The phone rang last week and Dale Kirtley was on the other end of the line. Now retired, more or less, he was one of the original no-tillers in eastern Indiana who experimented with and proved that no-till, drilled soybeans into corn stalks could work effectively. Kirtley and his wife still reside in Wayne County.
He was one of the last conservationists recognized in the Master Farm Conservationist program before it was discontinued in 2009. He was calling because he thought his name had been omitted from a prestigious list in the magazine.
As it turns out, the list he saw in the January issue if Indiana Prairie Farmer was of Master Farmers. As far as we know, Dale was never nominated for that award. The two were separate programs, and co-existed for the nearly two decades where Master Conservationists were honored each year at the annual Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts award banquet during the annual recognition banquet.
Master Farmers is a program that originated in the 1920's when an editor of Prairie Farmer, Clifford Gregory, thought that farmers doing an excellent job deserved recognition. Master Farmers were recognized in Indiana and Illinois for about 10 years. The program also spread to other states. The state farm magazine in that state typically organized the contest and hosted an awards ceremony.
The program was discontinued in the mid-1930s during the height of the Great Depression and a string of hot, dry years that tested the mettle of everyone in agriculture. Then another Prairie Farmer editor, Jim Thompson, revived the award in 1968. It's typically referred to as when the modern era of recognizing Master farmers began. Today, Master Farmers are recognized, in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and some other states. So far, about 200 Indiana farmers have been recognized as Master Farmers through that program since 1968. Deadline for nominations for the 2011 version is February 15. The Purdue University College of Agriculture now co-sponsors the award in Indiana.
Those nominees are evaluated on farming ability, leadership and community service. Natural resource management is to be considered, but is not the overriding, deciding factor.
In contrast, The Master Farm Conservationist program was unique to Indiana, started around 1990 to honor some of those doing an excellent job of conservation who perhaps didn't have the biggest farms or the newest equipment, but who had practiced conservation during their entire careers. Local soil and water conservation districts submitted nominations annually.
The program was just as prestigious in the eyes of the primary sponsor, Indiana Prairie Farmer. Many people who would have never received recognition for what they did to protect their land were honored in front of their peers, and typically through a magazine article as well.
So, Dale, you're a Master Farmer in our book. Officially, you're a Master Farm Conservationist, an award presented to a select few considering Indiana's population of farmers and landowners. Congratulations, and thanks for being so proud of your well-deserved award.