The year was 1968. Jim Thomson of Prairie Farmer decided it was time to restart a program to honor farmers that had long since fallen by the way side. The Master Farmer program began in the 1920s in Indiana, but was discontinued during the Depression in the 1930s.
The challenge to restart the program in Indiana fell to Carl Eiche, better known as “Indiana Ike.” Ironically, Eiche was originally from Kansas. But by 1968, after arriving in Indiana in 1959, he was fast becoming a popular Hoosier ag writer.
“We recognized 10 farmers the first year, and then we backed off to recognizing seven or so,” Eiche says. “Someone joked we would run out of farmers if we honored 10 every year. The real reason was that it was just difficult to visit that many farmers and write up that many stories in a timely manner. I was the only editor in Indiana at the time.”
That first class had an all-star lineup, including the late Guy Beerbower, who was once president of the Indiana State Fair. Several Master Farmers in the first couple of decades had been state fair board presidents, Eiche recalls. The list also includes many people who have led state organizations, including commodity groups and Indiana Farm Bureau Inc.
Here are a few memorable moments from Master Farmer award ceremonies through the years:
1968. From the start, the idea was to hold a banquet to honor those who had excelled in their field, Eiche says. The first Master Farmer banquet in the modern era in Indiana was held at the Airport Holiday Inn in Indianapolis. For the next 30 years, banquets would be held at hotels in the Indianapolis area, typically in March before spring fieldwork began.
1972. The late Francis Beck was one of five inducted as Master Farmers that year. Beck, Atlanta, started growing seed corn in the 1930s. His son, Sonny Beck, would be recognized in 1979 as a Master Farmer. His grandson, Scott, who is president of Beck’s today, was honored in 2007.
1982. Sylvan Ice, Vincennes, made the crowd crack up when he explained that when field editor Tom Bechman called him to tell him he was receiving the award, he thought Bechman was just someone trying to sell him insurance. At the time, Indiana Prairie Farmer sold insurance, and everyone laughed but the insurance salesmen. The company is no longer in the insurance business.
1988. The late Harry Armstrong, an authentic southern Indiana cowboy, had the crowd in stitches, Eiche recalls. Following several farmers with big grain operations on the program, when a picture of a 2,000-bushel bin popped up during his presentation, Armstrong deadpanned, “Well, there’s my grain operation.” Armstrong was all about cattle, not grain farming.
1999. This was the first year the event was not held at a hotel. Instead, it was held in a tent behind Pioneer Village during the Indiana State Fair. When a tractor returning from the daily parade nearly backed over one of the guests in the tent, Paul Queck, then editor, vowed it would be the last banquet on the fairgrounds!
2000. The banquet was still held in August, but was located across the street from the state fairgrounds at the Normandy Barn. It was held in the loft of the original barn, moved to the site by Mauri Williamson and others, until the barn was moved inside the fairgrounds several years later. The Master Farmer banquet then moved to the Beck Center at Purdue, and now travels the state with the Indiana Farm Management Tour.