Small Family Business Owner Expands Company Legacy Via Farming Contracts

Minnesota’s Nelson Sanitation & Rental provides a vital service to the agriculture community during the long seed corn-detasseling season.
Small Family Business Owner Expands Company Legacy Via Farming Contracts
Derrick Nelson (left), has a tailgate meeting with his detasseling service crew, consisting of Holden Snyder, Kenneth and Brian Sonora and Ander Person.

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The team

Derrick Nelson, owner of Nelson Sanitation & Rental Inc., has six full-time employees, including an office manager, to help run his business in Rice, Minn. Portable restroom rentals account for the majority of the company’s work with additional income from septic services and portable storage unit rentals.

Seasonally, workers run a few septic pumping and portable restroom routes every day. Nelson also runs a couple of routes a week. As he drives, he watches for opportunities for new clients, such as a seed corn company in need of portable restrooms for workers detasseling corn.

Company history

Nelson’s father, Jerome, started the business in 1979 after his job on the railroad ended. He bought a 1959 International truck and outfitted it with a new tank and a gas-powered trash pump, based on the advice of a friend who ran a septic pumping business in another town. The elder Nelson added portable sanitation in 1994. Derrick, the youngest of three sons, started working in the business when he was 16.

Working with his father, the business grew mostly by word of mouth. Jerome handled the septic side of the business. Derrick helped pump tanks in the fall, and took care of the portable restrooms. Jerome retired in 2011, but continues to help out wherever he is needed. In 2010, Derrick added to his inventory by buying out the portable restroom division (100 units) from a local rental company. A year later he invested in new portable storage containers. By 2012, he hired a manager to help with sales and take care of office work.

Making connections

Though the majority of rental business is based in urban areas of St. Cloud, Minn., and the metro area north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Nelson Sanitation & Rental Inc., is in the middle of productive farmland. Farmers grow sweet corn, tomatoes and watermelons and need restrooms for workers who pick the crops. Nelson provides a few restrooms seasonally for them. On a larger scale, the area has farmers contracted to raise field corn for seed. Nelson was taking care of his contract for restrooms with one small seed company, when he saw portable restrooms from an out-of-area business on more than 5,000 acres of fields of corn grown for a large seed company. He contacted the company, gave them a price and has had the contract since 2009.

The main event

Detasseling is necessary to grow corn for seed. To create a hybrid seed corn, one row of “male” plants is planted between every four rows of “female” plants. To get the desired traits from the male plants, the tassels (the tops of the plants that produce pollen) must be removed from all the female plants before corn ears start to silk. The pollen from the male tassels needs to pollinate the silk of the female plants.

In years past, the work was often done by hand by teenagers who walked down the rows and snapped the tassels off the female plants. These days, many seed companies first use a machine to detassel the corn, then hire workers — usually migratory workers — who follow up to pull off tassels that were missed. They move from field to field, covering thousands of acres.

“The seed company likes to work with local companies,” says Nelson, noting that it was a contributing factor in getting the bid for dozens of portable restrooms set up in fields to make up a 30- to 40-mile route. “They also like that our trucks are four-wheel drive.”

That’s important as the fields are usually irrigated and Nelson’s trucks don’t get stuck.

By the numbers

Nelson bought out the portable restroom division of a local rental company, which included Satellite Tufway and PolyJohn Enterprises portable restrooms. The green color blends well in the cornfield setting, so he uses all of them, plus standard tan units from his inventory of 900 Satellite Tufway restrooms. All have hand sanitizers.

His service truck fleet includes three 2008 Ford F-550 trucks with Satellite 650-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tanks and a 2003 Isuzu truck with a 650-gallon slide-in steel tank from Imperial Industries. All the trucks have Masport pumps.

He has several locally fabricated trailers to transport restrooms, and typically uses a couple of them that hold 20 restrooms.

Let's roll

Setup occurs in mid-June over two days. Nelson’s workers in two delivery trucks follow seed company crews from field to field. The seed company workers mow the restroom placement area, Nelson’s crew unloads the restrooms, and the seed company crew chains them down to metal stakes to secure them through windstorms and prevent tipovers.

“We use the same restrooms every year. We drilled holes in them for bolts for this job,” Nelson says.

Though cleaning the restrooms is a challenge, the bigger challenge is often finding them.

“In the beginning the corn is short,” Nelson says. “But when it gets tall, you have to know the roads into the fields.” Though all of his trucks have laptops with GPS routing and Clear Computing software, the maps don’t include field access points.

Keepin' it clean

In the past, Nelson’s crew serviced the restrooms once a week, but a seed company employee monitored the units in 2012 as some require more frequent servicing and others less, depending on where workers are sent. Detasseling season typically is finished by the end of July.

Nelson has one person make a service run twice a week. The technician usually runs the route from 4:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. to beat the hottest part of the day, and dumps the load at the local treatment plant on the way back to the shop.

Because workers walk through irrigated fields, plenty of mud gets tracked into the portable restrooms. Nelson’s technicians use scrub brushes and Flojet wash systems to hose them down every time they service them.

Another challenge is Mother Nature. The 4WD trucks prevent workers from getting stuck in saturated fields. But big winds knock over a few of the restrooms every season – despite the extra measures. That’s when being local and able to respond quickly to keep the customer satisfied pays off, Nelson says.

We're all in

Though servicing the restrooms requires significant travel, Nelson is happy to have the cornfield contracts bringing in income for at least six weeks every summer. While it coincides with the busy summer event season, his business has enough restrooms to accommodate everyone. He’s grateful to have the steady business. “It’s a big contract, and it keeps a lot of the restrooms busy,” Nelson says.


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