Underdog: Kurt Zellers wants to tell you about a hardscrabble farm, not his stepdad’s $1,763,823.07 farm subsidy payments


One of the staples of Kurt Zellers’ political resume is his childhood on a “hardscrabble” farm that had been passed down for generations. 

In a gubernatorial contestant atmosphere in which venture capitalist Scott Honour touts a summer job shoveling manure as a leadership credential, the Zellers homestead on the prairies would seem to be cred indeed.

Zellers’ “hardscabble” farm isn’t a new theme for the Maple Grove Republican. In November 2010, Pioneer Press political reporter Bill Salisbury wrote in New House speaker Kurt Zellers is a farm kid at heart:

Born on the Grand Forks Air Force Base, Zellers grew up on the farm near Devils Lake, N.D., that his great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s and his grandfather and father managed through the Great Depression and subsequent farm crises.

“My grandfather taught me how to drive tractor, shoot gophers, all the important things a farm kid needs to know,” he said.

The family saved and used every piece of twine and baling wire they ever acquired, he said. His stepfather drove a pickup with 400,000 miles on it.

“I learned how to be frugal by living it,” Zellers said.

It’s a sympathetic tale, and Salisbury reports that Kurt and Kim Zellers picked Maple Grove for their domicile because “it was a good jumping-off spot for drives to his family’s North Dakota farm . . .”

Since times were rough in farm country in the 1980s when Zellers came of age, Bluestem wondered how things were going on the ancestral home since Kurt moved to Minnesota in 1993. 

The Salisbury article mentioned a stepfather, so we weren’t surprised when we didn’t find anyone in the Environmental Working Group’s farm subsidies’ database named Zellers receiving federal payments in North Dakota. Devils Lake supports a newspaper, the Journal, however, so we figured correctly that there’d be an article about the local boy done good in the fleshpots of the Twin Cities.

Sunflower_fieldSure enough, in Former ‘farm kid’ finds place in politics, we read this:

“Not too bad for a little old farm kid from Webster, ND,” his mother Joann Paulson proclaimed this week.

When we plug the zipcode for Webster in the EWG database, the Paulson Brothers (Kenneth and Douglas), turn up at the top of the list for 58382:

Paulson Brothers received payments totaling $1,763,823 from 1995 through 2012.

Several obituaries–such as this one–note that Kenneth and Joann Paulson and Kurt Zellers are parents and son.

Thus, the payments are to Kurt Zellers’ stepfather; this figure puts them in the top 100 farms payments during the time period for the state. Apparently things got better on the farm.

Salisbury also reported this about Zellers’ first lesson in politics:

He said he never discussed politics with his family but recalled getting his first political lesson when his grandfather took him out to a low spot in a farm field where cattails were growing after two wet seasons.

“He told me, ‘The government says this is a wetland now. We can’t farm it; we can’t grow food on it to feed people. It’s not right for the government to make those decisions for us. That should be up to us farmers.’ “

But take those government dollars?  The evidence available to us doesn’t answer how Zellers’ grandfather felt about that–but his stepfather and his brother certainly took the checks.

A sunflower field in North Dakota (above). The Paulson Brothers only received $9,288 in direct payments for their sunflowers from 1995-2012. The bulk of the $1.76 million they received came from various wheat programs.