If I have a favorite day of my work year, it is the day of our annual Master Farmer luncheon. It's the culmination of months of work: nomination forms completed, support letters written, judging finished, cover photos shot, farms visited, interviews done, stories written, announcements made and finally, the luncheon itself, held yesterday in Springfield, Ill. (It may have also been my birthday and what better way to spend it than with a bunch of the best farmers in Illinois? They even sang to me. I suspect I was beet red.)
This year, we honored four new Master Farmers and their families: Bill Christ, Metamora, Ill.; Randy DeSutter, Woodhull, Ill.; Don Schrader, Waterloo, Ill.; and John Werries, Chapin, Ill.
At the luncheon, each of the new Master Farmers gets up and gives a short presentation on their farm, family and community, the service they give and very often, the parents who got them there. It can get emotional, with good reason: this award is the only thing of its kind, the only one to recognize a farmer for a career of successful agricultural productivity combined with community service. When you think about the spouse who's carried you through or the parents who got you there, it's a momentous feeling.
And this year? The governor came. The actual governor! We figure it's been a solid 20 years since that's happened. Maybe more.
Could we just take a minute to recognize that both the Illinois Director of Agriculture AND the Governor of Illinois came to our Master Farmer luncheon to celebrate some of the best farmers in Illinois?
I spoke with a group of corn growers the other night and mentioned how great it is to have a governor who knows farmers and agriculture exist. A farmer in the back piped up and said, "How great is it to have a governor who's not in jail?"
I think we have effectively lowered the bar here! But where we haven't lowered it is with the Master Farmer program.
These are people who have raised exceptional crops and given back in exceptional ways to their community. I love that the Illinois Director of Agriculture is a Master Farmer himself; Philip Nelson embodies the farmer leader who gives back, first to his community and industry, and now as a public servant.
The photo above is of one of the first Master Farmer banquets, and it was held in Chicago, in December 1926. (The governor was at that one, too.)
As I studied that photo, I got to wondering what that award meant to a farmer in 1926? That was a time when hybrid seed corn had been developed but not yet widely planted. Tractors were replacing horses, and just 10% of rural America had electricity. Agriculture was an incredible force in every small community.
It must surely have been an extraordinary honor even then – enough so that people would ride a train to downtown Chicago to be recognized, and wear bow ties.
I'd like to think it's just as much of an honor today. And as I talked with our new Master Farmers and heard them tell of getting phone calls and texts from across the state – and even the country – as the magazine hit mailboxes this past weekend, I couldn't help but think of the tradition. The gold medallion that the early Master Farmers received shows the work and the sweat of the brow, and as we all know, the silent drudgery of committee work.
Without the Master Farmers of our world, what would commodity and farm organizations look like? And our fairs and our school boards and our country churches? I suspect the holes would be gaping.
This program was started by Prairie Farmer editors in 1925 – 90 years ago. It's the oldest farmer recognition program in the country. I looked across the room yesterday – a room full of Master Farmers and their families – and knew without a doubt, these people are models of an agricultural life lived well. They're master farmers. And we're lucky to have them in our communities.