat and diversification

by Lura Roti, for South Dakota Farmers Union

If you ask fifth-generation farmer Derek Mueller, 31, why he chose a career on his family’s Ethan farm, his answer is simple. “Farming is something I have always loved and really wanted to do.”

Building up the Mueller’s farming operation to support the next generation, which includes his brother, Jay, 35, is a little more complicated.

To begin with, their dad, Delmar Mueller’s farm was not large enough to support three families and available land in their area is scarce. When land does come up for sale or rent, bidding wars keep prices at levels out of reach for most beginning farmers.

“Competition for land is the biggest challenge these young farmers face. It’s a dog-eat-dog world right now. There are very few retiring farmers and those who are retiring most often lease or sell to the highest bidder,” explains Delmar, 63.

In fact, Derek and Jay say they would not be farming today if it had not been for a long list of retiring friends and relatives – that list includes their Grandpa Herbert, 92, and Delmar – who offered to lease farm and pastureland to the brothers at fair rates. “I don’t know if it was luck or what, but we jumped at the opportunity when the farm and pastureland was offered to us,” Derek says.

Delmar says his sons’ desire to continue the family farming tradition is the reason he retired early from row crop farming. When they were ready to come back, he made the decision to focus his farming business on livestock and raising alfalfa hay so he could lease all his farm acres to his sons.

“I’ve always been concerned about ways to keep young people returning to farming. My sons were my motivation for transitioning out of farming because I knew they couldn’t do it without access to land,” says Delmar, whose daughter, Kerri, and son-in-law, Ryan Wagner, also farm.

Delmar got his own start farming full-time when his father-in-law, Harold Nearhood, 88, gave him a similar opportunity to lease his farmground in the early 1980s. Until this opportunity to farm full-time came along, Delmar taught school.

“I enjoyed teaching, but it wasn’t what I felt I was meant to do. I enjoy being my own boss and the fact that when you’re farming, no day is the same. Granted, at times your days get a bit long, but it’s a good life,” Delmar says.

From the start, Delmar was diversified, raising crops and livestock. “Markets change. Crops are good some years and livestock do well other years. Most years they are not good at the same time. The more diverse you can make your farm, the better,” Delmar says.

With this philosophy in mind, the Mueller Farm is quite diverse. Today the men maximize profits on all acres by raising a mix of small grains, corn and soybeans; they also grow and market premium quality alfalfa hay and run a commercial cow/calf herd on pastureland and marginal farm acres they converted to grassland.

In addition, the men operate custom feeding operations, which include backgrounding cattle; Derek and Delmar do some custom farming and silage work. To supplement their farm income further, Derek manages a hog finishing unit and Jay works for South Dakota Department of Transportation.

“When it comes down to it, my farm income just is not enough to support my family. This job provides insurance and is my way of diversifying my income, just as I do with my farm,” explains Jay, who together with his wife, Angela, have three children, Avery, 8, Sadie, 6, and Blake, 3.

Jay says he’s able to get his farm work done after work and on the weekends thanks to advancements in technology, and the fact that the men run a no-till farming operation.

Delmar transitioned his farm acres to no-till when Jay and Derek were youngsters of 15 and 11. “It’s a moisture saver, an erosion saver and a time saver,” Delmar says of the practice. “I read a lot about it, specifically the work Dr. Dwayne Beck has done at Dakota Lakes Research Farm. It just made sense.”

The no-till decision is one both of his sons are proud of their dad for making. “He wasn’t afraid to try something new. At the time I remember there were only a handful of other farms in our area implementing no-till,” Derek says. “Looking back, it was a good choice. Today it saves Jay and me a lot of time.”

Looking back, Jay and Derek say the work ethic their dad instilled in them growing up on the farm helps them do what it takes to make their farming operation work today.

“Dad taught us not to give up, even when things weren’t going our way; if we stuck with something and worked hard, it would probably turn out,” Derek says. “There is a feeling of pride that comes from farming. You work hard at something, and then when the project is finished and turns out well, you have the satisfaction of knowing that your hard work paid off.”

To view more photos of the Mueller family, visit