July/Aug. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Matt Salvo and Ching Lee
Turkey farmer is also a wakeboard champion.
More online: Top wakeboarding spots
Tim Nilsen is known to lead a double life—one as an extreme-sport athlete and one as a turkey farmer.
Tim Nilsen performs a heel side back roll on Folsom Lake near Sacramento.
When he's not tending to half a million birds on his farm in Sacramento County, Nilsen can usually be found riding the waters of Folsom Lake on a wakeboard, practicing for his next competition. That entails being pulled behind a wake boat at just under 25 mph, performing any number of tricks he's perfected over the years, including hurling high into the air and doing gravity-defying flips.
A hybrid of conventional water-skiing and surfing, wakeboarding has been a major part of Nilsen's life since he became involved in the sport in high school. That was more than 20 years ago, when the sport was still in its infancy. Using his dad's twin-engine race boat, Nilsen would go out to the Sacramento River and practice his moves every chance he could.
"The whole atmosphere is fun," he said of wakeboarding. "I love everything about it: being in the sun, being on the boat, listening to music. It's just a nice way to spend your day."
He became so good at the sport that he started competing in his early 20s, and has been doing it on and off for the last 15 years. But he acknowledged that farm life soon took priority because "that's what actually pays the bills." Now 37, Nilsen started competing again in recent years and has won two national championship titles—in 2011 and 2012—in a division for his age group.
That's helped him gain sponsorship—from the wakeboard manufacturer to the company of the boat he uses.
To compete on a professional level, Nilsen said he has to practice every day, sometimes two to three times a day. That makes for a delicate balance between his two lives, because he often spends six days a week on the farm. In the summer, he's out on the water by sunrise and practices for about two hours before heading to the farm. Some days, depending on his workload, he's able to break away early and go wakeboarding in the evening before the sun sets.
"To be competitive, you really have to stay on top of it," he said.
Competing in the sport has not only allowed Nilsen to travel and "go to some really cool places," he said, but it's also given him a chance to introduce wakeboarding to others.
"I've taken a lot of beginners out, and it's very satisfying and rewarding to give back and help other people get into the sport because it is a lot of fun," he said.
Although he said he has "always had a passion" for wakeboarding, Nilsen developed an even-earlier passion for turkey farming, because he grew up around it. His father, Norman, started Nilsen Farms in 1983, when Tim was 7. Before that, the elder Nilsen was a poultry equipment distributor. He was offered an opportunity to get into the turkey-raising business and decided to go for it.
"We've never looked back," Tim Nilsen said.
The farm raises turkeys for Foster Farms—the larger toms used for deli meat and ground turkey, not the type served for Thanksgiving dinner. Nilsen's turkeys typically weigh between 45 and 50 pounds—much too large for the oven.
Growing up, Nilsen said he spent his summers and after-school time helping his dad on the farm—driving tractors, greasing fan motors and cleaning out the barns.
"There's a lot of hard work that needs to be done, and my dad taught me a lot about work ethic as I was growing up," he said. "I had to work for everything I wanted. He would dangle that carrot and give me an incentive to go out and help him. So I learned a lot. He's been the biggest teacher in my life."
He said even though his dad never pressured him to follow in his footsteps and he could have chosen any career path he wanted, he ultimately fell in love with the farming lifestyle and saw an opportunity in the business that not a lot of people get to see.
"I took an existing operation that was very successful, implemented new strategies and new technologies that I learned when I was in school, and have taken our farm to a state-of-the-art operation," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, that's living the American dream."
Everything from the farm's lighting to ventilation and feeding systems are run by computers, which enables him to monitor the conditions inside the barns more easily and care for the birds. The use of modern technologies also helps him run his farm more efficiently, he said.
"It's my job to make sure those birds are kept as comfortable and as happy as possible," he said. "When you minimize the stress on the bird, you actually save in your feed consumption and you also have a much cleaner, healthier product going to market. So it makes perfect business sense to really pay attention to your animal welfare practices."
Away from the water and his wakeboard, Tim Nilsen raises half a million turkeys for Foster Farms. Inside one of his barns, with 6-week-old turkeys, Nilsen follows the farm's safety procedures by wearing a full-body suit to protect the birds from accidental introduction of disease.
For the last eight years, Nilsen Farms was named Foster Farms' Grower of the Year, an honor Nilsen said he owes in large part to his employees, who do such a good job that it allows him to break away and focus on wakeboarding when activities on the farm are "quiet and under control."
As to where his two lives intersect, Nilsen said there's not much similarity between the two—aside from the physical activity involved in wakeboarding and farming and how they both keep him in shape. Other than that, he said fellow wakeboarders and people he meets on the water are often surprised to hear he raises turkeys for a living.
"They say, 'You don't look like a turkey farmer.' So my question is, 'What does a turkey farmer look like?'" he said, laughing.
There is one other thing that keeps his two lives connected: To stay fit, Nilsen said he eats plenty of turkey because it's a lean meat that provides good protein.
"I'm one of the biggest customers of my own product," he said.
Top nine wakeboarding spots in California
Where is the best place to wakeboard in California? Tim Nilsen, a Northern California turkey farmer and wakeboard champ who is featured on the cover of the July/August issue of California Bountiful magazine, and Ben Greenwood, content editor for TransWorld WAKEBOARDING, have weighed in on their favorite spots. Here they are in alphabetical order:
- Bullards Bar Reservoir
Located north of Sacramento, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, in Emerald Cove Marina. Not a very big lake, but beautiful scenery and calm water.
- Canyon Lake
One of the top spots in Southern California. Located in the Lake Elsinore Channel. You can join the Canyon Lake Wakeboarding Club.
- Carlsbad Lagoon
Calm, waters, minimal crowds; located right off Interstate 5. Watersport classes for beginners to experts; summer youth camp called Camp H2O Extreme.
- Don Pedro Lake
The fifth largest manmade lake in California. It's situated in a canyon in the Sierra Nevada foothills of the Stanislaus National Forest, bordering the northwest corner of Yosemite National Park.
- Folsom Lake
Formed by Folsom Dam, the lake has approximately 75 miles of shoreline. The water is especially calm for wakeboarding in the morning hours.
- Lake McClure and Lake McSwain
In Snelling, near Merced. Scenic views, 70 miles of grassy shoreline, calm water, minimal boat traffic.
- Lake Shasta
It's hard to beat this popular tourist destination, with its incredible view of majestic Mount Shasta. Shasta Wakeboard School offers lessons for all ages and skill levels.
- Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta
Expansive collection of canals and sloughs that offer smooth waters and quiet coves. Best spots in the delta include Empire Cut, Snodgrass Slough and Mokelumne River.
- Wake Island
The first cable wake park in California, located in Pleasant Grove near Sacramento. The 80-acre park also features an observation deck, a lagoon, beaches and a snack bar.