Matriarch of the herd
Beltrami Electric Cooperative member Rachel Gray and her family have received regional honors for agricultural leadership in Minnesota.
Rachel Gray could tell a thousand stories about growing up on the family farm near Blackduck, Minn. Her father Murl Nord, a Beltrami Electric Cooperative board member and lifelong farmer, could also tell a thousand such stories about Rachel’s childhood. But the tale may sound different depending on the narrator.
“When Rachel was a kid, I fired her often,” Nord ribbed.
“Thirteen times in one week,” Gray laughed back across the kitchen table. “That’s like twice a day.”
Nord can’t wisecrack much about his daughter’s efforts these days. Gray and the rest of the kin supporting her enterprise, Little Timber Farms, were recently recognized as 2023 Beltrami County Farm Family of the Year. The University of Minnesota Extension-bestowed honor is given annually to families in each county to mark their above-and-beyond contributions to agriculture and local communities. Little Timber Farms more than fits the bill, with Gray distinctively breeding and marketing a herd of more than 500 F1 baldy heifers while Nord and the rest of the crew assist and cover the care of the cropland.
What’s more, Gray was one of five finalists for Farmfest Woman Farmer of the Year, a statewide recognition of females who are giving their all to the ag industry. With a resume like that, her dad won’t be firing her again anytime soon.
Gray is the fourth-generation owner of the farm established by her great-grandfather nearly a century ago. She’s now the one setting the pace, and she’s hoping farm leadership will continue in the two generations that follow her. Her son, Nick Grundmeier, works full time on the farm by her side, with her grandchildren Audrey (5) and Jackson (3) always close behind.
“I think the dynamic of working with three generations all at the same time is really a blessing, because all three of us have different perspectives,” Gray said. “When you combine that, if you get through the occasional power struggles and we all work together, we do well.”
Back to her roots
Farm management wasn’t always Gray’s plan. She earned her education degree from Bemidji State University and started a teaching career in Red Lake, Minn. That path brought her back to her hometown of Blackduck for an additional 14 years, where she taught kindergarten and sixth grade, along with coaching the volleyball team. She loved it. But the farm was calling.
“What brought me back home was a passion for it. I had always wanted to be back here in some form or another,” Gray said. She explained that in the early 2000s her husband, Al, decided to continue his mining career overseas. Together, they concluded this was an opportunity for the farm girl to get back to her roots.
“That was the first decision, that I would come back here and just help my parents,” Gray said. “My mom had cancer, terminal breast cancer, and my dad was needing more help. So, I came back and said, ‘I’m here. Let me help.’”
In 2012, Nord sold the farm to his daughter. She and Al began to accumulate a large herd of beef cattle and created a unique development program for bred heifers. Business thrived as Rachel marketed top-quality cattle to ranchers nationwide, fostering close relationships with the people she bought from and sold to. To this day, she keeps precise documentation on each and every cow – from origin notes to vaccine records to ultrasound results and even headshots – to ensure they will be a good fit for the rancher and region to which they are sold.
“What really interests me is how much dedication she has,” Al said of his wife. “The business has gone from here to here,” he said, signaling low to high with an outstretched hand, “and there are a lot of people who ask her, ‘Holy crap, how do you follow all of this?’ It’s incredible.”
Nord remained a full-time pillar of the farm after the transition, supporting his daughter at every turn, sharing wisdom and advice, providing a shoulder to lean on. In 2020, the time came when she needed to return the favor.
“After my wife died, for my part, I was thankful for Rachel. She kept me working,” Nord said. “I’m proud of her. It really is the only way the farm could have continued.”
Laying the groundwork
Nord passed many traits to Gray – like farm smarts, stubbornness and a strong sense of family. They also share a clear commitment to community, evidenced in the fact that both were named Beltrami County Farm Family at the height of their respective careers.
Before being elected to the Beltrami Electric Cooperative board in 2009 (and now serving as secretary-treasurer of the Square Butte Electric Cooperative board), Nord spent decades on regional boards committed to agriculture. Those organizations included Land O’ Lakes, Blackduck Co-op Creamery, Blackduck Co-op Ag Service and others. “Co-ops are just the way, I think, farmers and ag people should do business. It’s the best system for them,” he said.
Gray’s background has pulled her community compass toward ag education. As she transitioned into farm ownership, she found herself searching online to learn more about being a woman in agriculture. She wanted to be a part of the discussion of how those on the outskirts could succeed in an often-challenging industry.
In her research, Gray remembered the Ag in the Classroom curriculum she used to teach in her kindergarten class. She reached out asking to get involved, and that connection springboarded into a series of opportunities. She now volunteers with CommonGround, a Minnesota-based organization of women farmers who educate urban and suburban mothers about food and farming. Gray is also heavily involved with the local Kelliher Cattle Company, a group of high school students that is actively running a small herd of cattle.
“They actually decided the best way to learn about agriculture and different things in high school – whether it’s science, math, or other things – is to learn about it through owning cattle,” Rachel said, beaming. “I help them with their marketing education, their economics class, we go to live auctions, etc. We help them with whatever they need.”
Gray sees a bright future for the next generation of farmers and ranchers, and she and her family are doing their part to provide the environment for it. Much like an electric cooperative, conservation, soil quality and water quality are of utmost importance to Little Timber Farms. The farm is certified under the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, and the family utilizes a managed rotational grazing process to ensure their cattle’s pastureland is the best it can be.
“In doing those things, we can build a business that we can not only hand to our son, but to either one or both of our grandkids if they choose to do this. We want to be sustainable,” Gray said. “We ask, ‘What are we giving back to our community?’ and ‘Are we able to be profitable?’, but more importantly, ‘What are we doing for our environment here?’ We’re trying to be good stewards,” she added, receiving a nod of affirmation from her father.
MAIN IMAGE: Rachel Gray explains the benefits of her herd of F1 baldy heifers. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)