On Monday, close to 200 Mid-Atlantic ag leaders and past Master Farmers will gather in Harrisburg, Pa., for the 71st annual Master Farmer Awards Luncheon. They'll honor 10 new Master Farmers and spouses.
This year's winners are: Greg Forejt, Sr. of Ruffs Dale, Pa.; Dale and Carol Hoffman of Shinglehouse, Pa.; James and Sharon Keilholtz of Emmitsburg, Md.; Robert and Roselyn Payne of Still Pond, Md.; Michael Rice of Mercersburg, Pa.; and Drew and Patricia Stabler of Laytonsville, Md.
They were selected from 27 finalist applicants and close to 200 nominees from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Judges rated and chose the winners for their successes in progressive business management, responsible use of resources and exemplary civic leadership.
The Master Farmer program is one of America's oldest and longest running agricultural honors programs, dating back to 1927. The award is co-sponsored by American Agriculturist magazine and the Cooperative Extension programs of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and West Virginia.
Even as a first-grader, Greg Forejt wanted to be a farmer. "Tractors and farming were all that interested me." Through high school, he helped his father grow sweet corn and raise beef cattle and worked on neighboring farms.
Even while working on an agriculture/resource management degree at West Virginia University, Greg began renting ground from neighbors and farming on the weekends. In 1990, he and wife Lesley married. In 1993, they purchased their first farm. Today, Forejt farms about 1,460 acres with close attention to soil conservation, machine efficiency and what he terms as "intense marketing" of grain and vegetable crops.
One skill that's served Forejt particularly well is finding good used equipment, then keeping it well maintained. It has helped him accomplish timely planting and harvesting, plus allowed time for custom planting, harvesting and grain hauling for other farmers.
Dale and Carol Hoffman
Dale Hoffman was born into the dairy business, and hauled milk for his father after finishing high school in Snyder County, Pa. In 1972, he rented his first farm and started milking with 16 cows, a tractor, manure spreader and a $15,000 loan. Along the way, he met wife Carol on a church hay ride, and they fast became a team.
By 1976, their herd had grown to 50 cows, and they moved lock, stock and kids to a 400-acre farm purchased near New York's border. To make room for their growing family, the Hoffmans undertook a major expansion in 1998, putting up a 400-cow freestall barn and a double 12 parallel parlor.
The Hoffmans are active in their community, with their proudest accomplishment being formation of Potter County Milk Producers to gain bargaining clout for milk prices and other resources.
Jim and Sharon Keilholtz
Jim Keilholtz was born and raised on the dairy farm that he and Sharon began buying in 1983 after his father's death. He grew into the partnership with his father via cow shares of Holsteins. Not far away, Sharon followed a similar pattern on her family's Brown Swiss farm before she left to get a nursing degree at Frederick Community College.
The Keilholtzs chose to stay "low tech", with computerized feeders and improved herd genetics to raise milk production without incurring major investments. Jim hauls cattle to sales and national shows. Sharon, a registered nurse, practices geriatric nursing part-time. Both milk and manage the dairy and farm, with part-time help from daughter Jennifer and little extra help.
Robert and Roselyn Payne
Bob Payne began milking at age 11, in 1949, on his father's farm. Even during a nine-year stint with Maryland National Guard, he never stopped. In 1959, he and Roselyn (Jean) married. After several years of working for another dairy farm, they began renting his father's farm and milking 30 of their own cows.
Over the years, the Paynes gradually acquired 310 acres of farmland, grew the milking herd to 60 cows. In 1984, they began contracting out the farming operation to concentrate on the dairy, family and off-farm activities.
Since 1972, the farm has had an open door to students from the Echo Hill Outdoor School. By 2000, the Paynes had hosted more than 100,000 children, providing a connection with agriculture and an appreciation for the land. In 1994, they donated a 150-acre conservation easement to Maryland Environmental Trust.
Michael Rice is the third-generation manager of his family's aquaculture operation - the Northeast's largest in scale, and one of the most unusual â€“ ornamental fish of all sizes, shapes and colors. He grew up in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, then left for four years to earn a bachelors of science degree at Lock Haven University.
After college, he spent a short time in the South on bait fish and goldfish farms. That's where he met his wife, Nancy. In 1999, he succeeded his father as manager of Mt. Parnell Fisheries, Inc., which raises and ships fish worldwide to wholesalers. Mike was instrumental in developing the farm's new climate-controlled facility with a closed recirculating water system that greatly accelerates fish development.
Drew and Patricia Stabler
Drew and Patricia Stabler both grew up on farms, met in 4-H and even dated while attending University of Maryland where she earned a Masters in home economics. He started farming with his father and brother in 1960. A year later, they were married, and she became an Extension 4-H agent. She continued working for Maryland Extension and taught school before becoming a mother and homemaker.
The farm grew into the 4,000-acre Pleasant Valley Farm by year 2000. Then, to simplify estate planning, Drew retired from the partnership in 2001, forming a new one, Sunny Ridge Farm, with his brother's son-in-law.
Both have long lists of leadership roles in agriculture and community service, and have served as spokespersons for agriculture in Washington, D.C.
Master Farmer program details
It's the "Academy Awards of Agriculture," says John Vogel, Editor of American Agriculturist. "Following standards established more than seven decades ago, it recognizes outstanding management, land stewardship and community role models. Our society very much needs such exemplary people who can be inspirations to others."
With this year's crop of Master Farmers, 601 men and women have been taped for the award. By current count, Delaware has 12; Maryland, 40; New Jersey, 25; Pennsylvania, 504; and West Virginia, 18.
Master Farmers comprise only 0.9% of all farmers in this region. From their ranks have come numerous state and national ag leaders and state agricultural secretaries.
More details about this year's winners will be arriving soon in March issue of American Agriculturist, arriving this coming week in farm mail boxes. April's issue will feature more details about their successful management skills.