Master Farmers are agriculture's best feel-good story.
This is an award that's been around since the mid 1920s, when it was first given by our sister publication, Prairie Farmer, as a way to help farm people develop pride in their profession. These days several Farm Progress publications hand out Master Farmer awards, and the honor still focuses not only on farming skill but also grass roots service to family and community.
Last night was no exception as I got to sit in on the award banquet for the Indiana Master Farmers, presented by Indiana Prairie Farmer and Purdue University Extension. Honorees were Jack and Rita Maloney, Brownsburg, Ind., Carl and Delene Schmitz, Wadesville, Ind., David and Danita Rodibaugh, Rensselaer, Ind., Mike and Karen Starkey, Brownsburg, Ind., and Bill Field, named Honorary Master Farmer for his ground-breaking work in farm safety at Purdue University.
Jim Mintert, new director of the Purdue Center for Commercial Agriculture, interviewed the winners to find out what makes a Master Farmer tick. Some common themes quickly emerged: they're willing to try new things and innovate; they respect others in the business and communicate well; they volunteer and step in to help when the community needs them. And they are extremely passionate about conservation.
Most of all, family gets top priority.
"If we work diligently to keep the family relationships right, the farm management will work itself out," says Danita Rodibaugh.
The Rodibaughs have four families in the farm business, so communication is vital. "We are not all that professional but we do divide responsibilities and recognize that each of us has expertise in certain areas," says David.
The farmers all agreed that innovation is a key to success.
"You have to be willing to change to keep up," says Mike Starkey. "Try something on your farm; if it doesn't work, try something else. You don't have to risk the whole farm to try something new."
In fact, years before variable rate nitrogen application had become the norm, the Rodibaughs were tinkering with a 'Soil Doctor,' a tool that allowed them to vary fertilizer rates. They purchased one well over a decade ago. They were able to use less nitrogen on productive oil and more on sand hills, in the belief that the better soils already had nitrogen mineralized from organic matter.
"We've got 6 or 7 years of yield comparison data and we feel we're making an effort to use N more efficiently," says David.
The best managers, says Starkey, do what they do best. "Do what you love to do," he says. "I like looking at numbers, and my nephew turns wrenches, because that's the last thing I want to do."
Carl Schmitz agrees. "You have to find something you love to do," he says. "My brother and I have always worked well because I'm the numbers and dairy guy, and he's the crop guy; don't set him down with the checkbook or you'll drive him batty."
Jack Maloney says the same principles apply even if you're working with employees. "I haven't driven a combine for years, that's not my job now," he says. "Everybody has an opinion, and nobody talks down to one another. I don't rule the roost, most of the time we make group decisions. Everyone has strengths and faults and we work through all of them."