With a slight smirk, Mike Kenyon describes himself as a "socially-aware Republican."
This 69-year-old South Elgin farmer is the precise definition of young at heart. At the mention of his name, young farmers can't help but smile, remembering one of Kenyon's jokes from a recent Illinois Farm Bureau meeting.
Once the conversation moves past humor, Kenyon's keen business sense and political mind begin to shine. These attributes, combined with a strong farm in Chicago's northwest suburbs and his ability to make nearly anyone crack a smile make Kenyon a true Master Farmer.
From carpentry to farming
Kenyon can trace his roots all the way back to the east coast. His great grandfather, John C. Kenyon, was born in Grandvall, New York in 1826. John C. moved the family west and Wallace Clark Kenyon, Mike's grandfather, was born in Elgin in 1865. Wallace had three brothers and two sisters. The family started in the carpentry business and built the barn on the current farmstead in 1895.
After some time, Wallace traded his hammer for a bridle when he went into the horse business selling teams. The business was headquartered at Mike's current farmstead in West Elgin.
Wallace's successful run in the horse business came to an end with the introduction of the automobile. He sold the horses and bought dairy cows. By this time, he had plenty of labor to help on the farm. Wallace's five sons were, from oldest to youngest, David C., John W., Harold L. (died early in 1972), Warren M. (known as "Bud"), and Wallace Clifford (Mike's father).
Mike notes his grandfather knew how to strike a deal. As a result, the farm grew and prospered. At one point, the business expanded north into Wisconsin as Wallace sought replacement heifers when animals were struck with an outbreak of tuberculosis. David C., the oldest child, would eventually move north and take over the Wisconsin venture.
"I was always proud our family could have strong personalities yet work together and respect each other," Mike notes.
In the mid-1960s, Mike was closing in on an ag economics degree at the University of Illinois. He returned home after the 1966 spring semester and was cajoled into a blind date with his best friend's girlfriend's best friend. Her name was Carol. They met at Massey's Pizza.
By January of 1967, Mike was waiting for Carol to walk down the aisle at a small church in Iowa, where Carol grew up. She still remembers a huge snowstorm swept across the Midwest days before the wedding. As a result, many of Mike's friends and family missed the ceremony.
"Only about half the people showed up," Carol remembers.
In the summer of 1967, Mike's draft notice showed up. Carol, whose father was an Army officer, packed her bags and waited for word that Mike was being deployed to Vietnam. In a terrific stroke of luck, Mike was instead assigned to Germany.
"We thought he was going to Vietnam because everyone else was," Carol notes. "But, for some reason he got sent to Germany. It was so unexpected."
It turns out Mike had a valuable skill they needed in Germany. He could type. He was attached to a special weapons platoon that was keeping a close eye on the Russians. Mike and Carol's first son, Michael Jr., was born during the deployment in 1968.
After two years in the Army, Mike's obligation was fulfilled and the family returned to Illinois. Over the years, Mike's commitment to the farm has been unwavering, even as family members pursued other interests. Today, he's farming 1,600 acres and milking around 55 cows.
A public servant
When Mike isn't farming, he's finding a way to give back to the community and the industry. It's something he learned from his mother.
"My mom was very community oriented," he notes. "She was involved in five different organizations."
The bulk of Mike's time is consumed by the Kane County Board and Illinois Farm Bureau. He's been on the Kane County Farm Bureau Board for more than 20 years, serving as president from 1996 to 2002. He's currently the treasurer.
On IFB, Mike served as the District 1 director for 10 years. Even though his term ended in 2011, he's still respected and heavily involved with IFB.
"If you want to be a part of something, you've got to get in the middle of it," Mike says. "If you want the program to succeed, you've got to do your part."
Mike has definitely been willing to do his part. He served in every office of the South Elgin Jaycees, and received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.
He also helped found the South Elgin Business Association and served two terms as second president. Additionally, Mike helped found the Feeding Greater Elgin initiative, which works closely with the Northern Illinois Foodbank.
"One in five people don't have enough food in the U.S.," he notes. "That's a sobering statistic and the main reason I got involved with the effort."
With his involvement in so many community aspects, Mike is definitely a linchpin of South Elgin. He frequently receives phone calls from community leaders seeking insight on various topics. This extraordinary commitment to community, coupled with his dedication to the family farm makes Mike more than worth of the title Master Farmer.