South Dakota Farmers Union has served South Dakota farm and ranch families for more than a century. Throughout the year, we share their stories in order to highlight the families who make up our state's number one industry and help feed the world.
By Lura Roti, for South Dakota Farmers Union
This month, we're highlighting the Symens family who raise crops, purebred Limousin cattle and a feedlot near Amherst.
"It's a garden spot ... if we get rain," says Paul Symens, 72, when describing the land his grandpa, Harm Symens, purchased in 1910 near Amherst.
For more than a century, the Symens family has cared for and farmed the land, which today supports a diverse farming operation that includes cropground, purebred Limousin cattle and a feedlot managed by Paul, his two brothers, Irwin, 80, and John, 69, Irwin's son, Brad, 46, and Paul's son, Warren, 38.
Since the beginning, rain - the lack of or over-abundance of - has played a significant role in the management decisions made by the Symens family.
For Harm and his son, Wilbert, the Dust Bowl days made soil conservation and erosion control a focus of their field management.
Irwin recalls a 1936 story of his dad planting corn in May which didn't sprout until September when it received its FIRST rain ... only to be killed by frost at 6-inches. "That same year dad mowed 160 acres of ground and all that grew was thistles. He stacked the thistles, mixed them with molasses and that's what he fed the cattle. That was the year I was born," says Irwin, who is the second oldest of nine children raised on the farm by Wilbert and his wife, Inga.
Implementing novel conservation techniques, like tree belts and strip tilling, earned the family some fame when in 1936 Harm was featured in Cappers Farmer magazine under the headline, "Uncommon Effort Won Over Drought."
Today, the Symens continue the legacy of conservation, managing their fields with minimal-till techniques to increase water infiltration and leaving half of all corn stubble in the field to build organic matter. The stubble removed from fields is used as bedding for cattle. It is then reapplied once it's been utilized as bedding. "At this point it's partially decomposed and has added nutrients of the manure," Warren explains.
Growing up on a farm south of Gregory, Dowain Kerner didn't give his dad, Dean's, career much thought. That is, until he began attending Farmers Union Camp as a kid.
"I was born on a farm; it's what my dad does for a living. But when I was little, I wasn't into farming at all. Attending camp really gave me an interest in farming," says Kerner, 18, who has been attending Farmers Union Camp since he was 8.
Positive peer pressure is how Kerner explains his change of heart. "I really connected with the kids and leaders at Farmers Union Camp. They were excited about farming, ranching and cooperatives - this sparked an interest in me."
South Dakota Farmers Union President, Doug Sombke, does not support the May 18, 2016 announcement made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which proposes a 5 billion gallon cut to its 2014 Renewable Fuels Standard renewable volume obligations.
"By setting the 2017 renewable volume obligation at 18.8 billion gallons, the EPA falls below the statutory volume levels set by Congress," Sombke explained. "There is a strong connection between reliable implementation of the Renewable Fuels Standard and achievement of the Administration's climate goals."
A fourth-generation family farmer, Sombke understands the positive impact renewable fuels has had on South Dakota's economy. "The ethanol industry has created jobs throughout our state's rural communities and provides another, local market for corn," Sombke said. "Not only that, but ethanol blends provide cleaner air than just gasoline alone."
South Dakota Farmers Union President, Doug Sombke joins with National Farmers Union (NFU) organization in commending U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) for reintroducing legislation to ban packer ownership of livestock.
"Sen. Grassley has always been recognized by Farmers Union for his continued support of family farmers and ranchers," said Sombke, a fourth-generation Conde crop and livestock farmer. "This is an issue which directly impacts South Dakota farmers and ranchers who raise livestock."
Sombke explains that because there are so few packers today, packer ownership of livestock can manipulate the livestock markets, reducing demand and driving prices down. He adds that this is not a new issue. In fact, packer ownership of livestock is the issue which motivated Sombke to become more involved in the grassroots organization 30-plus years ago.
Fun and raising funds for the next generation of agricultural leaders is the focus of the 2016 Farmers Union Foundation Open Golf Tournament which will be held June 21, 2016, at the Lakeview Golf Course in Mitchell (3300 N Ohlman St., Mitchell).
The tournament will be a four-person, 18-hole scramble. Registration begins at 8:30 a.m. (CDT); shotgun start is at 9 a.m.
All event proceeds benefit Farmers Union Education Camp Programs, Leadership Development Programs, Young Producers Group and Youth Farm Safety Awareness.
South Dakota Farmers Union recently hired Rachel Haigh-Blume to serve as Education Director.
"We are excited about Rachel's background and professional experience, as well as her enthusiasm for youth and agriculture," said Doug Sombke, President of South Dakota Farmers Union.
Haigh-Blume will be responsible for educational programming, which serves more than 3,000 South Dakotans each year.
Since it was established to serve family farmers and ranchers more than a century ago, education has been a focus of South Dakota Farmers Union. "SDFU Educational programming is developed to enrich the lives of rural South Dakotans; whether it's through county, district or state camps held throughout the summer which teach rural youth about farm safety, cooperative education and leadership development or Rural Economic & Leadership Program (REAL) and Young Producer Events which provide leadership and professional development to agriculture producers and rural professionals," explains Karla Hofhenke, Executive Director of SDFU.
Since 1938, the community of Groton has hosted the Carnival of Silver Skates. The on-ice themed musical performance featuring school-age children from the community is the longest running outdoor skating show in South Dakota.
For several years now, Steve and Carol Smith have been actively involved on the event's planning committee and a few years back, when the city's skating rink was moved from the center of town to the edge of town, they worked with other community members to organize fundraising events which raised more than $60,000 in one year for a new warming house.
"This event is very important to our community," Carol explains. "We knew if the show was going to continue, we needed a new warming house."