Steele County has lost a giant when it comes to 4-H and the livestock industry.
Last week, Jim Grass, 91, of Owatonna died. During his lifetime, Grass piled up some pretty impressive accomplishments that have been noted in this newspaper at various times.
Grass showed hogs at the Minnesota State Fair for nearly 70 years. He started his amazing run in 1947. That achievement was noted in 2014 when a photo of the Grass family and details of their story was placed on the story wall of the fair’s new History and Heritage Center.
At the time, Grass was believed to be the oldest and longest-running showman in the state.
“It just gets in your blood,” Grass told me at the time. “And once it gets in your blood, it’s hard to leave.”
Surprisingly, showing hogs wasn’t Grass’ favorite memory of the fair. Instead, it had something to do with love. While at the fair in 1949, he met Erliss Anderson, who became his wife in 1952. She died in 2010.
But State Fair was only a part of who Jim Grass was. He had been instrumental in the success of the 4-H Livestock Auction at the Steele County Free Fair. The auction began in 1945 and most recently, in 2019, raised $88,000 for the 4-H program.
What did Grass have to do with the auction?
Well, he took it upon himself to go out ahead of time to recruit area businesses to purchase animals at the fair from the 4-H members. He called many business owners on the phone as well as going out to see them in person. If the businessmen didn’t have time to come to the fair for the auction, Grass gathered information and made the purchases for them.
In 2018, Grass ended up with a list of 40 businesses that he purchased animals for during the auction.
Suffice to say, Grass helped orchestrate one of the most successful 4-H livestock auctions in the state. He said the thought never crossed his mind of giving up on 4-H. “I think it’s a good organization. You get involved in something and you just don’t quit.”
Tracy Ignaszewski, 4-H program coordinator, told me in 2018, “He is the face of the auction.”
This past January, 4-H honored Grass with the Friend of 4-H award for all his devotion to the youth program.
Fortunately, for Steele County, Grass taught his daughter, Julie Grass of Waltham, in recent years to pick up the torch and continue with the auction tradition.
Grass also served one term on the Steele County Fair Board. However, Dan Deml, current fair president, said Grass’ biggest contribution to the fair was his support of the 4-H auction.
He was also a huge supporter of the Steele County Pork Producers Association. Grass could often be found going around the area grilling pork burgers for different events. “He was an incredible supporter,” Deml said.
In addition to the county, Grass excelled on many other levels. Among his various honors, Grass was inducted into the Minnesota Livestock Breeders Hall of Fame, the highest honor for a livestock producer. He also received a Distinguished Service Award from the National Barrow Show.
He was a humble man who will forever be remembered as a giant in the livestock industry as well as the county’s 4-H program.
This county is incredibly fortunate to have had someone like Jim Grass going in hot pursuit of his true passions.