Four Illinois Farm Bureau members have been named 2022 Master Farmers by Prairie Farmer magazine.
The 2022 Master Farmers from left to right: Jim Raben, Ridgway; Darryl Brinkmann, Carlyle; Doug Schroeder, Mahomet; and Curt Zehr, Washington. (Photo by Holly Spangler)
Darryl Brinkmann of Carlyle, Jim Raben of Ridgway, Doug Schroeder of Mahomet and Curt Zehr of Washington were selected for their “exceptional agricultural production skills, commitment to family and service to community.”
“The Master Farmer award is Illinois agriculture’s lifetime achievement award,” said Holly Spangler, Prairie Farmer editor. “These farmers are at the top of their game, and they’ve received this award because they raise good crops and even better families, and they’ve built their communities along the way.”
It was May of 1981 when Brinkmann graduated with an agriculture economics degree from the University of Illinois and came back home to work on the farm full time. This made Brinkmann, now a 2022 Prairie Farmer Master Farmer, the third generation to join the farm.
“I don't ever hate getting up in the morning and going out to farm,” Brinkmann said. “I like what I'm doing and I'm not counting the days to retirement.”
To help make room on the then-560-acre operation for Brinkmann, his father, Willard, retired from the livestock operation. Binkmann created a partnership with his younger brother, Kent, using their father’s facilities to finish nearly 100 head of beef cattle and 400 hogs.
Brinkmann married Jean in 1990. The couple has one daughter, Danielle, 24.
Over the years, the brothers have inherited, bought and rented farmland together, while also buying land separately. Today, Darryl’s portion of the operation includes 930 tillable acres. Plus, he helps with the daily chores of Danielle’s 30-head Angus cattle herd while she is away from the farm.
“Darryl has excelled with his farming operation, in his engagement and association with his community, as well as his devotion and stewardship of being called to provide leadership to the organizations with which he is associated,” said Greg Webb, ADM state government relations vice president, who worked with Darryl through the Illinois Soybean Association.
Over the last five years, Brinkmann began experimenting with cover crops, specifically cereal rye and crimson clover, as a conservation measure on his farm.
“I do like the appearance of a growing crop over the winter, and such growth does reduce erosion,” he said. “I feel a responsibility to be a good environmental steward while conserving soil and water.”
Jim Raben has been involved in the family farm his entire life, but it was 1974 when his dad became ill and Jim left his agriculture teacher position at Mount Vernon High School to return to the family farm full time.
“Farming full time was probably always something in my future to start with, but the time to come back was then,” said Raben. “It was really hard to leave the ag program I had built up into a two-man teacher program and not being able to be a part of it more.”
At that point, Raben's father owned 2,000 acres near Ridgway. Raben also was farming 100 acres of his own that he purchased while still teaching high school ag. He was the fourth generation to join the family farm, and married Marilyn in 1975. The couple has four children and nine grandchildren.
After his father passed away in 2006, Raben and his brother, Bill, who was named a Prairie Farmer Master Farmer in 2016, inherited their father’s 2,000 acres. Over the years, Raben has worked hard to purchase more farmland. Today, the farm consists of nearly 7,500 acres of corn and soybeans here in Illinois, and 800 acres in Arkansas, which rotates between sweet potatoes and corn.
Sons Matt and Joe both hold jobs in the ag industry and work on the farm part time, using their experiences to help Jim make operation decisions. Daughters Christina and Jordan help on the farm when they can.
Raben's educational background in ag economics has helped shape his philosophy on farm expansion: If you can buy ground, buy it, because you don’t know what it will be worth in the future.
Raben is chairman of the U.S. Grains Council, was chairman of the Illinois Corn Marketing Board, and has served the local school board, the Gallatin County Farm Bureau board and many others.
Doug Schroeder took his college professor’s question seriously: “How are you gonna farm better than the guy across the road?” Forty years and forty crops later, Schroeder says he’s never forgotten that question. And he’s worked hard at the answer.
“Back in the day, we no-tilled. Later we tiled and improved the land. Today it’s drainage tile, seed production and non-GM corn. No matter what, you have to figure out how you’re going to do it better,” says the 2022 Prairie Farmer Master Farmer from Mahomet.
Schroeder started farming with his father and brother following his 1983 University of Illinois graduation. Since then, he’s grown the operation from 800 acres to 5,400 acres. And while he and his father began farming together, today the operation includes the next generation: son Bob Schroeder and son-in-law Matt Turner.
“Slow and steady growth adds up over time,” Schroeder said.
The Schroeders were early adopters of no-till soybeans and strip till corn and continued to no-till for 10 years. Yield mapping showed a small amount of tillage increased yields substantially. So they switched to minimum tillage, and still analyze every tillage pass to make sure it’s necessary. They’ve also pattern-tiled 3,500 acres over the past 10 years, laying nearly 2 million feet of drainage tile themselves, often with water control devices.
Doug most recently served as president of the Illinois Soybean Association, steering the organization through the hiring process of a new executive director. Back home, he and wife Stacy raise funds for an annual youth fundraiser, and he manages assets for a child welfare organization and serves many other local groups, as well. They have three children and four grandchildren.
Their mission is clear, right on the back of their farm sweatshirts: “Faith, family, farming.”
“That’s one of the things we’re really proud of on our farm,” Schroeder says. “It’s been a fun ride.”
Curt Zehr loves farming – and pigs – so much that he skipped school on the first day of kindergarten to show pigs. And ever since, he’s been in the barn raising hogs. And then he started selling meat.
“It’s a big deal to be a part of somebody’s Christmas dinner when they use a Zehr Farms ham,” says the 2022 Master Farmer from Washington.
Zehr farms with the help of his wife, Sue, who acts as comptroller for the farm and manages their branded meat business, and longtime employee Kevin Balducci, plus seasonal help. Their operation is divided into four profit centers: grain, market hogs, local branded meat and internationally marketed genetics.
Zehr started farming full time with his father and grandfather following his graduation from Goshen College and the University of Illinois in 1981. Initially, he rented 150 acres from his grandfather and traded labor for machinery use for a couple of years, until he and his dad, Dean, formed a partnership. Over the years, the father and son gradually transferred more of the partnership to Zehr .
On the hog side of his operation, Zehr has embraced three different production strategies. They operate a 140-head farrow-to-finish Duroc herd, producing 2,500 pigs per year. They also sell branded meat in central Illinois as Zehr Premium Pork, and they market their Duroc-based genetics through the U.S. as Zehr Farms Genetics.
“This award is a recognition not only of what I’ve done, but of what my father and grandfather and great-grandfather have done,” Zehr said. “I didn’t start this. Hopefully I’ve built on it. They afforded me the opportunity to farm.
Curt and Sue were honored as the Illinois Pork Producers Family of the Year in 2017, and Zehr was also inducted into the Illinois Purebred Breeders Hall of Fame in 2016. He served as 2015 president of Illinois Pork Producers, and volunteers throughout his community.
This story was provided by FarmWeekNow.com.