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Farm school tradition continues

By Renae B. Vander Schaaf

Date Modified: 02/05/2013 4:22 PM

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SIBLEY, Iowa — Students from a different generation enter the doors of the Sibley-Ocheyedan Ag Department on Thursday nights as they have since right after World War II.

Agriculture education instructor Mike Earll greets each person. Many of the students have been attending since he took over the Farmer's Night School in 1980 as part of his teaching contract.

The school's beginning stretches way back to the GI Bill of 1946. Sometimes called Farmer's College, it paid World War II veterans to attend educational programs on farming. When funding was eventually eliminated, most of the farmer night schools vanished.

The program continues in Sibley even though it is no longer in his contract. Mike Earll has seen some changes after 33 years of coordinating the school. While it is mostly men at the meetings, spouses are also encouraged to attend.

"We used to do more on things such as chemical usage, farming practices, government programs and other production-related activities," said Earll. "'As seed dealers, chemical companies and other groups began to do more of those programs, our farmer night school programs were altered to fit more rural needs and the needs of our older and many times retired farmers."

By law, he was required to have at least 10 meetings, including an end-of-year banquet. Schubert Zylstra helped Earll.

The group now meets Thursday nights in January and February. One meeting is always a field day that involves businesses in the Tri-state area. Last year the group toured the new AGCO plant in Jackson, Minn.

The schedule is chosen from topics that regular attendees have suggested. The school provides no funding for the program, other than his time, the room and the bus and driver for the annual tour day, said Earll.

Because speakers are not paid, the meetings have been more focused on local interest. One meeting has been devoted to historical sights in Osceola County and another to entrepreneurs who have developed businesses involving locally grown food.

The Department of Transportation meeting draws a big crowd. Transportation officials discuss new guidelines and what is necessary to stay compliant. Attendance requires a larger location for that night.

Larry Verdoorn, a farmer from Ashton, has attended for at least a decade. He served in the military during the Cold War years. He has a quick answer for why he still attends.

"The fellowship," said Verdoorn. "I saw it advertised in the paper. The topics are of interest to me as a farmer, the field trips have given me opportunity to see local manufacturing that I would not have seen otherwise and, well, Mike's coffee is pretty good, too."

Earll says as long as interest exists he will continue to make coffee and bring doughnuts for what might very well be the last Farmer's Night School continuing to meet in northwest Iowa.