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Master Farmers in the Heartland

Ray Defenbaugh, Terry Pope, Willrett & Niemeyer

Prairie Farmer "Best of the best!"

In Bloomington last Wednesday Raymond E. Defenbaugh, Biggsville (Henderson County) was among four Illinois farmers honored as 2010 Master Farmers by Prairie Farmer magazine. The three others were Terry A. Pope, Burnside (Hancock County); Garry Niemeyer, Auburn (Sangamon County); and Jamie Willrett, Malta (DeKalb County). In addition, Prairie Farmer named James F. Evans, retired University of Illinois educator, as an honorary Master Farmer for his pioneering work in the ag communications field.

Candidates are nominated by farmers, agribusiness leaders and agricultural extension specialists from throughout the state.

Judges for the awards were Robert Hauser, interim dean of the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences; Gordon Roskamp, professor of agronomy with Western Illinois University; David Erickson, 2003 Master Farmer, Altona; and Frank Holdmeyer, executive editor of Prairie Farmer.

Former Prairie Farmer editor Clifford Gregory started the program in 1925 as a way to recognize the finest farmers in both Illinois and Indiana. That first year, 23 Master Farmers were recognized. From the very beginning, the award was unique in that a significant portion of the judges' scoring hinged on the farmers' community involvement.

Building on the success of last year's program Growmark remains the sole financial sponsor for the Prairie Farmer Master Farmer awards program.

"The principles and tradition of the awards program remain the same," Holdmeyer says.

"Growmark is a natural fit for helping uphold the mission of the long-standing program."

Like the Master Farmer award, the Growmark system was born during the 1920s, when grower cooperatives began organizing. In 1927, nine local cooperatives came together to form the Illinois Farm Supply Co.

Today, Growmark serves nearly 250,000 customers through local FS companies.

Ray Defenbaugh: Deeply Rooted in Agriculture

BIGGSVILLE - It's a fitting tribute that in his family's 300th year of farming in America, Ray Defenbaugh has been named a Prairie Farmer Master Farmer.

"Farming for our family has always been by choice, not by chance," explains Ray, 63.

As a high schooler, Ray's plans for farming took a turn when he was electrocuted while operating a mounted corn picker. He lost parts of both feet and his right arm, but ultimately surpassed his doctors' expectations.

After graduating from Southern Illinois University, he taught vo ag and later managed farms and loans at a bank. He married Alice, his high school sweetheart, and when he got the chance to rent some ground near Biggsville, he jumped on it.

From there, Ray and Alice built their farm and their family, raising four children on their rural Biggsville farm. Today, they and their sons, Dan and Matt, raise corn, soybeans, oats and hay on 3,000 acres and they operate a 240-head cow-calf herd. They bought the small elevator at Kirkwood and now have storage for half a million bushels, plus scales and a tower dryer. They do their own spraying, fertilizer application and tiling, and have implemented a variety of conservation structures.

Love of community drove Ray to help organize and eventually become CEO of a local ethanol plant, Big River Resources, which is arguably one of the most successful farmer-owned ethanol ventures in Illinois. Today, Big River pumps out 300 million gallons a year at its three locations.

In addition, Ray serves as Chairman of the board of Midwest Bank of Western Illinois, the National Grain and Feed Association and the Illinois Corn Growers Association, Growth Energy, is president of the Illinois Renewable Fuel Association, and many other farm related organizations..

Pope: Making Every Step Count

BURNSIDE- When Terry Pope began his farming career in 1973, working the land was his favorite part of the job.

Thirty-seven years later and much like production agriculture itself, that favorite has evolved.

"Now, I like the challenges of management, of calculating risk and benefit," explains the 900-acre Burnside farmer.

That evolution, along with his dedication to family, community and the Illinois agricultural industry, combine to make Terry Pope, 58, a 2010 Prairie Farmer Master Farmer.

After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1973, Pope began farming with his father and grandfather. He rented 80 acres and worked for the farm for $2 an hour.

Within a few years, Terry expanded the farrow-to-finish hog operation, bought out his grandfather's livestock and equipment and took over primary management of the farm.

Over the years, Terry liquidated their cattle herd and expanded the hog and grain operations. He began raising seed corn and started a custom seed harvesting business, and got out of the hog business in 1996.

Off the farm, Terry has helped bring both rural water and a new hospital to the Carthage area. He spent 13 years on the local school board, six of them as president. He's also served on the Illinois Farm Bureau board since 2003.

Terry began his farming career with his wife, Debbie, and raised four children together before Debbie succumbed to cancer in 1997.

Terry was sustained by his strong faith, and for the past 15 years, he has served as a lay preacher for area congregations. In 2006, Terry married his wife, Gayle, who pastors Christ Lutheran Church in Nauvoo.

As for becoming a Master Farmer, Terry feels both honored and as though he's finally catching up with his four educated children.

"I said to the kids, "You've all got masters degrees:and now I've got one, too!'"

His daughters are Hannah Whitaker (husband Shawn); Lydia Ahrens (husband Todd); Rebecca Sommer (husband Mike), and a son Micah Pope.

His Faith Sustains Him: Terry Pope remembers 1988 as a year when they lost the crops to drought and hogs to pseudorabies and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome.

With no income and double expenses, he says, "It was a time of real soul searching, to decide to throw in the towel, or forge ahead."

So he came one day and told his wife, Debbie, they should take the kids to St. Louis for the weekend.

"We really didn't have the money but it really didn't matter at that point," he laughs today.

He took along a yellow note pad, and during that trip, he and Debbie worked their way through a decision: They would stay. And then they mapped out a plan which they took to their lender and told him, "I know where we're at, but I think we can make it and here's the plan."

Throughout that year, they clung to the verse given to them by a friend from Habakkuk 3:17-18. It tells of failed crops six times over, yet of a man who chose to praise God and find joy in his Saviour, regardless.

"We asked ourselves, "What's really important? Is it stuff and things, or family and eternity? That changed our perspective and things fell into place."

The four Illinois Master Farmers were featured on the March 2010 cover of Prairie Farmer magazine, under the title: "Best Of the Best" Pope, Defenbaugh, Willrett, and Niemeyer are standing in Pope's red barn at Burnside. A page story on each are inside along with a story on Honorary Master Farmer Jim Evans. Evans helped launch the newly formed Ag communications program at the University of Illinois in 1962 and spent the next 30 years recruiting youth in the field of writing, broadcasting, advertising, and public relations. Effective communication is vital to agriculture, he said. He grew up in Wapello, Iowa and his grandfather is buried in Olena (Henderson County).

The last named Honorary Master Farmer was Orion Samuelson in 2003.

From left to right are area 2010 Master Farmers and their wives named by Prairie Farmer magazine: Terry Pope and wife Gayle of Burnside (Hancock) and Alice and Ray Defenbaugh of rural Biggsville (Henderson)

The Defenbaugh family include Dan Defenbaugh, wife Johanna and two children (top right) of Kirkwood; Matt Defenbaugh, wife Tonya and two children (bottom right) of Rural Biggsville, Jennifer Kinneer, husband Mark and two sons (top left) of Kirkwood, and Debbie Green, husband John and one son (bottom left) of Rozetta area.

Master Farmer Terry Pope and wife Gayle and his children Lydia Ahrens, Rebecca Sommer, Micah Pope, and Hannah Whitaker.

Ray and Alice Defenbaugh constructed a pond, family shelter house and cabin for regular family gatherings and a place to keep the kids at home, he said. He also enjoys flying and his son Matt has airstrip on his property. He enjoys hunting and raises pheasants and turns them loose each year as his way of giving back.

Terry Pope, busy on the farm, and with family, plus very active in the community

Defenbaugh's desire is to preserve the way of life of the farmer and showing the children of the care of animals, the enviornment, and of others. Above his granddaughter enjoys feeding a baby calf.