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Master Farmers: Rooted in history

Holly Spangler Kent Hodel, Paul Taylor and Kenneth Hartman Jr.
MASTERS: The 2021 Prairie Farmer Master Farmers are Kent Hodel (left), Paul Taylor and Kenneth Hartman Jr.
With nearly 350 Prairie Farmer Master Farmers now on the rolls, here’s a look at how it all began.

Where did the Prairie Farmer Master Farmer awards program come from?

Back in 1925, Prairie Farmer gave its first Master Farmer awards at a ceremony in Chicago, where the magazine honored 23 Illinois and Indiana farmers as Master Farmers and presented them with gold medals. The program was initiated by then-editor Clifford Gregory as a way to recognize hard-working, salt-of-the-earth Illinois farmers for doing what they do better than anyone else.

It’s become a Hall of Achievement for Illinois farmers like no other, because it’s honored farmers who seem to do it all — combining top agricultural production skills with community service, grassroots achievement and dedication to their families. They are the folks who make our rural communities tick.

Related: Meet the 2021 Master Farmers

From the beginning, the award was unique in that a significant portion of the judges’ scoring hinged on the farmers’ community involvement. That tradition continues today.

The Master Farmer award was discontinued in the early 1930s due to economic hardship. Editors explained, “At that time, farmers were gripped with the despair of the Depression years. Citation for excellence would have seemed ironic when the farmer’s principal concern was survival.”

But Prairie Farmer brought the award back in 1968, naming 10 Illinois farmers as Master Farmers. That year, the average farm size was 675 acres and the top corn yield was 137 bushels per acre. An impressive soybean yield topped out at 30 bushels per acre.

Since then, more than 300 farmers have been named a Master Farmer, and still with the same credentials: outstanding agricultural production and outstanding community service.

Prairie Farmer agrees wholeheartedly with one farmer who wrote in support of his friend who was named a Master Farmer: “In my view, a Master Farmer needs to be an individual who does well with their farm, and in their local community, but sees the importance of also working for the greater community represented by farm organizations.”


Prairie Farmer is grateful to Growmark for its continued financial support of the Master Farmer program. Since 2009, Growmark has provided the financial assistance necessary to continue the awards program.

The company’s commitment to caring for the local ag community dovetails nicely with Prairie Farmer’s mission to maintain the heritage and honor of the Master Farmer awards. Like the Master Farmer award, the Growmark system was born during the 1920s. In 1927, nine local co-ops formed the Illinois Farm Supply Co. Today, the brand is known as FS.

“It’s an honor to sponsor this prestigious award. Individuals recognized as Master Farmers embody the qualities and competencies of this noble profession we are so proud to serve,” says Jim Spradlin, Growmark CEO.

In 1925, the editors at Prairie Farmer believed the values of a Master Farmer were worth recognizing as a way to help farmers take pride in themselves and their jobs. They felt it was important to recognize farmers for excellence the same way you would honor an individual in any other profession. The same holds true in 2021, as Prairie Farmer and Growmark honor three new Master Farmers because their actions and beliefs, both on and off the farm, capture the essence of this award.

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