Skip to main content

South Dakota State University Announces 2018 Eminent Farmers/Ranchers & Homemakers

December 17, 2018

BROOKINGS, S.D. - The South Dakota State University College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences and College of Education and Human Sciences will recognize four individuals with the Eminent Farmer/Rancher and Eminent Homemaker honor during a banquet on September 21, 2018 at the McCrory Gardens Education and Visitor Center in Brookings.

A social hour begins at 5:30 p.m., with the program starting at 6:30 p.m. Reservations are $25 and can be made until September 5 at the Office of the Dean of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, Berg Agricultural Hall 131, SDSU Brookings, S.D., 57007 or by calling 605.688.4148.

The 2018 Eminent Farmers/Ranchers honored are Doug Hanson of Elk Point and Orrin Korth of Watertown. The 2018 Eminent Homemakers honored are Susan VanderWal of Bruce and Mary Bjerke of Volga.

Established in 1927, the Eminent Farmer/Rancher and Eminent Homemaker awards recognize individuals for their contributions of leadership and service to the community on the local, state and national level.

Each year SDSU selects four individuals to honor based on confidential nominations from across the state. The nominations are reviewed and selected by a committee of SDSU faculty members, administrators and SDSU Extension personnel. The selected honorees are approved by the Deans of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences and College of Education and Human Sciences.

The honorees' photos join the more than 300 portraits of Eminent Farmers/Ranchers and Homemakers which are displayed in the "Hall of Fame" portrait gallery located in Berg Agricultural Hall on the campus of South Dakota State University.

To learn more about each of the honorees, please read their profiles below.

Doug Hanson, 2018 Eminent Farmer/Rancher, Union County

Doug Hanson
Doug Hanson, 2018 Eminent Farmer/Rancher, Union County

When Elk Point farmer, Doug Hanson, plants soybeans into the soil each spring, he is working the same ground as his great-grandfather, Martin. He fixes fence on pastureland once grazed by his grandfather Herman's cattle. And, when he and his son, Erik, harvest small grains each fall, their combine crosses ground his dad, Russell, worked a generation before.

"We have a pretty close connection to our legacy," says Hanson who continues to farm the land homesteaded by his great-grandfather in 1889.

It's a farming legacy Hanson actively works to preserve for future generations of Hansons. "As a farmer, if I am not thinking of the next generation, I am not doing this correctly. Really, we only get to borrow this land for a certain amount of time."

Hanson sees soil health as key to the farm's future.

"This is not just my ground, this is the ground of my family several generations into the future," Hanson says.

A few years ago, he and Erik introduced small grains and cover crops into the corn and soybean rotation.

"The soil reflects what you're doing. There is enough data from land grants, like SDSU and everywhere else, that shows three rotations are the building blocks for healthier soils," he says. "We're working to build organic matter. Between small grains and cover crops we can see positive changes."

Hanson, together with his wife, Jeanne, raised six children on the farm; Karissa Harkin, Erik, Martin, Melodee Wagner, Kyle and Kirstin Carlson.

"I think it's great that on the farm, our kids had chores to do. Livestock seem to create a mindset of responsibility, because the animal needs to be cared for and the child is responsible for it," Hanson says.

Along with livestock, all of the Hanson kids were actively involved in 4-H. Jeanne has served as a leader for more than 35 years.

"4-H taught them leadership skills as well as a diverse skillset - I have adult sons in their 30s who are not scared of a sewing machine," Hanson says.

When he considers the future of his family's farm and farms like his, Hanson believes it's important to invest in research to expand marketing opportunities.

He served three terms on the board of the South Dakota Soybean Research and Promotion Council (SDSRPC) and currently serves on the board of the S.D. Soybean Association.

Inspired by information suggesting soybeans could be used as a protein source for fish, nearly a decade ago, Hanson proposed SDSRPC help fund research at South Dakota State University to develop soy-based fish food.

"If there is a lead out there for another use for the products we grow, it needs to be investigated," explains Hanson, of the research which eventually led to the launch of Prairie AquaTech, a Brookings-based company which utilizes soybeans as the protein base for fish food. Aquaculture is among the fastest growing market segments in U.S. and global agriculture.

"A portion of South Dakota soybeans are now fed to fish. It's interesting that some of the best research data out there for feeding fish is coming from a Midwest university - SDSU," Hanson explains. "This all began with farmers' checkoff dollars and turned out to be something that in 10 years will be one of the major players in the world's soybean usage."

He adds. "Being a part of this has been rewarding. I think if I can use my time to change the environment or situation to benefit my family and grandkids down the road - make a difference for future generations - that is what I want to be a part of. It's all about leaving a legacy."

Mary Bjerke, 2018 Eminent Homemaker, Brookings County

Mary Bjerke
Mary Bjerke, 2018 Eminent Homemaker, Brookings County

A knock on her home's door signaled a life change for Mary Bjerke.

It came from the mayor of Volga, the community she calls home. "The mayor asked me to fill an open position on the city council. I wouldn't have gone into city government if he had not knocked on my door," explains Bjerke who served 16 years on the Volga City Council and became the city's first female mayor in 2011.

Prior to Mayor Albright's request, service to her community wasn't a new concept for Bjerke. "Community was a very important part of our family. My dad served on several community boards and my mom was involved in the church," says Bjerke, who grew up on a dairy farm near Bruce.

Throughout her 20 years of service to the Volga community, Bjerke worked to make the community a better place to live and grow through residential and business expansion. During her tenure, the community earned the status of Tree City USA and received state recognition for their efforts in community improvement. She poured time into improving pedestrian safety and helped the community build new buildings for city hall and the fire department.

After Bjerke stepped down from her position as mayor in 2015, she served on a task force to establish a new Volga Community Center and currently serves on the board of the Volga Housing and Redevelopment Commission.

"I believe if you have a passion and perseverance to serve, you should," Bjerke says. "I enjoy being part of something bigger than myself." 

Service to others is also a strong focus of the culture at Larson Manufacturing Company, where Bjerke has worked since 1994. She is the Channel Marketing Manager.

"My employment at Larson has really magnified what I do and how I am able to give back," she says, explaining that the culture of service begins with the company's president, Dale Larson. "He really instills in employees the importance of giving back and contributing to the community. He lives it and provides employees with the flexibility to serve."

Recognized for her service, Bjerke has received the Brookings Friends of Arts Award, Brookings Area Chamber Women in Leadership and Learning Volunteer of the Year Award, Volga Beta Psi People Helping People Award and the Brookings County Liberty Bell Award.

Over the years she has served on the Brookings Economic Development Corporation, currently serves on the board of directors for Lutherans Outdoors in South Dakota and gives back to several local non-profits and organizations donating her talents as a graphic designer.

An art enthusiast since childhood, when Bjerke was ready to make a career move, she gravitated to graphic design at South Dakota State University.

When the decision was made to pursue a bachelor's degree in 1989, she knew she had the support of her husband, Russell and her now-grown daughters, Christianne Beringer and Nichole Hofer, who were in elementary school at the time.

Balancing a part-time job and parenting, while managing a full class load was not easy. "It was hard work, but I grew up knowing hard work and I wasn't afraid of it. It was a big family commitment, but I had the support of my family. Everyone pitched in and helped. I could not have done this without my family's support."

When Bjerke discusses her family, she includes Steffanie Wolff from Germany. In 2009, at age 20, Wolff suffered from acute myelogenous leukemia. Through Be The Match international organization, Bjerke was able to donate stem cells. Today, Wolff is a healthy 29-year-old who Bjerke considers a third daughter. In 2017, she served as officiant when Wolff married Alex Dolz in Boppard, Germany.

"I have learned that there is nothing more powerful than giving the gift of life," Bjerke says. 

Orrin Korth, 2018 Eminent Farmer/Rancher, Codington County

Orrin Korth
Orrin Korth, 2018 Eminent Farmer/Rancher, Codington County

Codington County farmer Orrin Korth has contributed to the good of South Dakota agriculture in many ways. He has also been an innovator in both crop and livestock production.

"I grew up helping my father, Otto, on the farm that was homesteaded by my great-grandfather in 1885 and knew I wanted to get a college education to be able to come back and apply what I learned to diversify and advance our farm and help our community," Korth says.

He decided to attend South Dakota School of Agriculture, now South Dakota State University, and graduated in 1942. He then moved back to what is now 'Korth Farms' and bought some of his own land a quarter mile down the road.

After returning, he gradually took over leadership in the operation. He grew small grains, corn, soybeans, flax, and sunflowers. He also raised registered and certified seed and provided a seed cleaning service to help prevent the spread of weeds.

"I wanted to be sure that South Dakota farmers had the best performing seed to plant," he explains.

His family purchased two threshing machines to sustain their farming operation and help area farmers as farm labor was sparse during the war.

"Community is important to us and we all looked out for one another, especially when times were tough," Korth says.

Korth was also very involved in livestock production. He was a leader in the area in raising Aberdeen Angus cattle. He also raised purebred Corriedale sheep and sold breeding stock. He showed his livestock at events around the state.

Korth has long been a strong supporter of conservation, with a primary focus being his advocacy for planting trees. He began planting trees on his farm in the early 1930s and oversaw efforts for the eventual planting of four miles of single-row shelterbelts on Korth Farms.

Alongside his late wife Lorraine, they raised five children on the farm: Kelvin, Kim, Kathryn Feltch, Karla Moes and Kristie Lagodinkski. They now have eight grandchildren.

Today, Korth lives on the farm that is now run by his sons, Kelvin and Kim. The farm has continued to be a profitable operation over the decades.

On Korth Farms sits the family's iconic orange barn that is well-known by the community. The family has hosted an old-fashioned barn dance for the community since 2013 in the refurbished barn built by his father in 1934.

Korth has always been a very active member of the community. He was a charter member of the Sioux Valley Coop and served as a board member for several years. He also served as a regional director of Farmers Union Central Exchange, now known as Cenex Harvest States.

In the mid-1950s, Korth learned that SDSU was seeking a place to do research in northeast South Dakota. He provided 25 acres of his choice farming land for the college to conduct research to assist farmers in northeast South Dakota and the entire state. The farm is still in use today as the Northeast Research Farm and has grown to over 125 acres. Orrin has served for 60 years on the farm's advisory board.

When SDSU was developing the Ag Heritage Museum in the 1970s and considering moving into the old livestock pavilion, they were in need of a focal exhibit.

"I volunteered a Case steam engine that my dad owned to be the focal point at the museum. I believe it is important to tell the story of agriculture and wanted to contribute," Korth says.

He has since donated several additional antiques of significant value to the museum.

Faith has always been an important part of Korth's life, as well. His faith impelled him to develop a scholarship for seminary students of the Wisconsin Lutheran Church Synod.

"I want to help support students to stay in ministry and the church," Korth says.

Susan VanderWal, 2018 Eminent Homemaker, Brookings County

Susan VanderWal
Susan VanderWal, 2018 Eminent Homemaker, Brookings County

Susan VanderWal contributes her time and talents to support her rural community, church, family and local youth in the 4-H program.

She has helped countless 4-H youth, leaders and parents for the past 25 years as the Brookings County 4-H office manager. 

"I believe 4-H is so important because kids learn countless life-long skills and I love seeing them grow through their involvement in the program," VanderWal says. "I enjoy lending a helping hand and offering support and encouragement to any 4-H members, leaders and parents.

In addition to keeping track of forms and doing bookkeeping, VanderWal also coordinates numerous events on the local and state levels, including special foods, fashion review, public presentation day and achievement days. Additionally, she transports all the local 4-H exhibits to the state fair and sets up the county booth.

"I became involved in 4-H when I had children and served as the assistant club leader of the West Sioux 4-H Club. I was then the club leader for nearly 10 years as our three children, Kelly, Jeff and Londa, moved through their 4-H years," VanderWal explains.

She married her high school sweetheart, Dale, who was also a local farmer. They farmed with her late husband's parents and brother on a diversified crop and livestock farm.

"I was always active helping on the farm, whether it was driving truck, working cattle or hauling silage, and usually with a kid or two on my leg," VanderWal says.

Their kids were very active in 4-H, doing everything from showing livestock to foods and clothing. VanderWal also coached their beef quiz bowl teams for several years.

"I often felt I learned more than the kids as their quiz bowl coach," VanderWal says.

Her family provides local youth with learning experiences by hosting the local livestock judging contest for their county and surrounding counties, something they have done for about 30 years.

VanderWal also sponsors the Beef Performance Award at the Brookings County Achievement Days, which is a monetary gift given to a 4-H member based on a written test score, rate of gain and their placing.

"It is important to me to sponsor this award because I want to stress to the youth that the color of the ribbon isn't what is most important, but what they learn from a project," VanderWal explains.

VanderWal's contributions to the 4-H program haven't gone unnoticed. She received the Good Neighbor award and was named the Friend of 4-H in Brookings County in 2014.

VanderWal is a devoted member of the Volga First Reformed Church where she has served as the part-time church secretary for 35 years. She has also supported the local school as past coordinator for the junior high regional solo contest. 

VanderWal supports the FFA program in numerous ways as well and has judged proficiencies.

Additionally, VanderWal has been active in the Jolly Bunch Extension Club, Brookings County Farm Bureau and Volga Christian School PTA.

VanderWal says she would gladly do anything for her family. When her brother was diagnosed with cancer, she donated stem cells and lymphocyte's to him twice.

"Being a donor was a really neat and humbling experience," she says.

In her free time, VanderWal can be found cheering on her nine grandkids at 4-H and FFA events, sporting events and school programs.

"My life motto is to help others whenever and wherever I can; God has given me specific talents that I can use to serve Him by serving others," VanderWal says.