As a young boy living in the small farming community of Brewster and walking his show calves down the gravel roads of Nobles County, Bob Thurston knew he was destined to live in rural Minnesota.
“I remember feeling like there was no place else I would rather have been. I recall how I felt seeing miles and miles of corn and soybeans. I recall the peace and quiet, the earthy smells that one can only get from the country and how I knew, even then, that I would spend my entire working life in agriculture,” Bob said.
And he did, founding Thurston, Inc., one of the leading hybrid seed brokerage firms in the U.S., and Thurston Genetics, a national and international corn genetics licensing company — both based in Oliva, the self-proclaimed Corn Capital of the world. Bob spent more than 50 years working in agriculture and living in Olivia. His wife, Joanne, grew up on a farm near Marshall. They now live near Spicer.
Loving southwest Minnesota as they do, Bob and Joanne got connected to the Southwest Initiative Foundation. Our mission spoke directly to Bob’s heart, and he served nearly 10 years on the Board of Directors.
Bob impacted every aspect of the foundation’s governance, especially in his role as board chair. He was the driving force to form the Emerging Leaders Cabinet, to help the board understand what a new generation of leaders face in the region and to strengthen their leadership skills.
“Bob was able to balance a strong entrepreneurial sense with a deep passion for mission, understanding the difference in his nonprofit and for-profit board experience and bringing insights from both to inform decision making,” said SWIF President and CEO Diana Anderson. “With microphone in hand, he could talk about Grow Our Own in a genuine way, bring credibility to our Keep It Growing farmland program or share why this organization and rural region are special to him. He was always ready to tell people about the foundation.”
Thurstons often opened their home for fundraisers, meetings and celebrations, with Joanne as host.
“I love meeting people and hosting, and I jumped at any opportunity I got to support Bob and the board,” Joanne said.
Their hospitality and passion introduced friends and neighbors to Southwest Initiative Foundation, many of whom became supporters, too. Bob and Joanne are also Growing Home Circle members, supporting our general endowment with an annual contribution of $1,000 or more because they know their gift is invested and makes a difference in southwest Minnesota.
“We have so many good stories to tell at the foundation, and if you have a good story to tell, it’s easy to get more people to support you,” Bob said.
Bob retired from the board in 2019. Traveling to every corner of southwest Minnesota was one of his favorite experiences during his board service, meeting the people and seeing the places that make the region what it is. The foundation’s ability to network and connect people to resources impressed him.
“Look at the relationships we’ve built, like our local community foundation affiliates. To have all these partners that all believe in the same cause is powerful,” said Bob, who took an active role in fundraising to support the launch of the BIO Legacy Foundation, our local community foundation affiliate serving Bird Island and Olivia.
When the foundation embarked on the work of Grow Our Own in 2016, Bob was ready to begin his role as board chair, and he and Joanne learned 1 in 6 kids in southwest Minnesota were living in poverty and facing an opportunity gap.
“I didn’t realize that was happening here in our own backyard. Then it’s a no-brainer you have to do something and identify youth who need help,” Bob said. “And I can’t think of a better initiative for economic development than Grow Our Own. We don’t want our kids or our region to be left behind.”
Joanne has a passion for children who face unseen traumas. She’s a retired licensed marriage and family therapist and started out working in in-patient care for children experiencing a mental health crisis. She understood that many kids are facing issues that won’t bring them to a hospital but have consequences over time.
“My daughter works in the school system, and any teacher that you talk to talks about the children who are unable to afford their lunch or those who are left behind because they can’t keep up or they’re thinking about what happened last night at dinner or at home, and there’s no way they can concentrate on the alphabet,” Joanne said.
As Grow Our Own enters its fourth year, Bob and Joanne see progress in the foundation’s work supporting and leading efforts connected to five areas kids need to succeed: stable families and parenting, high quality early childhood care and education, engagement in the K-12 years in and out of school, career on-ramps and welcoming and vibrant communities.
Maintaining those vibrant and welcoming communities will also be a way to draw people here to live, work and raise families. Thurstons are thrilled most of their children live nearby in southwest Minnesota. They have a blended family; Joanne has four adult children, and Bob has two. Together, they have 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. The rich traditions and new opportunities in Greater Minnesota make rural a place they’ll hopefully choose to call home someday, too.
“My hope and goal is young people will want to raise families here. Our challenge is taking our richest assets and helping that evolve,” Bob said.