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Sells family celebrates 104 years on Beaver Creek farm

Pam (left) and Spencer Sells pose in front of their farmhouse, a portion of which is original to when Spencer's great-grandfather purchased the parcel in 1909. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

BEAVER CREEK -- Lining a wall inside the Spencer and Pam Sells home in rural Beaver Creek is a pictorial history of a family farm that has spanned five generations and more than 100 years. Small, black-and-white images depicting a farm house are placed amid a collage showing progress, from cattle feedlots in the 1950s to swine confinement barns of the 21st century.

The images tell the story of one family's existence in rural Rock County.

The Sells are one of three Rock County farm families to be recognized this year for owning a farm that has remained in the family for at least a century.

"My great-grandfather bought this property in 1909," said Spencer Sells, adding that Goodman Anderson purchased farms for each of his children. "My grandmother was the 10th of 12 children, and she was the one who ended up staying home and taking care of him when he got older."

Goodman and his wife, Gurie Roen, emigrated from Norway to America in 1863. They settled briefly in Wisconsin before heading west, with brief stays near Decorah, Iowa, and Lyle, Minn., before reaching Rock County by wagon.

"They were among the first settlers to arrive in this part of the country," said Pam, adding that the Andersons first lived in a sod house east of Hills.

"They moved here just before the Depression hit," said Spencer. A third child, daughter Barb, would arrive later.

Jacob Ewing Sells was a conservationist of sorts, participating in Soil Conservation Service programs and implementing efforts on the farm such as terraces, grassed waterways and contour farming. He also practiced rotational grazing, and was recognized for some of his conservation efforts locally.

Today, Spencer continues to utilize some conservation practices. The waterways and farmable terraces are still in place, and he also does some conservation tillage.

"Evidently my grandpa didn't believe in tiling, and my dad didn't do any tiling either," he said. "I've put in quite a bit of tile up here."

As for crops, records from the early 1950s show corn, soybeans, rye and alfalfa hay were grown on the land, with oats also planted in the rotation. Today, Spencer said the land is planted in corn and soybeans.

"It was about the late 1950s when my grandpa bought his first combine -- a two-row Oliver," Spencer said. "There weren't too many combines around at that time."

When Mabel and Jacob decided to retire to Hills in 1955, Jacob Lee and his wife, Joyce, took over the farming operation. By 1960, they became the farm's new owners.

Jacob Lee and Joyce Sells raised five children on the farm -- four boys and a girl -- with Spencer being the oldest.

"Over the years, three of us (brothers) farmed," Spencer said, adding that they took different paths during the 1980s farm crisis.

In 1987, Spencer took over the farming operation, and in 1992, he and Pam purchased the acreage. They raised their two children on the farm, including daughter Lindsy and son Lee. In the early years, Spencer taught high school agriculture in the area, while Pam continues to teach Family and Consumer Science classes at Adrian Public School.

Their daughter Lindsy followed in her parents' footsteps and earned her teaching degree. She now teaches fifth grade at Pipestone Area Schools. Meanwhile, Lee lives in Luverne and is working into a farming partnership with Spencer.

Livestock and crops

During Jacob Ewing and Mabel Sells' life on the farm, they had a cow-calf operation and a "fairly modern egg laying facility for its time," said Spencer.

"They had one chicken per cage, and I think there was a truck that came to pick up the eggs," he said. "My parents took that over and had to wash the eggs. They had a little cellar out there, so they would have a place to store the eggs so they wouldn't freeze."

The egg-laying operation continued until about the mid-1960s, following Jacob Ewing Sells' death to colon cancer. At the time, Joyce decided she needed to monitor her children as they milked cows.

"I don't think my dad liked to milk much, so he got us milking early," he added. "To make sure we were doing a good job, Mom had to supervise."

The family had a 20-stanchion barn, but at the height of their dairying, they milked about 40 cows.

"In the wintertime, the favorite (chore) was milking cows because the barn was nice and warm," Spencer said. "In the summertime, not so much; the cows were hot and we never had any fans."

Kindly referring to his childhood as an era of slave labor, Spencer said he and his brothers were taught to drive the tractor as soon as they could reach the pedals, and would cultivate the land as soon as the corn got tall enough.

Dairy remained a part of the Sells family farm until 1983, when the family decided to concentrate its efforts on beef and pork production.

"I had a farrow-to-finish operation with 100 sows," he said. "When the hog operation got large enough, we had to go to total confinement -- that's when we got rid of the cattle."

Since 2000, the Sells have focused on swine production. Spencer and Lee now feed about 10,000 pigs per year on contract, with four finishing barns on the home site.

In addition to raising pigs, the Sells grow corn and soybeans on approximately 480 acres, including a neighboring quarter section owned by Spencer's aunts. Some of the soybeans are marketed to Minnesota Soybean Processors at Brewster, where Spencer is a member. He's also involved with Minwind Energy, a local company that generates energy through wind turbines.

Life on the land

The Sells were recognized as the 2001 Rock County Farm Family of the Year, and remain active in various organizations. Their children were third-generation 4-H'ers in Rock County, and Spencer serves as president of the Rock County Agricultural Society (fair board) this year. He is also a past member of the Rock County Planning and Zoning Board, and is a member of the county corn and soybean growers association.

Today, Spencer and Lee share equipment with neighbors Marvin and David Tofteland.

"We share equipment because the cost of equipment has gotten so high," Spencer said. "When we're planting or harvesting, we work together. We've done that for 20 years now and it's worked out really good. You can own newer equipment, modern equipment, but you don't have to have all of it."

Just recently, the Sells purchased a new tractor with GPS capabilities, and Spencer said they are learning how it works.

"I graduated from college in 1973 and my first teaching job was in 1974," he said. "It was basically four-row equipment, and a lot of guys didn't have cabs on their tractors.

"I was always amazed by guys who could drive straight as a string with those old tractors and planters," he added. Now, some tractors are equipped with auto-steer.

Just as the equipment changed over the years, the Sells updated their building site as well. The original house remains, although it has been added to and remodeled several times over the years -- including a 1968 project that involved raising the house to put a full basement underneath, then extend the upstairs.

In 2005, Spencer and Pam remodeled the kitchen.

"When we redid the kitchen, there were layers and layers of linoleum -- there must have been at least three or four layers, and then we found cardboard," said Pam.

The foundation on the barn was redone with a new steel roof installed 10 or 12 years ago, Spencer said, adding that he created a new cupola to match the one lost in a storm in the 1950s.

"The barn was here when my great-grandfather bought the place," he said.

The barn also went through a major remodel inside, with the haymow removed in favor of lofts that span both sides of the barn and extend its length. The alteration allowed open space on the main floor for the Sells to store equipment, including their combine.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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