Miller's Favorite Story of 2022

Interviewing Young Farmers and Ranchers Creates Memories and Friendships

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Sam Sparks III has farmland along the border wall built to separate the U.S. and Mexico. If the wall is ever fully installed, his farm will essentially be cut in half. (DTN photo By Dan Miller)

Editor's Note:

The turn to winter traditionally has us thinking back over the year that was. Here in the DTN/Progressive Farmer newsroom, we're also prone to look back on the accomplishments, the challenges, and the things that didn't turn out as planned. In that vein, we again asked our reporters and editors to look back at some of their favorite stories from 2022. The pieces range from hard-hitting investigative journalism, to heart-tugging stories of loss, to the fun discoveries that can be found on farmsteads and small towns. We hope you enjoy our writers' favorites, with today's story by Dan Miller.


BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (DTN) -- Annually for the past 13 years, DTN/Progressive Farmer has shared a series of profiles about young farmers and ranchers --five or six each year, nearly 70 in all now, of all backgrounds from across the United States. America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers has produced a diverse library of stories recognizing young entrepreneurs who are building potent agricultural businesses and who bring positive change to their communities -- whether it be their hometown or to the far reaches of the world.

I spend summers and falls getting to know these folks, producing their stories and accompanying video features. These are long weeks of travel. But it is the best time of the year for me. The diversity of these folks' stories are really fascinating. They live and farm in beautiful places from 9,000 feet up in the Rockies down to the Rio Grande River, across the Midwest's prairies, Mississippi Delta, San Joaquin Valley in California and the Northern Neck of Virginia.

I've always found that young farmers and ranchers are great folks. They welcome me in as a stranger and we always part as friends.

There are always those special moments, a few minutes that create memories, offer insight and make these profiles just a bit better.

Probably the image that sticks out most for me this year was from my trip to the operation of Sam Sparks III in Harlingen, Texas. It's about as far south in South Texas as you can go without getting your feet wet in the Gulf of Mexico.

On a mid-July evening near sunset, Sparks took me out to his river farm, a 1,000-acre piece of his operation that ends on the U.S. bank of the Rio Grande River -- the border between Mexico and the United States. From one of Sam's pump houses, Mexico was 50 feet away.

The 'Wall' was there, too.

The wall is built not directly on the river.

The wall is planted not at river's edge -- the Rio Grande twists and turns so much that at one point, Sparks looks north into Mexico -- but along a more direct route, the toe of a levee is a half-mile from the river. The rust-tinged 30-foot-tall border wall is steel bollards, or beams, sunk into reinforced concrete, topped by panels of welded steel plate. A gravel service road runs along the front of it.

Sparks talked about migrant traffic through his farm. Families moving though his farm, for locales farther north, have always been pretty common. Landowners and migrants have generally a cordial understanding. But the cartels are different. Violent, bringing drugs, weapons and human cargo across the river, they are much less willing to talk and are much more dangerous.

For Sparks, the wall creates a problem. "If the wall is ever (fully) installed, our farm will essentially be cut in half. We'll have roughly 900 acres south of the wall," he explained. That day will come with a problem. "We're worried it is going to pose a problem with trying to find a labor force that will work south of the wall." It's a concern of safety and access already expressed by some of Sparks farming associates. "My family is already concerned when I work down here," he said.


Writing about America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers, I meet people who are successful and creative, employ innovative business practices and cutting-edge technologies, and their operations are defined by an imagination for a future some may think improbable.

Farther north from Sparks lives Taylor Nelson from South Sioux City, Nebraska. I actually met Taylor at the 2022 CES in Las Vegas. CES was once known at the Consumer Electronic Show. Taylor was working the John Deere display, talking about technology -- specifically, the technology he brings to the farm he and his father, Doug operate. (I did an interview with him at the show you can see at….)

We thought Nelson would be an excellent honoree for this year's Young Farmer and Rancher class. He was certainly that.

So, one night, full moon over a field of corn, sharing a couple of beers on a hill outside the farm's shop, Nelson and I talked about technology. He is chief technology officer for Nelson Farms, after all. But we also talked about his wife, Emily who runs Orderly Elegance, a professional organizing business, and their children, Brock and Teagan. Taylor and Emily love their kids and love family.

Emily's work ethic is second to none, Taylor said. But family and friends are not lost in all the work. "Sometimes it's easy to get tied up in constant business relationships and numbers, but she's always that person that remembers to send the card or the bouquet of flowers."

The Nelsons make family life a priority. "We have to be very deliberate about making time for family because we're constantly engaged in phone calls and text messages, emails, whatever it is," he said. Emily and Taylor make time for one another, short vacations even close to home. They schedule a weekly movie night, popcorn, and an animated movie. Just Taylor, Emily, Brock and Teagan. Phones and laptops put up for the night. "That's kind of the point of movie night, we're just going to sit and watch a simple movie, and life's going to be no more complicated than what candy or snack you want."


It's these kinds of memories, quick takes into someone else's life, beyond the farm business, those production numbers, yields, temperatures and rainfall that makes meeting these folks so much fun.

This year this, besides visiting Sparks in Texas and the Nelsons in Nebraska, I also had the opportunity to spend time with Roger Smith from Brinkley, Arkansas and Zack Brown from Pocahontas, Arkansas (from them I learned about rice and can't-fail irrigation), and Jared and Rachel Kunkle of Monmouth, Illinois (a young farmer couple who are building a vibrant first generation farm while running full-time insurance and farm management businesses).

I walk away with new friendships, but often with new things to consider, new ideas and always a better understanding how farmers and ranchers live their lives, honor those who came before them and how they share their hopes for the generations to come.


Editor's Note:

To see an interview with Dan Miller about what he looks for when picking America's Best Young Farmers, see the Reporter's Notebook video:….

DTN/Progressive Farmer maintains a library of America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers, including videos of the one mentioned in this story. To see them, go to:….

To see the full stories of the 2023 winners, go to:

Best Young Farmers/Ranchers - 1, "Texan Farmer Along Rio Grande River Does Business With Mexico,"…

Best Young Farmers/Ranchers - 2, "Fifth Generation Nebraska Farmer Fond of Finding New Efficiencies,"…

Best Young Farmers/Ranchers - 3, "Young Arkansas Farmer Treasures His Land Tied to His Great-Great-Grandmother,"…

Best Young Farmers/Ranchers - 4, "First-Generation Illinois Farmers Show Partners Make It Work,"…

Best Young Farmers/Ranchers - 5, "Arkansas Young Farmers are Farming the Family Way,"…

If you are interested in participating in America's Best Young Farmer and Ranchers or nominating someone, contact him at 205-613-6088.

Dan Miller can be reached at

Follow him on Twitter @DMillerPF

Dan Miller