Growers remember Curt Watson

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Curt Watson, 63, passed away Sunday morning at his winter home in Arizona. Watson, who farmed with his wife Janel in Renville, Minnesota, is a past president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. He was widely known as a passionate advocate for agriculture. His friends knew him as a man of faith and family, who had courage in his convictions and whose good humor and sense of fun leavened the experience of leadership that he offered. He and Janel had five children and many grandchildren.

Lifelong friend Gerald Mulder recalled Curt’s zest for life.

“If you say one thing about Curt he really enjoyed life,” said Mulder, who went to grade school and Sunday school with Watson and graduated Renville High School with him in 1966. “He always said, ‘Let’s go out and have fun!’ That was ever since I’ve known him, he was always that way. Make it fun for everybody. That’s something Curt really lived by. He was a very Christian man. Curt and I went to the same church and we did talk about the Lord’s love and that when we would die, we knew we were going to be with Him.”

Mulder recalled first noticing the Curt had changed from a quiet kid to a man with leadership qualities when they played together on the Renville High School football team.

“Senior year is the year I remember most,” Mulder said. “We had a very good football team, we were 7-1-1. Curt started on the offensive line. Curt was center, I was tackle. That maybe was his first leadership role. He would get the offensive line together–using codes, he’d call out who was blocking who. That’s when he started to come out and be more of a leader. We grew up a lot that year.”

Then the two went into military service. Mulder went into the U.S. Air Force and a little later Watson joined the U.S. Marine Corps–ever after it was a point they teased each other about–who joined the better armed service.

One of Watson’s key leadership skills was recruiting new leaders and empowering them in order to strengthen the organization.

“Mentor is the word I think of when I think of Curt,” said DeVonna Zeug, a Walnut Grover farmer who became an MCGA leader through Watson’s encouragement, and subsequently served as president. Zeug said, “As I was coming up, Curt always made sure he included me because he knew I was coming up. He stayed in contact. He thought mentoring and communication were keys to developing new leadership and running a successful organization. The very first board meeting I went to I sat next to Curt and we became friends, right from the get-go.”

Like many who knew him, Zeug’s chief impressions of Watson were his sense of humor and his commitment to his pro-farmer agenda.

“He was very funny, he had a great sense of humor,” said Zeug. “Yet, he was focused and he knew his stuff. He was definitely an advocate for farm policy. He took the PAC very seriously. He was very passionate about its importance, and he was always trying to come up with different ideas for fundraising. It was great to get to work with him on that.”

Jerry Demmer, a farmer in Clark’s Grove, became friends with Watson when the two filled the top positions in Minnesota’s corn organizations.

“When Curt was president (of MCGA) and I was chairman (of Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council), the agreement was to keep each other out of trouble. ‘If either of us get to rattling on too much, just give me an elbow,’ was what we agreed. We had that bond at that time, and talked quite a bit. Curt was a loving father, husband and grandfather–he loved his grandkids. He was a great advocate for corn growers, and their mission. He was opinionated, maybe more so than the average person. He didn’t hold back on asking tough questions that sometimes people didn’t want to hear the answer. If he didn’t get the answer he would go and seek the answers out.”

Demmer noted that when the board and council decided to seek approval from Minnesota’s corn farmers to increase the amount of the checkoff rate, Watson took it upon himself to make calls to farmers to get out the vote for the issue at the MN Ag EXPO that year. Rolling his sleeves up and making personal contact was part of Watson’s effectiveness as a leader.

“Sometimes, instead of asking why, he’d say why not? Why can’t we do this? Board and Council is a team effort, but he wasn’t afraid to be doing the prodding when he felt it was an important issue,” Demmer said.

“Driven is a word that describes Curt,” said Chad Willis, a farmer in Willmar and current chairman of Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council. “He was driven to be a leader. Just a couple weeks ago at Commodity Classic, after Corn Congress, Curt was talking to me about a few of the issues, talking over how we presented things and how we could have presented them better. He was always thinking about the best way to do things. He really enjoyed the policy end of the work. And he was very into the stewardship issues. Water quality and different practices–he got to all the meetings and was on top of all the information.”

Willis and John Mages, a farmer in Belgrade who currently serves as MCGA president, are among the many who feel that Watson personally encouraged them in their leadership paths.

“I first met him six years ago when I joined the corn growers board,” Mages said of Watson. “He was the one who encouraged me to be an officer. He was always very knowledgable about the subjects, never afraid to speak up. He also injected humor into the meetings, so there were some lighter moments. He was always fun to be around. He was always thinking about ways to do things better. He was big on getting everyone involved. That included spouses, too–he was never shy about recognizing the support that spouses give that’s so important to leaders being able to fulfill their roles. When we traveled together, Curt felt it was important to get to know everybody, and to get to know spouses as well.”

Steve Kramer, who farmed about 30 miles down the road from Curt, on the opposite end of Renville County, is another talented leader recruited to MCGA by Watson. The two shared a passion for the politics of farming.

“He was an instigator,” said Kramer with a chuckle and more than a hint of admiration. “He was always looking for ways to make things happen. Always thinking of ways to make things better and he wasn’t afraid to push really hard to get them done. He went down alleys and paths other people never would have thought of, to pursue a goal.”

Kramer said two important ingredients in Watson’s leadership were his ceaseless curiosity, which worked well with his willingness to brave public opinion in the face of controversy.

“He never took the safe road. Not all the things he pushed for panned out, but he was always trying stuff, he was always interested in learning things and he was fascinating to talk to,” said Kramer. “I’ve known Curt for 30 years. He is the one who talked me into going on the state board–it took him a long time–he’s persistent, too. He was so interested in politics. He knew he wasn’t always the one to get things done. He knew some people saw him as abrasive. He liked people. He wasn’t afraid to promote ideas, to talk about them and sell them. Usually he had a very thoughtful approach. I got to travel with him a lot and I always enjoyed that. You never sat in silence. There was always a topic to talk about.”

His yen for problem solving suited him perfectly for the farming life, and for the politics he loved, said Mulder.

“Farming…he loved all the challenges. He loved fixing things, not so much with his hands, but with his mind. I talked with him about the fact that he was old enough he should retire, but he said he never would. He loved the business of farming. He was a shrewd business man, but I also think he never intentionally hurt anyone. When I think of what Curt loved about farming, I think he loved those headaches, he loved those very complicated situations. That’s why he liked to be on the corn board because he loved to solve problems.”

Mulder summed up his thoughts in a way echoed by all of these people who knew Watson so well.

“He is a friend that will be truly missed.”

Visitation will be held for Curt Watson at Emden Christian Reform Church in Renville from 5-8 p.m. Friday, and a funeral service takes place there on Saturday, at 10:30 a.m.

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