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The Elsons

Mendell Elson tells you why paying attention to the little things is the secret to his success.

Elson Family

Written by Joann Pipkin

Autumn’s color palette wanes in the distance as the brisk November wind pushes us northward into the heart of Missouri’s row crop country. Here, in the Show-Me-State’s midsection, Saline County boasts some of the state’s most fertile land with century-old farmsteads marking a heritage as rich as the soil beneath them. Our trek leads us beyond the bustle of the interstate and just a stone’s throw from the Big Muddy, winding along the water’s edge over hill and dale. 

Down a narrow two-lane, just east of Miami, the combines and grain carts find solace away from Mother Nature’s fury ‘til Harvest comes again. Tucked inside a cozy country home atop a rolling hill, on this blustery day we find a fourth- and fifth-generation, father-daughter farming duo with a passion for precision and all the details behind it. 

Operating as M&M Farms, Mendell Elson grows corn and soybeans on two century farms, representing both his father’s and mother’s families. 

“We are thrilled that we’ve been able to maintain and continue that tradition,” Mendell says. 

With Mendell and his brother, Michael, starting the operation from scratch in 1986, today his youngest daughter, Kayla, works full-time on the farm; wife, Anita, and older daughter, Abby, also help as their schedules allow. 

Though most farmers would tell you no journey in the industry is easy, the Elsons have found success by striving for precision, even when times get tough and don’t go according to plan.


planted field

Growing up, Mendell Elson always knew he wanted to farm. Alongside his younger brother, Michael, by high school graduation the twosome could operate and service every piece of equipment on the family farm, from tillage to harvest. 

While Mendell had a vast working knowledge of the “in field” side of their cropping operation, he admits he struggled with the importance of college. Waiting until harvest was complete each year, the young man attended Missouri Valley College in Marshall every spring. 

“It certainly became more challenging to return to classes each year,” Mendell says. 

After four years and only halfway through earning a degree, he was ready to throw in the towel. It was the mid-1980s and the farm economy was taking a devastating turn for the worse. The reality left Mendell with three altering realities, he says: one, he would need to generate his own income as the farm economy was in freefall; two, he would be responsible for all his student loan debt; and three, he might not have the opportunity to farm. 

Realizing he had invested too much to quit and that the value of a college degree was coming more into focus, Mendell started a lawn care, landscape and snow removal business called Custom Care and committed to finishing college. 

In retrospect, Mendell says a downfall of growing up on a family farm is the ample opportunities young people have for doing the fun, outside work. The not-so-fun business and paperwork side of the operation is where the next generation needs exposure and understanding, he adds. And that’s exactly where he found himself. 

tractor with grain wagon at night

“As the freefall in American agriculture became a full-blown crisis, I was about to learn how every component of a multi-step process is critical for success,” Mendell says. “You can be near perfect in the field, but if you slip in the office, it will leave a mark.”

An extended college experience, he adds, helped him see the value of earning a double major in business administration and agriculture business.

The farm crisis hit home for Mendell by 1985. Both he and his brother were set to graduate in the spring of 1986, but it became clear the family farm operation as they knew it would not survive. 

The brothers secured a loan through the Beginning Farmer program with a local bank to purchase part of the land from their grandfather’s estate as well as key pieces of farm equipment from their father, Gene’s, operation. On Jan. 1, 1986, Mendell and Michael began M&M Farms with their newly purchased land and some rented acres from an uncle. The acquisition gave them about 60% Missouri river bottom ground and 40% upland acres. 

Mendell remembers their start as exceptionally stressful as they managed the “office” side of the operation while working to maintain their family legacy. He says 1986 was especially daunting with the farm crisis price levels compounded by being 100% financed on land, equipment and operating costs. 

“We were optimistic and thankful for a chance to retain part of the family land and have the opportunity to farm,” Mendell notes. “My Custom Care business had expanded to the point that I couldn’t walk away from it, so Dad took it over and continued the expansion.”

combine harvesting cornOn Valentine’s Day 1986, Mendell proposed to his wife, Anita, who continues to work for the county Farm Service Agency. The couple made plans for an early December wedding, after harvest. 

The Elson brothers farming journey would take an unexpected turn in August of that year when Michael unexpectedly passed away from an aneurysm. He was 24 years old. 

“Then, I had to revamp the whole farm operation that we had just started because we didn’t really set it up for any succession,” Mendell says. 

Continuing as M&M Farms, Mendell weathered through the drought of 1988 and the Great Flood of 1993. With no experience of how to navigate a farm without a crop to market, Mendell says it was an interesting time. 

“But we were committed,” he says. “We wanted to farm, and we sure wanted to save the family ground. So, we proceeded. We made it through.”

Quick to credit Anita for keeping the lights on with her off-farm job, the Elsons welcomed daughters Abby in 1992 and Kayla in 1995. 

Through the years, both Abby and Kayla have taken part in farm activities with Mendell making sure they were hands-on in their Supervised Agricultural Experience projects through FFA. 

kayla elson

Today, Abby lives in Marshall and manages her own business. She helps at the farm as her schedule allows. At Mendell’s suggestion, Kayla agreed in 2020 to join the operation after long-time employee John Alspaw retired. Though she enjoyed her position at an equine facility in Boonville, Kayla’s degree in agronomy from Northwest Missouri State University combined with her technical savviness makes her a welcomed addition to the family farm. 

“I’m extremely happy and proud for the opportunity to work with them,” Mendell says of his daughters. “They do a great job of operating the equipment, help with bookkeeping.”

While the blurred lines between father/daughter and employer/employee present a unique set of challenges, Mendell says three rounds of cancer have sharpened his focus on the future and a transition to continue the family farm.

“I’ve told them if I retire and they choose not to farm we’re not selling the land, but we might end up renting it out,” Mendell says. “Farming is a unique commitment because it’s not 8 to 5, five days a week. Weather can turn a holiday into a work day.”


yield monitor

From yield monitors to auto steer, swath control and variable rates among others, Mendell says he’s been quick to adopt new technology.

Machine Sync was added to the business during 2022 harvest. The automation enhances “dumping on the go,” as the combine locks onto the tractor and grain cart and holds it at a preset position that is “synced” to the combine’s speed and direction of travel. 

“The screen in the combine displays four directional arrows that allow me to nudge the cart in any direction needed to finish filling,” Mendell explains. “The tractor remains locked in sync (speed and direction) until Kayla turns the wheel or touches the brake.”

While the system required a few tweaks and tuning, once dialed in Mendell says it worked impressively through corn and soybean harvest. 

“These technologies have provided more benefits than I expected on my initial impression of their value,” Mendell says. “We strive to produce the most bushels with the least amount of the correctly balanced inputs.”

Soil and tissue tests along with field scouting and mapping are also tools the Elsons use to help calculate input decisions. 

Using both no-till and ‘shallow’ vertical till, Mendell says cover crops are planted to help preserve soil and build nutrients. He’s also worked to minimize soil compaction by switching to taller and wider, low psi radial tires along with tracks on the grain cart. 

“We have variable rate capabilities and individual row automated down pressure on the planter,” Mendell explains. “In ’86, it was beyond my comprehension to think about every single row of the planter addressing its need at that second as it passes across the ground.”

Mendell studies the ins and outs of new technology as it hits the market to see whether it might benefit the operation, very seldom purchasing it the first year it comes out. 

He also isn’t afraid to ask another farmer that he admires or respects how a product works and what he might like about it. 

machine sync technology

For Kayla, the opportunity to use technology in their operation is interesting in how it can help them be more efficient producers. The young farmer became familiar with precision agriculture and global information system mapping in college. 

“That really interests me a lot more in being able to be efficient and how farming is going to keep progressing as the average farmer has to feed more people every year on less ground with less inputs and more expenditures,” she says. "That’s more where my focus and desire to progress the farm is.”

Technology has been key in increasing the farm’s efficiency and reducing operator fatigue, Mendell adds.

“When you reduce fatigue, you are able to think more clearly, make good decisions and you can look back. I never realized how beneficial it is to watch how the implement behind you is performing,” he explains. 


While Mendell initially secured financial assistance in the mid-80s through the same local bank his father had worked with, he soon learned his needs were greater than what the relationship could provide. 

“I was aware of what was then Farm Credit Services and decided to get to know them better,” Mendell says.

Medell Elson, member-owner, and Marc Jenson, FCS Financial loan officer

In search of a lender that could assist with all his farm finances and one that understood agriculture, Mendell quickly developed a growing relationship with the agricultural cooperative. 

“I’m confident that my decision to switch to FCS Financial has been a vital part of our success on our family farm,” he says. “I don’t question it at all. The level of professionalism, I would hate to think of trying to farm without it.”

For FCS Financial’s Marc Jensen, Mendell’s attention to detail has been key in building a successful operation.

Mendell was in his 20s during the 80s farm crisis, and as difficult as navigating those challenging times were, Jensen says it was probably the best time to get started in farming. 

“He watched his dad struggle through financial adversity due to the farm crisis, which affected the farming operation and multiple generations of family land,” Jensen says. “Then, all of the sudden, the entire situation was laid on his and Michael’s shoulders. The attention to business detail wasn’t an option for Mendell.”

Mendell adds, “What I learned was it didn’t matter how hard you worked outside, that inside was going to be crucial, the bookkeeping, the marketing grain and tax management strategies.”

One of the first tasks Mendell charged his daughters with growing up was helping with the farm’s records as they prepared yearend books and tax planning. 

“I don’t mind it,” Kayla says. “I had a minor in ag business and precision agriculture, so I’m much more business and technology based on the farm.”

Mendell in tractor cab

A self-professed perfectionist, for Mendell, farming is all about putting his best foot forward. He knows he only gets one shot at it each year, leaving no opportunity for do-overs. 

When he isn’t in the tractor or combine, Mendell is researching farming techniques, new technology, buying inputs and selecting varieties for the upcoming year. 

Both he and Kayla are active in the farm community. Networking at farm seminars and organization meetings is key to gathering ideas. They belong to two different agronomy clubs, encompassing members from across the Corn Belt. Kayla also recently took part in FCS Financial’s Empowered Women Conferences. 

“What I like about those agronomy groups is you are getting the perspective of what’s happening across the entire U.S. grain belt,” Mendell explains. “You get the opportunity to see what’s working and what’s not. And if something is working across the entire grain belt over tens of thousands of acres, you can have pretty good confidence that it could be a successful management strategy.”

It’s all a part of his attention-to-detail mentality. 

College education and past farm experiences aside, Mendell realizes he still has much to master to continue to make the operation successful as he dedicates the farm’s journey to the memories of his father and brother. 

“Nobody’s journey is necessarily easy,” Mendell says. “I absolutely think my journey has helped me become the person that I am. I want to learn something every day so that I can do it better tomorrow.”

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