Not much impressed Fred Nelson as a child. Growing up on a 140-acre dairy farm in Door County, Wisconsin, daily life was more work than adventure. Curiosity, an honor bestowed on the young, did not fill his thoughts.
His early learning came in a one-room school house. And, although he was smarter than most, he didn’t think of himself that way. Grades, he said, were never a concern, but not because he studied for countless hours. Actually, he rarely studied at all. And, in his own words, he didn’t much care about results. Of course, getting straight A’s could mute any perceived lack of interest.
His overall indifference, he said, served as a catalyst for a future with a limited horizon.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do after high school,” Nelson admitted. “I had no plans. No idea. I guess I just thought I’d go back to the farm … although that really wasn’t big enough to support me.”
If you were to learn that, today, Nelson – a senior principal engineer at ISG – is regarded as a leader in putting John Deere at the forefront of precision agriculture, responsible for an astounding 42 patents, and many of the company’s groundbreaking technologies you may ask, “How the heck did that happen?”
A Future Unveiled
It took an agriculture studies teacher at Southern Door High School to recognize there was something different about Nelson. During a class field trip to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the teacher took the students on a tour of the academic facilities. Even though there was a group in tow, the teacher made sure his message was being heard by one student in particular – Nelson. He saw something in the high school senior that the student himself had not paid much attention.
“I never thought I was anything special. Certainly not growing up. That’s for sure,” he said.
The three-hour trip south would end up being a tipping point. The teacher had reached out to the future and showed it to Nelson.
“The Wisconsin trip was the first inkling I had that I could actually go there and learn something about machinery,” he said. Nelson would spend the better part of the next decade in Madison – earning bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees.
Sometimes the smallest nudge creates the biggest momentum.
Nelson’s academic career had one moment of pause when, after getting his undergraduate degree in agriculture engineering, he was drafted into the Vietnam War and spent time in the Indian Ocean on the island Diego Garcia. Being on the University of Wisconsin campus brought the conflict to his feet before he ever departed for the Navy.
“There were protests on campus and even tear gas thrown into classrooms,” Nelson said. “The war was a big deal in Madison.”
Once back from his Naval duties and integrated into his post-graduate work, the curiosity he lacked as a child began to take shape. “It didn’t start when I was young,” he said. “Because, then you just did what you had to do. It came when I got older. When I had real problems to solve. That’s when you allow yourself to look at the alternatives to getting something done.”
That “something” was the introduction to technology and computers. He slowly transitioned from the mechanical side of ag equipment to the technical side. That meant computers, instrumentation, and learning to interface with a high-speed data acquisition system. He was using a Commodore PET computer with 96 kilobytes of memory. Keeping in mind, this was, after all, 1977. It was fresh, unchartered territory where nearly each day was a new beginning.
Schooling – the studying and testing portion – continued to be a non-issue. “My aim was to learn the material. It wasn’t about grades,” he said.
There was a time, Nelson said during a moment of candor, where he realized he was smarter than most everyone else. “I probably shouldn’t say that, but I was. I just, you know, never thought about it much.”
It is not a boisterous statement and makes complete sense when all the evidence is presented.
Life After College
Nelson stayed connected to farming during his summers off, working with a pea harvesting crew and becoming rather adept at driving a John Deere 2520 tractor backward with a 10-foot windrower attached. It was here that he learned the value of uptime.
“When things broke down, I had to fix them. There was no help. I had to do the work, make the repairs. That’s when I learned about John Deere equipment,” he said.
Upon graduation, he measured three job offers – John Deere, New Holland, and Case. Nelson chose Deere, he said, because of its history and reputation for quality. He would soon begin at Harvester Works, working in a computer lab, testing and evaluating power loss of combine engines. Eventually, in 1994, he joined John Deere Precision Farming, the forerunner to ISG.
Over the last 25 years, Nelson has been involved in such innovations as AutoTrac (his most proud accomplishment), implement steering, elevation control, and the StarFire receiver.
It is Nelson’s academic and career arc that warrants a moment of pause, and an appreciation for its uniqueness. He admits he’s never looked at the totality of where he’s been – believing actions have a way of announcing themselves. But, it is those transitions that outlined his path … from a 3-year-old in the 1950s riding with his dad on a tractor, to sitting in a Stanford University lab dissecting complex mathematics in order to create a GPS system that would change the scope of farming forever.
“Well, it was a long time,” Nelson said of his learning curve. “You gather a little bit along the way and eventually you can get from there to here.” He said with a shrug of the shoulders and a dismissive explainer: “I don’t think about it much.”
Nelson does not discuss his daily work with friends. When he goes to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, to farm with his brother, John, there are no talks about satellites, autonomous vehicles, or abstract calculations. There is no bragging. He doesn’t share. “No. Not really. It’s just what you’re working on.”
For today’s social-media-divulge-your-life-minute-by-minute crowd this might be incomprehensible. He then has a moment of levity. “It’s intuitively obvious to the casual observer,” he said.
What also is obvious is the well-deserved 2018 Fellow Award. “It’s very nice being recognized by your peers. This is the best recognition you can have,” Nelson said. For someone who rarely makes a big deal out of a lifetime of big deals, here’s how it’s known the Fellow Award resonated with Nelson – he told his brother he had won it.
Looking back on a career is one thing – although, there is no rearview mirror that can capture the full landscape of Nelson’s past. And looking ahead? Well, for a self-admitted non-planner, there is no clear vision of retirement. That, of course, is no surprise – especially to him. The one thing he is certain of is he’ll be looking for a challenge.
“I’ll probably build a house or something, I guess.”
Has he built one before?