Bill and Brenda Raben farm with Bill’s brother Jim, with a total of 6,000 acres. Bill has also been active in the Illinois Soybean Association. Photo by Holly Spangler.

Four Illinois farm couples have been selected as 2016 Master Farmers by Prairie Farmer magazine. The group will be honored for their exceptional agricultural production skills and community service at a ceremony in East Peoria, Ill., on Tuesday, March 8.
Award recipients are Mark and Karen DeDecker, Cambridge; Reggie and Norma Jean Dowell, Greenview; Ron and Julie Lawfer, Kent; and Bill and Brenda Raben, Ridgway.
Candidates are nominated by farmers, agribusiness leaders and agricultural extension specialists from throughout the state.
This is the first time Prairie Farmer has awarded its coveted Master Farmer award to four farm couples.
Judges for the awards were Gary Ash, 1st Farm Credit Services; Karen Corrigan, McGillicuddy Corrigan Agronomics; Linnea Kooistra, 2011 Master Farmer; Ed McMillan, University of Illinois Board of Trustees Chairman; Steve Myers, Busey Ag Services; and Holly Spangler, Prairie Farmer editor.
Prairie Farmer first offered the award in 1925, when Editor Clifford Gregory established it as a way to recognize Illinois farmers for something more than just farming skills. Gregory felt the award would help give farm people a greater sense of “pride and permanence.”
Spangler said Prairie Farmer continues to present the awards annually because of the important contributions farmers make to Illinois agriculture and their local communities. “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,” said Spangler. “They are the folks who make our rural communities tick.”
Some Master Farmers serve in state and national farm leadership positions. Others chair prestigious boards or serve with honor at the highest levels of government. Still others build their farms or businesses to regional or national prominence.
However, the vast majority merely serves their communities – building churches, chairing little-known but important committees, organizing harvest for a stricken neighbor – and continuing the service-minded commitment that earned them the Master Farmer distinction in the first place.
Between 1925 and 1937 the magazine named 97 Master Farmers, Spangler said. The program was discontinued in the 1930s due to the Depression, but Prairie Farmer revived it in 1968. Since then, more than 300 Illinois people have been named Master Farmer or Honorary Master Farmer.
Prairie Farmer is published 12 times a year for Illinois farm families. Established in 1841, it is the oldest continuously published farm periodical in the United States. GROWMARK, Inc., is a financial sponsor of the award. Like the Master Farmer award, the GROWMARK system was born during the 1920s, when farmer cooperatives first organized the Illinois Farm Supply Co. Today, the brand is known as FS.
BILL AND BRENDA RABEN: MEETING THE NEEDS
If you’re looking for people to organize their community, start youth programs, rebuild churches and drive half the length of the state for commodity meetings, Bill and Brenda Raben might be just the people to call. All that and more makes this couple 2016 Prairie Farmer Master Farmers.
Bill and Brenda met at Southern Illinois University. Bill taught school after graduation before joining his dad and brother, Jim, in the family farm operation. The first year, he worked for his dad and bought 133 acres at auction, paying $350 an acre – big money in 1974 and for a recent graduate on a teacher’s salary. The next year, his dad gave Bill and Jim 25% of the income from his land, while they each paid 25% of the expenses. Eventually they worked up to 33%, and beyond.
Today, Bill and Jim operate separate farm businesses but share labor and equipment, farming about 6,000 acres total. Land as an institution, has long been important to the Rabens.
“My father always said that all effort should be used to control erosion,” Bill says. “Soil is the foundation of what we use to make our living.” The Rabens use waterways, terraces, diversions and sub-surface drainage to control water and reduce erosion. Water and sediment control basins help reduce gully erosion, trap sediment and reduce run-off. They also use reduced tillage or no till.
For as much as they love their hometown, the Rabens have seen the world, too. Since he was elected to the Illinois Soybean Association board in 2010, Bill has traveled to Brazil, Argentina, China, South Korea, England, Haiti and most recently, India.
He’s been invited to speak to farmers in the Matto Grosso state of Brazil, and reports farmers worldwide are still very similar.
“They are all proud of what they do and of their accomplishments. They always want to produce more,” Bill adds. “They want a greater return on their investments and are always happy to help feed the hungry and starving people of the world.”
Back home in Ridgway, it’s not so different.“I want Raben Farms to continue,” Bill says. “It doesn’t have to get larger but it should become better. Do what you do, but learn how to do it better!”

Bill and Brenda Raben farm with Bill’s brother Jim, with a total of 6,000 acres. Bill has also been active in the Illinois Soybean Association. Photo by Holly Spangler.
Bill and Brenda Raben farm with Bill’s brother Jim, with a total of 6,000 acres. Bill has also been active in the Illinois Soybean Association. Photo by Holly Spangler.

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