Meet Nick Hagen: The Minnesota farmer behind Molly Yeh and 'Girl Meets Farm'
A desire for the rural lifestyle and the opportunity to carry on the family farming legacy were two of the major reasons that influenced Nick Hagen’s decision to farm.
EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. — If farmer hadn’t met girl, there would be no “Girl Meets Farm.”
Nick Hagen, a fifth-generation Minnesota farmer, met Molly Yeh at The Juilliard School in New York City. Yeh now is a Food Network star on "Girl Meets Farm," cookbook author and owner of a soon-to-be-opened East Grand Forks restaurant. But when they met, they were two musicians deciding how they wanted to lead their lives.
Hagen grew up doing typical chores, such as lawn mowing when “he was old enough to reach the pedals,” and swathing wheat fields as a teenager. In his early youth, he had thought about being a farmer.
“I loved being involved. I loved the idea of being a farmer, as a kid,” he said.
But as Hagen became more involved in music in high school, playing his trombone in the jazz band, pep band and marching band at East Grand Forks (Minnesota) Senior High, he began to set his sights on a musical career, eventually applying to The Juilliard School.
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It didn’t occur to him that attempting to get into a world-renowned fine arts college should be intimidating, because he thought that’s just what students who wanted to be musicians did.
"I give credit to the fact that I grew up on this farm, in this place. I think I didn't understand how difficult it could be. It's almost like if nobody tells you, you can't do it, that increases your chances of doing it," Hagen said. “In hindsight, it seems like it was a crazy, far-fetched goal, but at the time I really had no perspective.”
His experience attending a small high school where it took “an all-hands-on-deck” to support the various music activities it offered gave Hagen a well-rounded experience and not to be a one-dimension musician, he said.
Hagen had an incredible music talent that was unmatched by any student in the 34 years that Herb Thomson taught band at East Grand Forks Senior High School.
“He’s one of a career. He had that something, that intangible thing,” said Thomson. “He was world class. In all my years of teaching, I don’t think there was a kid that went to Juilliard from this area. "
Still, Hagen was overwhelmed when he was walking to the audition on the Juilliard campus and saw the world-famous buildings and it hit him that he would be performing in front of his musical heroes.
Hagen drew on the harsh, New York City early spring weather for a psychological advantage.
“I remember walking to the audition, and it was March, and it was cold and windy in New York and I remember thinking, 'This is like my home field advantage. I do this everyday when I go to school,'" Hagen recalled. "I was thinking, 'This is my day. I can do this. This is not unlike any other day for me.’”
He was one of two auditionees that were accepted into Juilliard.
In his junior year at Juilliard, he began to contemplate whether music or farming would be his career. A year later, after his 2009 graduation from Juilliard, Hagen decided to give farming a go and returned to work for his father, Roger Hagen.
In 2011, Hagen still wasn’t sure about which career to choose and got the “New York itch,” he said.
“There was just something, I felt, like I had unfinished business,” Hagen said.
He and Yeh reconnected during his second time living in New York — they were acquaintances when he attended college there. She was a rising junior playing percussion instruments when he graduated from Julliard in 2009.
After a couple of years of dating, Hagen and Yeh realized that they were spending their free time together on weekends staying inside and ordering out, rather than hitting the streets and checking what the city was offering.
“We’re thinking, 'New York is being wasted on us. Why are we paying New York rent to be homebodies?'" Hagen said.
A train ride that took them out of New York City to the countryside convinced Hagen and Yeh that they needed to permanently leave the urban area.
“We kind of looked at each other and said ‘Should we move?'" Hagen said.
The answer for both of them was “yes.”
A desire not only for the rural lifestyle but also for the opportunity to carry on the family farming legacy influenced Hagen’s decision to farm. Hagen’s great-grandfather emigrated from Norway in 1876 to found the farm near East Grand Forks. His grandfather later farmed the land where he and his father now raise sugarbeets and wheat. The two men also rent out their land to a farmer who incorporates navy beans into their crops rotation.
Hagen also believes that not having parental pressure to farm factored into deciding to return. He left it because he wanted to pursue a career in music and returned because he wanted to farm, not because he felt like he had to do it out of a sense of duty.
"He seemed to have so much luck musically, I didn't want to stand in his way,” Roger Hagen said. Meanwhile, his mother, Roxanne, a former East Grand Forks elementary music teacher, supported her son by accompanying him on the piano in the living room of their family farm home while he played trombone.
When their son left home to go to The Juilliard School his parents thought it would be a permanent move.
“When in 2013 he came back, we were walking 6 inches off of the ground. It’s a dream come true. What could be better than working with your son — and your daughter?” Roger Hagen said.
Nick Hagen enjoys working with his dad in the field of agriculture.
“I love farming,” he said.
Hagen and Yeh moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota, across the Red River and down the road a few miles from where they live now, in the fall of 2013, and a few years later to the family farm near East Grand Forks.
“It took me moving back to New York to solidify my feelings about wanting to farm, and that confirmed for me my feelings about wanting to farm and that really confirmed for me that I wasn’t going to be wondering ‘What if?' or ‘Did I make the right decision?’” Hagen said.
In 2015 the couple were married in the building on the farm they call their “old shop” and their reception was in the newer farm shop.
“It was really special that Molly would get married on this farm and make her life here,” Hagen said. “Almost 10 years — I guess we can call her a local now.”
During the past decade, Yeh has created a career for herself that includes being a cookbook author, recipe developer, culinary show star and now, restaurant owner. She and Hagen also have two daughters, Bernie, 3 and Ira, 7 months.
Yeh's fondness for and admiration of the rural community in which she lives and the people who live there are reflected in the food she makes. For example, “Bernie’s,” the restaurant she and Hagen plan to open in late September includes on its menu regional favorites such as tater tot hotdish, cookie salad and lefse.
Hagen has been farming full time with his father since 2014.
“You know, you come for a reason, and you stay for a reason. I came for the legacy, and I stayed because I enjoy it. You’re not going to live this life — and kind of go through everything farming throws at you — if you don’t enjoy it,” Hagen said.
Although, to outsiders, it may look like he abandoned a career that offered him an opportunity to exercise great creativity for one that is more mundane, he views it the opposite way.
“The thing I like about farming is that it is so multifaceted,” he said. “I think about music and the sort of path you take to achieve success in music. It’s about being regimented and disciplined and consistent and very focused.”
Farming, on the other hand, is associated with things like heavy machinery, dirt and grease.
“It’s a far cry from the world of music,” Hagen said. “But the world of music was focused on perfection. It was such a controlled environment. It was just you, your instrument, and can you execute?
“Once I began farming, I realized it’s pure creativity. Mother Nature is throwing something new at you every day. You’re thinking on your feet.”
Hagen also embraces the variety of farming challenges he’s faced with daily. In that way, farming has something in common with music.
“It always seems like there is something you can do better," Hagen said. "I feel like there’s always a way to improve, and that tapped into my mentality with the trombone.”
Hagen still enjoys music, but he lays down his trombone during the farming season and defers offers to play the instrument until the off-season.
“I say ‘When you see snow, give me a call,’” he said.
He’s comfortable making trombone playing secondary to rural Minnesota farm life.
“I definitely feel at home,” Hagen said.
His former East Grand Forks Senior High teacher applauds Hagen's decision to pursue a career in agriculture.
"I grew up on a farm. I think it's wonderful," Thomson said.