HURON — Rural Electric Cooperatives, it seems have been a part of Jeff Nelson’s life story from the beginning.
“I am proud to have grown up in a co-op family,” says the retired general manager of East River Electric whose father was an early rural electric cooperative employee.
Nelson first worked for East River Electric as an intern while attending South Dakota State University pursuing a degree in electrical engineering. Then, when he returned from serving more than three years in the Army, it just so happened East River Electric had an opening.
“It was an entry level position. I thought I’d be there for a year or two. Forty years later I retired,” says Nelson, who was named the 2018 South Dakota Farmers Union Agriculture Ambassador during the organization’s State Convention held in Pierre Nov. 29 - 30.
From the start, Nelson was motivated by the mission of rural electric cooperatives, “lighting rural America.” And, although most farms and ranches were connected to electricity by the time he began working for East River Electric, he said supporting rural America became “more of a mission than a job.”
He was active in state and national legislative policy. In his professional career he testified before Congress on public power issues and worked closely with state legislators, members of Congress and government agency officials on many legislative issues.
Nelson is credited with helping the ethanol industry gain a foothold in South Dakota by creating a mechanism that allowed electric cooperative members to use co-op patronage to invest in the state’s first ethanol plants. He was also instrumental in creating the SD Value-Added Agriculture Development Center and the SD Wind Energy Association. As part of his role with East River Electric, Nelson has served on a number of regional and national boards.
In many of these projects, he says he has had a close friend and advocate in South Dakota Farmers Union.
“Farmers Union has long been a progressive, open-minded advocate for improving lives of rural South Dakotans - similar to the mission of the rural electric cooperatives,” Nelson explains.
During his 40 years of work with East River Electric, there were many times when Nelson worked closely with SDFU to enhance the lives and livelihoods of rural South Dakotans; whether it was through cooperative education or advocating for ethanol or wind energy development.
“Farmers Union has been a solid voice and partner in seeking and advocating for market opportunities,” Nelson says. “Farmers Union has always played a strong role in the success story that is ethanol production in South Dakota.”
On the topic of wind energy, he recalls a 2010 conversation on wind energy that he had with SDFU President, Doug Sombke. “Farmers Union joined with East River and was among the earliest supporters of SD Wind Partners which became the state’s first, locally owned wind development project ,” he said.
Retiring in 2014, Nelson continues to support rural America. He serves on the Inter-Lakes Community Action Partnership (ICAP) board of directors and is President of the Lake County Food Pantry. Nelson is also Chairman of the statewide Lifescape Foundation board of directors (previously Children’s Care Hospital & School and SD Achieve) and serves as the board Chairman of the Mitchell Technical Institute Foundation, along with giving back, in retirement Nelson and his wife, Trudi, live on Lake Madison and enjoy spending time with their two adult children and four grandchildren.