Farm Progress

90 years of Prairie Farmer Master Farmers

We honored four new Master Farmers and their families yesterday, and even the Governor stopped in! This is, ahem, a big deal in Illinois.

Holly Spangler, Prairie Farmer Senior Editor

March 12, 2015

4 Min Read

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.  

Do you know someone in your community – or maybe your family – who should be a Master Farmer? Check out our nomination form, let me know if you have questions and get them nominated for 2016!

About the Author(s)

Holly Spangler

Prairie Farmer Senior Editor, Farm Progress

Holly Spangler has covered Illinois agriculture for more than two decades, bringing meaningful production agriculture experience to the magazine’s coverage. She currently serves as editor of Prairie Farmer magazine and Executive Editor for Farm Progress, managing editorial staff at six magazines throughout the eastern Corn Belt. She began her career with Prairie Farmer just before graduating from the University of Illinois in agricultural communications.

An award-winning writer and photographer, Holly is past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association. In 2015, she became only the 10th U.S. agricultural journalist to earn the Writer of Merit designation and is a five-time winner of the top writing award for editorial opinion in U.S. agriculture. She was named an AAEA Master Writer in 2005. In 2011, Holly was one of 10 recipients worldwide to receive the IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Ag Journalism award. She currently serves on the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, the U of I Agricultural Communications Advisory committee, and is an advisory board member for the U of I College of ACES Research Station at Monmouth. Her work in agricultural media has been recognized by the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Corn, Illinois Council on Agricultural Education and MidAmerica Croplife Association.

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois where they raise corn, soybeans and beef cattle on 2,500 acres. Their operation includes 125 head of commercial cows in a cow/calf operation. The family farm includes John’s parents and their three children.

Holly frequently speaks to a variety of groups and organizations, sharing the heart, soul and science of agriculture. She and her husband are active in state and local farm organizations. They serve with their local 4-H and FFA programs, their school district, and are active in their church's youth and music ministries.

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