Wallaces Farmer

The Iowa Master Farmer award began in 1926 to celebrate the state’s exemplary farmers.

Rod Swoboda

March 8, 2024

3 Min Read
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GOOD FARMING: The founders of the Iowa Master Farmer award started the program to honor those deserving of recognition as other industries had done.Farm Progress

The Iowa Master Farmer program began in 1926 when Henry A. Wallace decided his family’s magazine, Wallaces Farmer, would sponsor the annual award. It was clear from the outset the award was about more than farming, also encompassing involvement in family and community affairs.

It made perfect sense to use the magazine’s motto — “Good Farming, Clear Thinking, Right Living” — as a basis for the Master Farmer scorecard.

This guideline held the nominees to a higher standard of principles, requiring that Iowa Master Farmers not only skillfully manage their farms and market their products, but also invest their time and money in the pursuit of a successful home and family life.

Setting a good example

Supporters of the Master Farmer program believed it was necessary to give deserving farmers the same type of recognition received by exceptional individuals in other vocations.

Master Farmers would then set a good example for other farmers to learn from and follow.

“The basic character of agriculture in our national economy makes it especially appropriate to recognize among farmers the same ability, initiative, business sense and enterprise that are widely recognized in other fields of activity,” said USDA Secretary William Jardine, who served from 1925 to 1929.

The editors of Wallaces Farmer agreed about the merits of such a program and announced they were accepting nominations for the first annual Iowa Master Farmer award in the April 9, 1926, issue of the magazine. On Jan. 13, 1927, the first Iowa Master Farmer banquet was held in Des Moines to honor the 1926 award winners.

A total of 80 candidates were nominated. Wallaces Farmer editors made personal visits to over 40 of them. In the end, the judges gave unanimous approval to 14 men. These first 14 Iowa Master Farmers came from all parts of Iowa, operating farms ranging from 90 to 360 acres.

The Iowa Master Farmer program will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2026. As times, trends and technology have changed over the past 98 years, dedication to agriculture has remained constant among winners of the award.

From 1926 through 2023, a total of 496 Iowans received an Iowa Master Farmer award. Five more will receive it in 2024.

The total 501 Master Farmers break down to:

  • 471 farmers

  • 27 receiving the Exceptional Service to Agriculture award

  • three honorary recipients

The Exceptional Service to Agriculture award was first presented in 1959. It honors individuals who don’t exactly fit the Master Farmer classification of being a farmer, but they have spent a lifetime helping and serving farmers and agriculture.

These award recipients include ISU Extension specialists, professors, soil conservation agency staff and others who have assisted farmers in various ways over the years. The Honorary Master Farmers are retired Wallaces Farmer editors.

While 501 is a lot of people, it really isn’t when considering the vast number of farmers working in Iowa since the beginning of the recognition in 1926. This shows the true significance of the program and honor of being an Iowa Master Farmer.

Looking back, looking ahead

Soon after the Iowa Master Farmer program was started, the award winners recognized the need to organize to create a closer relationship among generations of Master Farmers. In 1928, the Master Farmers met and formed the Iowa Master Farmer Club. In the mid-1950s, the organization began sponsoring scholarships for students in agriculture and ag communications at Iowa State University.

In 2002, the Iowa Master Farmer Foundation was formed to help ensure the future of the scholarships and the awards program. Also in 2002, the Iowa Master Farmer Club changed its name to Iowa Master Farmer Association. Members pay annual dues and raise money in other ways to fund the scholarships. Elected officers manage the association, and a board of directors oversees the foundation.

An Iowa Master Farmer history book was published in 2007, providing a snapshot of the program and the award winners for the first 81 years. The award is an honor that will no doubt endure as long as the world needs to be fed.

Read more about:

Master Farmers

About the Author(s)

Rod Swoboda

Rod Swoboda is a former editor of Wallaces Farmer and is now retired.

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