Life After Leavenworth: A Cattle Producer Shares His Story

Dec 21, 2018  | 7 min  | Ep4418

October 23, 2019: The Caldwell County, Missouri Sheriff charged Garland “Joey” Nelson Wednesday, October 23, 2019 with two counts of 1st degree murder in connection with the deaths of two farmers from Wisconsin. 

Brothers Nicholas Diemel, 35, and Justin Diemel, 24, had been listed as missing since July 21, 2019, after they traveled to Missouri for business related to their cattle in Caldwell County. On July 31, human remains were found on Nelson’s property which investigators suspected belonged to the missing men. DNA testing was ordered to confirm the suspicion.

Nelson was interviewed by Market to Market last year for a series about the intersection of agriculture and crime. Nelson served 13 months at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, for an unrelated crime. He was released in March 2018, and was trying to resume his cattle feedlot operation at the time of the Market to Market interview.

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Few are immune from the frustration and fear that goes with having debts exceed income.

Those that benefit from USDA programs and defraud the government to solve their money problems can receive hefty fines or jail time. Cheating the USDA costs taxpayers millions every year.

You can find more on the topic in a special section of our website -- Market-to-market.org slash justice.

Colleen Bradford Krantz has the final installment of our three-part series “Justice in Agriculture.“ Producer contact: colleen.krantz@iptv.org

Joey Nelson was on the top of the world when the first big loads of cattle arrived at his new Braymer, Missouri feedlot in 2013. The 19-year old had a government loan and was anxious to grow his operation.

Nelson’s supplier, Iowa-based Cyclone Cattle Company, was purchasing truckloads of cattle from drought-stricken southern states and sending them to Nelson, as well as others. It was only a short time, however, before Nelson was overwhelmed.

Joey Nelson, Braymer, Missouri: “They thought that they were gonna get rich off of this, and they didn’t have a place to go with them. So they just kept sending them here….Everything works until you run out of grass, or feed, or money. One of the three. … We ran out of grass first. So, you know, you went to feeding more and then the feed bills get bigger than the bill they want to pay….Then you run out of money.”

By then, the young farmer was trying to feed nearly 800 steers and cows as Missouri faced a drought of its own. Nelson’s debt grew to nearly $300,000.

That’s when Nelson made the mistakes that would land him in federal prison. He sold some of his own cattle without notifying FSA, a requirement when livestock is tied to farm loans, and failed to ask the sale barns to list the agency on the checks. Nelson knew he was violating the rules, but moved ahead, hoping to avoid a months-long delay that might follow a request to the federal government.

Joey Nelson, Braymer, Missouri: “I figured I had done something wrong by not going through the proper channel to sell the cattle…I mean you run out of operating money and if you want to keep the cattle alive, you’re going to sell something to feed them, to pay the feed bills.”

Court documents suggest that Nelson deliberately hid the sales by having checks written out using a different version of his name than is on his FSA loans. Some checks also were made out to a friend, the money later transferred to Nelson’s bank account.

Joey Nelson, Braymer, Missouri: “I’m not going to say that I didn’t sell some of the cattle that are on my loan note. Because we did. But we didn’t sell them to go buy a trip to Hawaii or anything like that.”

Occasionally, farmers who cheat federal programs or mislead consumers are accused of using the profits for purchases the government would describe as being for “personal enjoyment and pleasure.” In 2016, for example, an Idaho farmer was sentenced to three years in prison for selling regular alfalfa seed as organic. Court documents say he used the profits to buy an RV and a boat.

Dr. Michael Rosmann, an Iowa-based psychologist, says that, more often than not, producers who get in trouble with USDA made decisions that were intended to keep their farm or ranch financially viable.

Dr. Michael Rosmann, farmer psychologist: “Often, there is a misconception that farmers deliberately undertake fraud, if they do, only to make money. But that’s not the main reason… I think the main reason is farmers want to get ahead and they have made mistakes and they can’t bear to own up to them because it is an admission of weakness.”

In rare cases, some psychologists believe, those farmers who were charged have committed suicide to avoid either serving time in prison or facing the public shame. Rosmann says the data shows a shift away from older producers taking their lives.

Dr. Michael Rosmann, farmer psychologist: “Now, we’re seeing younger farmers from age 45 up to their late 60s as the most vulnerable for self-harm, and we’re trying to figure out why that is…Possibly it has something to do with a sense that I only have a few more years to succeed and it’s make or break time.”

Before Joey Nelson knew it, he was standing before a federal judge in Kansas City, being sentenced to two years in the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas.

Joey Nelson, Braymer, Missouri: “He said when he gave me the 24 months that he was making an example out of me to the agricultural community. And I thought, ‘Boy, some example.’ …You guys advertise your loans very hard…And this is what will happen if something goes wrong.”

Nelson, now 24, believes FSA loans are not only important, but critical to keeping American farmers in business. He does wonder, however, if young farmer with loans should have a greater degree of oversight and guidance.

Joey Nelson, Braymer, Missouri: “I thought, well, at the worst-case scenario, I’ve done something that I broke a rule on a loan. I didn’t commit a crime. I didn’t go out and rob a bank or anything like that. I mean, I broke a contract…Well not when it’s federal. You’ve committed some sort of fraud…. They said I’d set out from day one to do this. All I can tell you from day one is that I didn’t know what I was doing.”

The parent company of Cyclone Cattle Company, the Iowa feedlot that had been sending Nelson loads of cattle in 2014, filed for bankruptcy in April of 2018.

Although he spent 13 months in Leavenworth Camp, a minimum-security satellite facility, the time there still convinced Nelson to always dot his I’s and cross his T’s.

Joey Nelson, Braymer, Missouri: “Just imagine being ripped out of everything you’ve know and thrown into a complete and total different place…You go from working 12 and 13-hour days to just sitting around…Your world just comes to a stop… They let you out early if you got a drug case because you’ve got a problem… And, well, I’ve got an addiction too, I guess, gambling: a gambling addiction to playing farming. And you know, they didn’t offer me a treatment course for that.”

Nelson was released in March of 2018 and is trying to move on with his life. He now farms with his mother, who has had her own operation for decades. Nelson says he has learned some lessons the hard way.

Joey Nelson, Braymer, Missouri: “Anybody that’s young that wants to get bigger, it’s faster is always a better way. Well, not necessarily. It can catch up with you.”

For Market to Market, I’m Colleen Bradford Krantz.

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