S.D. Farmers Union Celebrates Camp Crook Ranch Family

By Lura Roti for SDFU


Someone once asked Darwin Latham’s grandpa Frank about his heritage. His answer? “Texan,” says the Camp Crook rancher.


As the story goes, Frank’s uncles, Doc and Willie, were among the area’s early settlers, first arriving in the 1880s, driving herds for Texas cattle companies.


They trailed up herds from Texas. “They worked for both the CY Cattle Company and the 101 Cattle Company,” Darwin explains. “Then they began ranching. For a time, Doc was part-owner of the famous bucking horse Tipperary.”


Born in Texas, Frank’s dad died when he was only 2, so his uncles, Doc and Willie encouraged his mom, Mattie, and stepdad, along with his younger brother John, to relocate from Texas.


It wasn’t easy. They tried homesteading several claims and moved around trying to make a go of it. After Frank’s stepdad’s death, Mattie and John moved to a small ranch just north of Camp Crook which is still in the family today.


Frank served in France during World War I as a truck driver. After the war, he put his heavy-equipment experience to work as a “cat skinner” driving a dozer helping build state highways. The money he earned helped him get a start ranching on his own.


In 1928, Frank and his young wife, Esther (Bickerdyke), started ranching on land north of Camp Crook along the Little Missouri River. Their oldest child, Erwin, Darwin’s dad, remained on the ranch.


Darwin and his sons, John, 33, and Jason, 30, continue to ranch there today.


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South Dakota Farmers Union Celebrates Beitelspacher Farm Family

by Lura Roti for SDFU


Mark Beitelspacher followed his heart's calling when he returned to his family's cattle and crop operation near Bowdle in 2004, just a few years after college.  

"Either your heart is into it, or it isn't.  I've always been into the livestock side more than farming," explains the third-generation cattleman, who also raises corn, soybeans and wheat. 

Loving what he does day-in and day-out is important, especially when working conditions were what they were this calving season.  "This was the first year, in a long time, that it got so bad with snow that I had to check cattle with a tractor instead of the four-wheeler," Mark, 43 says.  "The death loss on the calf crop during those April blizzards was pretty high this year.  And then with the rain this spring, even hauling cattle out to pasture is a challenge." 

At their worst, the blizzards dropped 2 feet of snow on Edmunds county, shutting down Highway 12, which runs right through their farm.  Sharon Beitelspacher, Mark's mom, says she's never seen a spring like 2019 when the area received a total of 115 inches of snow. 

"It just didn't give up.  It kept coming and coming," says Sharon, who together with her husband, Richard, raised their four children, on the farm where Mark and his wife, Tara, now live and raise their sons, Bryce, 15, and Brady, 13. 


Read more here. 

South Dakota Farmers Union Celebrates Freeman Farm Family

by Lura Roti for SDFU


Standing in their pasture, surrounded by cows with their new calves, Michelle Friesen points to a shelterbelt off to the southwest. “My mother grew up on a farm over there, about a year after my parents were married, my grandparents bought this place for my parents and they moved here,” explains the fourth-generation Freeman farmer.

 Quick to point out that although she grew up on the farm and spends five days each week actively involved, farming is actually her husband, Mike Miller’s passion. Music is hers.

 “My mother says that from 2-years-old on, I begged for a piano,” says Friesen, who is a soprano in the Sioux Falls Symphony Chorus and owns a piano studio, teaching 20 students each week. “I love music. It’s all around us. It’s everywhere you go.”

 Before the couple married, she was living in Kansas teaching music and worked as the pianist for a junior college choir and Miller was farming fulltime. She knew marrying him meant she would return to farming, but she also knew he would support her in pursuing music and performing.

 “Farming is his passion and this farm is more than what he can do on his own. So, as long as it works for me to do music and perform, I am available to help with farm work three-fourths time,” Friesen says.

 Together, the couple raise corn, soybeans, a cow/calf herd and feeder operation.

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Wessington Farm Family

By Lura Roti, for South Dakota Farmers Union 

Breeding cattle with larger, more muscular frames is a Johnsen family tradition.

 "I grew up hearing genetic talk about how cattle finish and how cattle feed from my dad, grandpa and great-grandpa," explains Chris Johnsen, a fourth-generation Wessington cattle and crop farmer.

And, even though the specific breeds varied, Chris' dad, Lynn, raises Charolais and Chris raises Simmental, the end goal remains the same. "Our family has always tried to stay away from smaller, more moderate type cattle because we've always believed that pounds sell. And, with a good frame, you are going to get more pounds of muscle."

Chris sees raising more pounds of muscle per animal as his way of helping feed a growing population. "It's always been my goal to gain more pounds on the land I have," Chris explains. "I believe that as the world population grows, we as livestock producers need to produce more with the same amount of land. It takes the same amount of land to finish cattle at 1,200 or 1,300 pounds as it does to finish cattle at 1,600 or 1,700 pounds."

To accomplish this, Chris works to improve not only his herd's genetics, but other cattle herds' genetics as well. The Johnsen family markets bulls and heifers.

"We breed cattle that will be compatible for commercial herds. So, we are not targeting just one area. We try to fill a wide range of genetic needs," Chris explains.

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Colome Farm Family

by Lura Roti for S.D. Farmers Union

 According to Joel Keierleber, flexibility is the key to success on his and Audrey's Colome farm. "I am flexible and do what looks to be the most profitable way to use our farm ground," explains the third-generation South Dakota farmer, of the strategy that has kept his farm more or less in the black the last 40 years. "Instead of trying to get bigger, I work to add value to the acres I already own. This has been my philosophy all along." 

It's late fall, and Joel walks out into a field of cover crops to explain. "This was crop ground two years ago. Then, I put in cover crops and a good stand of alfalfa and hayed and grazed it this year. I will probably do that again next year. After that, it will go into corn." 

He doesn't plant just one corn hybrid. "I always have to try something different. I want to plant several and see what will do the best. Some guys are content to do the same thing over and over - even for generations - not me," Joel says. 

This mindset carries over to his cow/calf herd. In the early '90s he started finishing out his own cattle. But, if the feeder market was higher than fat cattle, he would sell at the feedlot. 

"I never have one plan and stick to it. I sit down and pencil it out to see what will be the most cost-effective way to farm. That is what I go with," he explains. When it comes to his family and his farm, Joel is resolute to "stick to it." "I knew I wanted to farm from the time I was 5," he explains. 

Growing up on a dairy farm near Clearfield, the fifth of nine children, Joel was driving the the pickup to help dad feed small bales before he started kindergarten. "Back then, you got started early. I also had the calf chores." 

After high school, he took a course in diesel mechanics and returned home to help his dad, who was in poor health. About that time, his older sister introduced him to Audrey, a college student. Her first teaching position happened to be in the area. Four years later, they were engaged. 

With a plan to save up money to buy their own farm, the couple eagerly anticipated their June 1977 wedding. Then, in March, Joel was in a serious farm accident - his arm was caught in a silo unloader. 

Joel was home alone and had to drive himself to the neighbors.' "I met him on the road. The son was in the National Guard and in the medic unit. They took me to the hospital, 25 miles away," Joel recalls. 

His injuries were severe. "They told me when I was in the hospital that I would never me to go back to school so I could get a desk job." 

But, Joel wouldn't listen. He was determined to farm. "I figured I had not failed yet. You have to fail two or three times to see if you can succeed." 

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Maher Ranch Family

By Lura Roti, for SDFU

 Growing up one of 12 on a ranch north of the South Dakota state line, Mike Maher has many fond memories.

 "We did have a lot of fun. My brother next to me and I would hop on our horses in the morning and lope eight miles to help our cousins work cattle," says the third generation Ziebach County rancher. "We never knew what riding in a saddle was like - dad had the only saddle and we knew better than to touch it. We lived on a river, but none of us knew how to swim because our horses could swim. If we had to cross the river, Dad would always stand on the riverbank to make sure we all got across."

 It could have been memories like these that impacted Mike's decision to follow in his dad's boots after high school - even though there wasn't room for him on his family's ranch.

 He's not sure why he chose to be a rancher. But he does know this, "It's all I've ever done. And, I don't punch a time clock."

 His youngest son, Wade, 35, can relate.

 "I was working as a welder for the mines, managing a bunch of people who did not want to do their job and decided that I needed to get back to the ranch," explains Wade, who packed up his family and returned to ranch with his parents four years ago.

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By Lura Roti for SD Farmers Union

Neal Richter began helping his dad move cattle on the family's ranch near Enning when he was about 8.

"That was a bad idea because I was hooked," jokes Neal, 36, a fourth-generation cattle rancher.

"He always wanted to be on the ranch," explains his dad, Dick, 72. 

In fact, so strong was Neal's desire to make ranching his life's career, that as a high school student, he took on extra classes so he could graduate a semester early to be home fulltime for calving. 

"That first calving season, it happened to be a nice January and February, with 40 to 50 degree days. Calving was easy, I thought, 'this is great. The next calving season wasn't so warm, but I'm still here,'" says Neal, who graduated from Sturgis High School in 2000.

Although his formal education ended that year, Neal's intake of knowledge and information in regards to improving his and Dick's cattle herd genetics and management is a daily practice.

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South Dakota Farmers Union Celebrates the Hotchkiss Farm Family of Colton

By Lura Roti for South Dakota Farmers Union

Paul Hotchkiss' first love is farming.

 "I don't know why it's what I love, but I do. It's what I've done all my life," explains the fourth-generation farmer, who has been running farm equipment since he was 6.

 "His mom and dad told stories of how Paul would sit and play with the baby pigs when he was supposed to be doing chores," adds his forever love and wife, Myrna.

 For the first 50 years, farming and the community of Colton were his life. Then, Paul met Myrna. Together the couple have built a fuller life together, sharing the joys and challenges farming brings.

 The couple met through a group of friends who would go dancing together on the weekends.

 "Paul was such a good dancer," Myrna says. "One weekend, he didn't show up and we didn't have many guys to dance with, so I asked for Paul's number and gave him a call."

 The two began visiting nearly every evening and quickly became close friends.

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S.D. Farmers Union Celebrates the Cable Ranch Family, Pukwana, South Dakota

By Lura Roti for South Dakota Farmers Union

Dawn (Gilman) Cable was shorter than the barrels she raced around when she began competing at area playday rodeos.  

 Her daughters, Jimmi and Kari, could say the same for the sport that also captured their hearts.

 After chores were done on the family's cow/calf and club calf ranch north of Pukwana, the Cable women practiced together on a barrel patch Dawn's husband, Harley, disks up each spring for them. 

 On the weekends, the family raced to wrap up chores so they could head off to rodeos together. In their teens, through college and into adulthood, Dawn and her daughters continued to barrel race together.

 "It's one thing the three of us did together since they were teeny, tiny girls," Dawn says. 

 "It gave us something we all enjoyed and got to spend time outside of the ranch together and we made so many friends," adds daughter, Kari, 27, who today is the lead MRI technician at Rapid City Regional Hospital. 

 Because of all the good memories the family created barrel racing together, when a tragic car accident took Jimmi's life four years ago, Harley, Dawn and Kari decided a memorial barrel race would be a fitting way to remember Jimmi; her love of horses and passion for barrel racing, livestock and their Pukwana ranch. And, most of all, her love for her family and friends. 

 As the state director of the South Dakota Barrel Horse Association, Dawn knew how to organize the event. Friends and family members also chipped in and July 2015 the family hosted the first Jimmi Rose Memorial Barrel Race.

 "I was hoping for 50 entries and 200 showed up," Dawn says of the event that has become an annual tradition, held each year during the last Sunday in July in Huron on the Beadle County 4-H Rodeo Grounds.

  All funds raised go to support organizations and events Jimmi and her family hold dear: a belt buckle for the winner of round robin at the 4-H round robin at the Brule County Achievement Days; jackets for grand champion Sim-Angus heifer at the Spotlight Livestock Show; prizes for all the peewee barrel racers at the memorial barrel race and many other events.

 "It's a good feeling knowing you still support what she loved. Another part of the memorial barrel race is, it's a way to bring all my family and all of her friends together to remember her," Kari says. "It's a bittersweet day. We all enjoy getting to see each other and to honor her memory. The support from each other keeps you going." Kari says.

 Her mom agrees.

 "It's the comradery. I tell you, when we lost Jimmi, I found out who my real friends are - and my barrel racing friends are definitely in that category. They have stuck beside me through it all," Dawn explains.

 The ranch, with its wide open spaces, cattle who need caring for and a few good horses always ready for a ride, also helps. "If I have a bad day, I get on my horse and ride the creek," says Dawn, of Crow Creek which runs through the property. 

 Cable Ranch

Harley grew up on the ranch, and says he never wanted to do anything else. "I like cattle and I like breeding superior livestock."

 In addition to raising commercial cattle, since his teens, Harley has been raising sought after livestock, selling Sim-Angus bulls and club calves to commercial cattle producers and show youth who exhibit the calves in livestock shows across the nation. 

 Only 15 when his dad died, Harley made ranching his full-time career, building on the 2,500 acres and 25-head of cattle his dad left to him.

 Their overall breeding program has a strong focus on maternal traits - sound udders, good feet and legs and, "of course, good rate of gain," Harley explains.

 "Makes a guy feel pretty proud to see the calves we raise, do well in the show ring. There are a lot of people breeding club calves who buy high-dollar donors, and most of the time we can do it through cows we raise and AI-ing them," Harley explains.

 Also raised on a ranch, Dawn has worked beside Harley since they married 32 years ago. 

 "I've always preferred to be outdoors working. The first time I brought Harley home to meet my parents, he was having coffee with my dad and I was out feeding cows," Dawn says.

 She then asks Harley. "What did you think of when you were having coffee with my dad while I was feeding cows?"

 With a twinkle in his eye, Harley answers, "She was trying to impress me."

 Although the couple has been through unimaginable grief together, there is a lot of jesting and laughter when they discuss working together as a family on the ranch. Before they were school-age, the girls spent their days outdoors with their parents.

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SD Farmers Union Celebrates the Gonsoir Ranch Family of Groton

By Lura Roti for South Dakota Farmers Union

Kristen Gonsoir's first horse was a small, naughty pony a neighbor offloaded for the horse-crazed 5-year-old to love. When its cantankerous nature didn't deter their daughter's affection, Kristen's parents bought her the real deal - a mare named Cinnamon. 

 Kristen trained Cinnamon for 4-H reining competitions and by the time she was 12, the bourgeoning horsewoman was ready to try her hand at horse breeding.

 "I insisted my parents take me to a special equine reproduction clinic at SDSU. Here I was, not quite a teen, in a room full of adults. I took notes and asked questions," recalls the AQHA Professional Horseman, AQHA Specialized Judge, POAc Judge and Quarter Horse breeder. 

 Her parents helped her locate a stallion and Kristen found her calling. 

 "I have always loved horses, but it's the breeding that is my favorite part because it's the science aspect combined with horse aspect," explains the high school chemistry instructor and young grandma, who enjoys sharing her first love with her greatest love - her family - husband, Tim, son, Stan, 29, his wife, Madeleine, and grandson, Dayton, 2, and daughter, Joellen Miller, 22, and her husband, Jordan. "It was fun family time together, whether it's riding together or we're going to a horse show or rodeo." 

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Farmers Union Celebrates the Feickert Farm Family of Aberdeen

By Lura Roti for SDFU

 The second oldest of seven, Dennis Feickert grew up on a traditional 1950s South Dakota farm. His dad, Elvin, and mom, Christina, raised pigs, chickens, a cow/calf herd, a 30-cow dairy herd and corn, oats, wheat and hay.

 It was on this 1,200-acre McPherson County farm that a strong desire to work on the land and care for livestock was instilled in Dennis.

 "My passion and my love has always, absolutely been with the cattle and the land and the machinery. That is where my entire energies have always been focused," he says.

 Although the only career Dennis ever wanted was to be a farmer, when he graduated from high school, the family farm was too small. His dad was young yet and had a large family to support. "So, I moved to Aberdeen and began working for Dakota Farmer magazine and hated it - absolutely despised it," Dennis says.

 To emphasize how farmsick he was, Dennis tells this story. "It was summer. I would lay in our small apartment with the windows open to catch a breeze and I would smell alfalfa and I would go wacko, absolutely wacko."

 Because he couldn't change circumstances and he had a young family to support, instead of farming fulltime, at 21, Dennis joined the Aberdeen City Fire Department and built up a cow/calf herd as time, income and opportunity allowed.

 "I bought about 20 heifers at the sale barn and kept them at the kids' grandpa's farm. Then, we bought some 4-H heifers for the kids to show in 4-H and I rented some land and took a guy's cows on shares and kept a few of those heifer calves," explains Dennis, of the slow-but-sure way he built up the cow/calf herd to today's 180-head that he runs together with his son, Jason and daughter, Rebecca's cows.

 To have enough pasture and hay ground, Dennis rented or purchased small pieces of land close to Aberdeen. Then, in the mid-'70s, 40 acres of land just five miles from Aberdeen came up for sale. Dennis sold a duplex he had renovated and built a house and barn. He finally had his farm.

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South Dakota Farmers Union Celebrates the Christensen Ranch Family

By Lura Roti, for South Dakota Farmers Union

Recalling his youth, Wessington seedstock producer, John Christensen says school wasn't really his thing.

 His lack of interest didn't go unnoticed.

 "My teacher caught me staring out the window one day, I was probably daydreaming about cattle. She moved my desk to face the wall. To this day, I can still see those gray boards of that one-room schoolhouse," says the 64-year-old.

Classroom learning may not have captured John's attention - cattle genetics on the other hand - for more than 50 years, they have driven an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

 "Cattle are my life," John explains. "I've been making the mating decisions for this herd since I was 11."

 His passion is most obvious when you're among the offspring. Point to any yearling bull or heifer in John's winter feedyard and he recites their genetic strengths and bloodlines.

 Calving out 600 cows most years, if John needs a reminder, he simply pulls out a worn calving notebook from his shirt pocket. He's been keeping careful calving records since childhood. "I have only lost one book in all these years. I have 50 years-worth of books saved," he explains.

 Although maintaining pen and paper records may be a bit old fashioned, it is not an indicator of John's attitude toward technology and genetic tools.

 In the mid-'60s his dad, Jens, was among South Dakota's early adopters of AI (artificial insemination). At 14, John went to AI school.

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South Dakota Farmers Union Celebrates the Bisgard Farm Family

By Lura Roti, for South Dakota Farmers Union

Seed cleaning has been a part of the Bisgard family farm operation since Herbert Bisgard constructed a cribbed elevator in the middle of the farmyard more than 60 years ago.

 "We cleaned everything. Anything that was brought to us - flax, millet, oats, rye - in those days it was mostly small grains," recalls his son, Peter Bisgard, 63, a third-generation Day County farmer who raises wheat, corn, soybeans and some registered seed with his sons and wife, Leah. The Bisgards also have a daughter, Stacy Anderson.

 Remember, this was before the days of traited seed when most farmers harvested their own seed to plant the following year.

 Today, Peter and his sons, Bob, 37, and Randy, 32, continue to clean seed for neighbors to supplement the farm's income. But, like most things on their family's farm, the seed cleaning business looks different than it did when Peter was a kid.

 "Of course things have changed. Back then, most grain was brought in on 4-wheel trailers or pickup trucks. Today we only see semis," Peter explains.

 Technology and the weather have impacted the overall farming operation as well. In the 1990s, water began to take over farmground.

 "We have a picture of Randy on a tractor and drill in a field where people now fish," Peter says of Bitter Lake, a non-meandered body of water, which was farm and pastureland in the 1970s but today has recorded depths of 18-feet.

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S.D. Farmers Union Celebrates the Beer Ranch Family

By Lura Roti, for South Dakota Farmers Union

Pulling back a thick layer of crop residue with his bare hands, Mike Beer digs into the earth and holds up a black clump of soil alive with earthworms.

"This is heavy clay and when I first started farming, it was hard as a rock. Now, look at it - it's like a vegetable garden," says the Keldron rancher. "I'm a soil person. Even as a kid I was always playing in the dirt, digging holes. I was curious."

He goes on to explain that even as a young teen, he would go out onto the range and dig deep holes.

"Everyone has something and for me, it is soil," Mike explains. "I remember seeing the different horizons and understanding that they were different soil types - long before I ever read that in a textbook."

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S.D. Farmers Union Celebrates the Hanson Farm Family of Sisseton

By Lura Roti for South Dakota Farmers Union

 When it comes to his farm, it doesn't take much to make Gary Hanson smile.

 "I just enjoy going out and putting in fence. The posts are straight, the wires are tight - it gives me joy," explains the fourth-generation Sisseton farmer. "I tell people that when I was a college student, farming was my distraction. I loved it and knew that I could return to the farm, so that's what I did."

 At 67, Hanson's passion for farming has not dwindled, but his focus has expanded beyond his crops and cattle.

 Today, his son, Cody, 42, is making most of the decisions Gary and his brother, Paul, used to make.

 "Like my dad, I liked tractors and cattle - I played farmer when I was growing up - I enjoy what I do," explains Cody, who lives on the farm, next door to his mom and dad, with his wife, Shawn, and their four school-age children, Reece, 16; Parker, 14; Kennedy, 10; and Scarlett, 6.

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S.D. Farmers Union Celebrates the Schiley Ranch Family

By Lura Roti, for South Dakota Farmers Union

 It's a hot June day and Hope Schiley is on Chico, riding out past the tree belt. When her mom and dad drive out to check on their 5-year-old, she is smiling.

 "Just this summer she really started to enjoy riding. It's fun to see her confidence," says Karin, a fourth-generation cattle producer, who like her husband, Roy John "R.J.," has been riding horses since childhood.

 Once Hope is safely home, Karin, 38, and R.J., 39, head out over the open range to check on a group of pairs grazing in a pasture nearby.

 "The best part of the ranching lifestyle is your kids are always with you," Karin says. "We do rotational grazing, so most days the kids and I will go out to check mineral and water or move the cattle from one pasture to the next."

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S.D. Farmers Union Celebrates the Springer Farm Family

By Lura Roti, for S.D. Farmers Union

Rock hound and fourth-generation Dixon farmer, Terry Springer, 65, says when he’s outdoors he’s always on the lookout for a stone that catches his eye.

“Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve been walking around with my head down,” explains Terry, who over a lifetime has amassed a rare and extensive rock collection.

Terry’s collection boasts ancient arrow heads, mammoth bones, fossilized wood, rose quartz, moss rock and other unique geologic specimens.

Many of the rocks were discovered on the land his great-grandparents and uncle first farmed in the early 1900s. The land where today, he and his brother, Wayne, 60, continue the family’s farming legacy. Together they raise corn, small grains, forage and a cow/calf-to-finish-direct-marketing beef operation, Springer Farms.

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S.D. Farmers Union Celebrates the Martinmaas Farm Family

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 No. 1 industry and help feed the world. This month we feature the Martinmaas farm family from Orient.

By Lura Roti, for S.D. Farmers Union

During a blizzard nearly 65 years ago, a neighbor knocked on Bill and Wanelda Martinmaas' door. His wife was in labor and things were not going well. Bill started up his John Deere A and drove with his young wife the half mile to help.

 On Bill's way home, his tractor got stuck. It was dark. Driving wind mixed with snow made it impossible to see. Bill was lost.

 "I had the young kids at home. I thought of those kids in the house and knew I needed to get home to them or they would freeze," says Bill, who at 90, vividly recalls the story.

 "Dad walked for quite a while, then he tripped over something. He realized he tripped over the top wire of a barbed wire fence and figured out where he was. He followed that fence and made it home," says Ray, 67, Bill's oldest son.

 At the time, Ray was 3, his brother, Randy, was 2 and their sister, Sandy, was just a baby.

 In the end, the neighbor and her baby survived. And the three Martinmaas kids? They eventually became 12. Six boys and six girls ­ Ray, Randy, Sandy, Kathy, Paulette, Rick, Lonnie, Lori, Julie, Mike, Marylynn and Brad.

 Today, standing outside the farmhouse Ray shares with his wife, Becky, father and son recall the early years.

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S.D. Farmers Union Celebrates the Mendel Farm Family of Doland

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. This month we highlight the Mendel farm family of Doland.

By Lura Roti, for S.D. Farmers Union

Don Mendel was 9 when his dad first let him drive the grey Ford Ferguson tractor across the field. He wasn’t unsupervised. His dad, Joe, was beside him pulling a two-bottom plow with a team of five work horses.

“Dad liked horses and kept them around longer than lots of the neighbors,” explains the 83-year-old Doland farmer. “He put me on that Ford tractor and would let me drive as fast as he was going with those horses. We would plow together and thought we were turning over a lot of ground.”

Retired since 2000, Don can still be found driving machinery across the fields that his twin sons, Merrit and Miles, 45, now manage with the help of his grandsons and four employees.

“Farming is in our blood,” Don says.

His brother, Dave agrees.

Don’s farming partner since 1972 and now, also retired, Dave, like Don, spends most days on the farm helping his nephews out. “I always enjoyed working on the farm,” says Dave, 67.

Although he was pursuing a teaching degree, when he returned from serving in Vietnam, he decided he’d rather farm. “I saw more of a future in agriculture. Even back then, South Dakota was very near the bottom of the teacher pay scale,” says Dave, who together with his wife, Judy raised their three, now-grown children, Jason (deceased), Audrey and Seth; and now-grown grandson, Jason, on the farm.

When the brothers formed the partnership they each retained ownership of their own land but shared equipment and labor.

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S.D. Farmers Union Celebrates the Lee Farm Family from De Smet

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 No. 1 industry and help feed the world. This month, we celebrate the Lee farm family who raise crops and cattle near De Smet. Pictured here: Kaitlyn, Landon, Roger, Rob and Mary.

By Lura Roti, for S.D. Farmers Union

Farming brings the Lee family joy. Enjoying the work and time together on the land is essential for this De Smet farm family.

“We have told our kids this for years, as long as we can farm and have fun with it, we will continue to do it,” explains Roger Lee, 62, who farms with his wife, Mary, and their three grown children, Rob, Landon and Amanda.

Forty years ago, fun would hardly be the term an outsider would use to describe the beginning of Roger’s farming career.

Only a few years into farming fulltime, his dad, Ephriam, passed away, leaving Roger, at 21 to milk the family’s dairy herd and farm with his mom, Dorothy. It was 1976. A year later a drought and lack of feed forced him to sell their dairy herd.

Roger’s affection for farming kept him going, even when interest rates reached 23 percent.

“I always knew I wanted to farm. I liked farming. It wasn’t the money-making part of it, I just knew I wanted to be on the farm. If I didn’t like it, I would have been gone,” says the third-generation farmer, who instead of heading off to college after high school, bought his first half section of land from his parents.

At 18, he bought his second half section from a neighbor. “(At the time) I was the youngest FHA (Farmers Home Administration) real estate borrower in Kingsbury County,” Roger says. “Dad had to sign a form saying I could use his barn and equipment. Dad and Mom were always fair to me.”

With farm income nil, Roger and his wife, Mary, were able to keep up with land payments by working off the farm.

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South Dakota Farmers Union Celebrates the Kenzy Ranch Family

By Lura Roti, for S.D. Farmers Union

 Ralph Kenzy used to tell his sons, “You can’t put it all in your pocketbook.”

 “He meant that agriculture is a lot more than money,” explains his oldest son, Brett, 45. “You get to be on the land, raising your kids. You get to work with crops and cattle. You’re never going to get rich ranching … there’s more than dollar bills that make you rich.”

 Brett has worked on the family ranch since childhood ­except for a short break to serve in the Army and attend college. “I came back because I missed the community, the home base, this tie to the land,” Brett explains.

 His brother, George, 40, adds:  “My dream was always here.”

 Like his older brother, George only left the Gregory ranch long enough to get a degree ­ and even when they were college students, the fourth-generation cattle producers drove home to work every weekend.

 Listening to the brothers/business partners visit about raising their children and cattle on the family’s ranch, it is clear that Ralph’s philosophy lives on through his sons. Ralph passed away in 2012.

 “I kind of figured they would come home to ranch because they were home every weekend to work,” says their mom, Millie.

 To read more, click here.

South Dakota Farmers Union Celebrates the Mehling Farm Family 

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. This month, we feature the Mehling family who raise crops and cattle southwest of Wessington. 

by Lura Roti, for South Dakota Farmers Union

Ask Greg Mehling, 53, what his favorite Christmas gift was as a child and without hesitation he names the miniature thrashing machine his dad built for him.

 “The summer Greg was 6 we took him to Prairie Village. He came home needing a thrashing machine, so I worked in the garage every night until Christmas,” recalls Greg’s dad, Roy, 74.

 The fourth-generation farmer’s early introduction to farm equipment didn’t stop with toys. By 7, Greg was driving a tractor. “Farming’s kinda in my blood. I enjoy it,” he explains.

 After a brief detour to Lake Area Technical Institute and a few job interviews, Greg knew that even though times were tough, farming was the only career for him.

 “It was the 80s, so the farming deal wasn’t really good, but after a few job interviews, I knew that farming was the only work I wanted to do,” Greg explains.

 To read more, click here.

South Dakota Farmers Union Celebrates the Rocking Z Acres Farm Family

 By Lura Roti for S.D. Farmers Union

 The phrase, “That will never work,” doesn’t slow BJ McNeil down.

 Not when he converted 4,000 acres of his grandpa’s conventionally tilled land to no-till. Not when he was among the first Wessington farmers to plant Roundup Ready soybeans. Not when he decided to plant cover crops.

 If anything, hearing the expression has only motivated the fourth generation farmer.

 “I am confident in my own decisions and what I want to accomplish ­ it’s just my nature,” BJ, 46, explains.

 His aunt and business partner, Jonnie Zvonek, says it’s in his genes. “You have your grandpa’s attitude.  You just don’t quit.”

 BJ’s grandpa, John Wilmer Zvonek, is the reason both Jonnie and BJ farm today.

 When Jonnie was born, she was the third of four daughters and his namesake.

“I was always with dad ­ I was basically his ‘son’ John,” Jonnie recalls.

 After high school Jonnie tried working off the farm. She moved to Sioux Falls and worked for the Argus Leader as a typesetter for nine months.

 “I felt claustrophobic,” she explains. “I always loved getting my hands in the dirt and watching things grow - so, I asked dad if I could come home and farm full-time.”

 Working side-by-side with her dad, Jonnie was involved in every aspect of the farm: planting, harvesting and bookwork.

 In the summer, her sister Sheryl’s son, BJ, would spend much of his time on the farm.

 BJ says although he didn’t know it at the time, it was those summer vacations spent on the farm that instilled in him a passion for working the land. This passion eventually led him to pursue a degree in Agriculture Engineering from Texas A&M.

 “I first tried aerodynamics because I wanted to be a Navy pilot. Then I transferred to business. I had no passion for any of the classes. So, I asked myself, ‘What do I love?’ The answer was, ‘I loved farming,’” BJ explains.

 Shortly after BJ graduated from college, Wilmer passed away. BJ asked Jonnie if he could come back and farm with her. She said yes.

Click here to read more 

Schaefers Farm Family

When Cheryl and Fred Schaefers tied the knot 40 years ago, the two farm kids shared a strong passion for farming. And, along with crops and livestock, the couple wanted to raise a large family.

“We originally wanted 12 kids. Fred is the youngest of 9 and I am the second oldest of six ­ we wanted a house full of noise and love,” Cheryl says.

Today, the active grandparents reflect on raising their seven children on the farm and say they wouldn’t change a thing. Their children include: Belle Schaefers, Josie Ries, Maureen “Mo” Wernsmann, Sam Schaefers, Paul Schaefers, Paivi Stone and Jacob Schaefers.

“What better way of life is there?” Fred asks.

“The kids all learned to care for life and that every life is important ­ because they understood that it mattered to the farm’s bottom line,” Cheryl added.

The early years were busy, but happy. All seven of their children were born two years apart. “Whatever we were doing, I’d just pack up the kids and bring them along. We even put a swing in the milk parlor so the baby could watch us and swing while we milked,” Cheryl says.

The couple began milking their first Holstein just 10 days after they married. It was 1976 and Fred says Hand County was full of small 50 to 75-cow dairies. “There was money in dairying. It was a good steady income.

At one time there were at least 30 to 40 dairies in Hand County.” Slowly, they expanded their dairy herd to 80 cows.

The entire family helped with milking. As a young kid, Paul recalls carrying buckets of grain to each stanchion. “Then we installed an automatic feeder,” Paul remembers.

“You were replaced by technology,” his wife, Blair, jokes.

Paul and Blair celebrated their first anniversary this May. Like Paul, Blair grew up on a farm. “This way of life isn’t new to me,” explains Blair, who works as a nurse for Faulkton Area Medical Center and Good Samaritan nursing home in Miller.

Paul says the farming lifestyle was one reason he wanted to return to his family’s farm full-time after completing a deployment. Paul and four of his siblings are veterans.

To read the complete article, click here.

Greenway Farm Family

This month, we’re highlighting the Greenway family who raise crops and operate a wean-to-finish hog and cow/calf operation near Mitchell.

A $200 scholarship from the Davison County Pork Producers in 1984 launched Mitchell farmer, Brad Greenway, on an ag advocacy journey which has placed him in front of thousands of consumers coast-to-coast and around the world sharing his story.

“That scholarship got me involved,” explains the third-generation pork producer.

Brad’s engagement in Davison County Pork Producers motivated him to become active in the S.D. Pork Producers Council (he served as president from 2005-2007), as well as the National Pork Board and the advocacy training program called Operation Main Street.

After providing Brad with training on how to share his farm’s story and how to put together presentations, Operation Main Street took the legwork out of advocacy by scheduling speaking engagements with local civic organizations, dietetic groups, county commissioners, and schools, as well as national and international sharing opportunities.

Since he started sharing his story in 2005, Brad has presented to more than115 groups.

Brad explains that putting a face to the food produced makes all the difference.

“I spoke to a big anti-ag/anti-big ag group, and following my presentation a woman in the back stood up to say that after hearing me speak, she trusted me when I said that animal comfort is a priority for us and we take care of our pigs. Then she asked, ‘How do I know that other farmers are doing the same thing?’ This is why advocacy is so important.”

“Even though we're very busy, it's important for farmers to share with consumers how we are growing food and why we do what we do," explains Peggy, who makes time to post photos on Facebook and Twitter as well as serve as a spokeswoman with Soybean Council’s Common Ground advocacy group.

“Terms like ‘factory farming’ are put on farms like ours because of misperceptions. We need to dispel myths and remind consumers that 98 percent of all farms are still family-owned.”

Brad adds that even farmers and ranchers who don’t feel they have the time or feel comfortable presenting, can do their part by making sure their neighbors and friends understand what they do on the farm. “Zoning issues come up because our neighbors simply don’t know what is going on,” Brad says.

He adds, “Today there is such a disconnect among consumers as each generation is farther removed from the farm. Even here in South Dakota - we drive 8 miles off the farm to Mitchell and there are plenty who don’t know what we are doing here on the farm.

Brad and Peggy have a lot to share. To learn more about the Greenway family and view a video as well as an online photo gallery, click here. 

Vedvei Farm Family

Emerging from the show ring with a big smile, first time 4-Her, Hadlee Holt, 9, was greeted by her parents, Corrie “Vedvei” and DJ Holt, with a big hug and sighs of relief.

 “It was nerve-racking to watch, but seeing that smile was priceless,” explains Corrie of watching her daughter show for the first time.

 A third-generation 4-H alumnus, Corrie says it’s exciting to see her daughter continue the family legacy of 4-H involvement and showing registered Charolais cattle.

 “When I look back and think about all the life lessons I learned growing up on the farm, showing cattle and working alongside my sisters to help my mom and dad ­ DJ and I want those same experiences for our girls,” Corrie says of daughters Hadlee, 9, Bentlee, 5, and Cambree, 1.

 At 35, Corrie has not missed a single South Dakota State Fair. Her parents, Al and Deb “Wienk” Vedvei, recall bringing their firstborn to the state fair as a young baby ­ the family camping in a tent.

 Today, they camp in air conditioned campers, which made Corrie’s decision to pack up her firstborn, Hadlee, and bring her to the State Fair four days after she was born, an easy one.

 “We all grew up showing,” says Deb, 57. “The State Fair is our chance to reconnect with friends we only get to see once a year.” “It’s like a big family reunion,” Al, 58, adds.

 Today, the family is working cattle together on their farm near Lake Preston. Hadlee and Bentlee watch a safe distance from the chute.

 “Helping on the farm is my happy place - working calves with my family is one of my favorite days of the year,” explains Corrie, who splits her time between the farm, a full-time career with Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) as a Soil Technician and recently launching Ag Buddy, a publication all about agriculture for kids.

 DJ works for Al full-time ­ a career he began a few months after meeting Corrie at a National Charolais Show in Texas. Corrie and DJ met in 2000 and married in January 2002.

 “I’m grateful to Al for this opportunity to work with cattle full-time.

 Without him, I wouldn’t be able to do this,” explains DJ, who grew up in Ozark, Arkansas.

 Like Corrie, he spent his teen years showing registered Charolais cattle. “I moved here in January, so a lot of their friends gave me a hard time, asking why I’d move to South Dakota.”

 “I remember the first week DJ was here; it was negative 20 outside and he was sitting across from dad at the kitchen table and asked, ‘Do we go out on days like today?’” Corrie remembers, laughing.

 Al says employing DJ just made sense.

 “This is how I’ve secured my legacy,” explains Al, a third generation Kingsbury County farmer and cattle producer. “It’s our opportunity to pass this operation down to the next generation. My legacy won’t be left by what I do or have done, but by what the next generation does on this farm ­ whether it’s with crops or cattle.”

 Al added that he was given a similar opportunity by his father-in-law, Arnold Wienk, when he and Deb got married. “When we started dating Arnold offered me a summer job to work for him custom baling. I got paid $1 a bale.

To read more click here

Painter Ranch Family

South Dakota Farmers Union Celebrates the Painter Ranch Family

By Lura Roti, for South Dakota Farmers Union

Running cattle on Harding County grasslands has been a part of the Painter Family legacy since 1895 when great-grandpa, Lewis Levi Painter, rode the open range as a horse wrangler for the CY Cattle Company of Texas.

“He ran a few cows with the main herd and squatted on this land until about

1910 when he filed homesteading paperwork,” explained Lewis’ great-grandson, Joe Painter, 56.

Like the four generations of Painters before him, Joe continues to run cattle and ride the range along with his wife, Cindy, and their two daughters, Jessica and Joey, and their families. Their son, PJ, 29, works as an attorney in Louisville, Ky.

“Having our kids return to the ranch is the best thing in the world,” says the Harding County rancher. “Otherwise, all those years of working extra hard to buy land and cattle would be for nothing. When you have the kids return home, you have someone to pass it on to and that makes everything worth it.” “It’s what we worked for all our lives,” Cindy adds.

When Joe mentions hard work, he’s not stretching the truth. It was 1983 when he and Cindy returned to ranch fulltime after college. “Interest was 18 to 24 percent. Money was impossible to come by. We didn’t spend a nickel unless it was absolutely necessary,” Joe says. “A neighbor’s ranch came up for sale, $30 an acre, but we had no money to buy it. That’s how tight it was in the 80s.” Cindy shared another example of a time that the bank loaned them money to purchase sheep but then wouldn’t loan them money to buy feed.

To read more click here

Symens Farm Family

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.

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.

To read more click here

Wonnenberg Ranch Family

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.

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.

This month, we're highlighting the Wonnenberg family who ranch near Dallas.

 As its mother protectively stands guard, her newborn calf, supported precariously by its wobbly legs, looks curiously at its surroundings and then begins nursing. For four generations, this heart-warming scene has signaled spring on the Wonnenberg Ranch near Dallas.

 And, even though it's been a part of his life for as long as he can remember, Steve, 61, still enjoys calving season.

 "From the time I was really small I enjoyed working with cattle and doing chores," explains Steve, who raises a registered Black Angus herd, which his dad, William, began in the 60s.

 "For their FFA project, my older brothers decided to get into raising registered Black Angus," Steve explains. "My dad liked them so much that he kept expanding the herd after my brothers left the ranch."

 Like his father before him, the third-generation rancher still does business with a handshake. "Our family still has the old mentality where a shake of the hand still means a lot," explains Steve and Joan's daughter, Casey Wonnenberg King. "When my dad sells registered Angus bulls, he always tells buyers that if something doesn't work out, he will make it right - and he always holds true to his promise."

To read the rest of their story, click here.

Wienk Charolais Farm Family

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. This month, we’re highlighting the Wienk and Eschenbaum farm family who operate Wienk Charolais near Lake Preston.

 Thumbing through a recent Wienk Charolais sale catalogue, Arnold Wienk, 78, recalls what it was like in the early years, “When I first sold bulls, the only number we gave buyers was the birthdate.” The glossy flyer is filled with photos of breeding stock and several columns of numbers representing EPD data - genetic information which today’s cattle producers count on to make breeding decisions. EPD data is standard issue with the sale of all purebred cattle thanks to the efforts of breeders like Arnold and Carol Wienk who, a generation ago, understood the value of genetic data.

 The Wienks are among the breed association pioneers who encouraged purebred breeders across the country to collect and catalogue genetic data because they understood the role it would play in improving commercial cattle herd genetics -