Irene Couple Honored

Zane (center) and Sandy (right) Williams received Ag United for South Dakota’s AgVocates of the Year for 2020 Award for helping with the foundation of “Families Feeding Families-AGvocacy.”

IRENE — An Irene couple has been recognized for their contribution to agricultural advocacy.

“AGvocacy,” if you will.

Last month, Zane and Sandy Williams of Yankton County were named Ag United for South Dakota’s  AgVocates of the Year for 2020 for their efforts in helping found Families Feeding Families-AGvocacy — a task that Zane told the Press & Dakotan they hardly did alone.

“We were really surprised, honored and humbled when AG United told us that we were selected by their Board of Directors as Agriculture Advocates of the Year (2020),” he said. “Although we appreciate the kind words our friends, neighbors and business associates shared, we must acknowledge that this recognition goes to a group of 17 key individuals who have worked tirelessly to establish Families Feeding Families — AGvocacy!  and to raise awareness of the challenges and benefits of modern agriculture.”

Zane, who got his first ag-loan at the age of 17, is no stranger to the farm.

“I grew up here on the home farm we operate today,” he said. “We run a small feedlot now. We have about 600 head of cattle. We raise corn, soybeans and a lot of alfalfa which we feed ourselves and sell to the dairy industry.”

Zane also serves on the Marindahl Township Board and is a member of the Yankton County Planning and Zoning Commission.

Recently, the Williamses farm was recognized for being in their family for 125 years.

Sandy said she was raised in a family that taught her the value of service.

“My grandparents were very involved and felt it’s a responsibility to be engaged in civic duties,” she said.

According to Zane, Families Feeding Families traces its start to 2018 at the height of the CAFO controversy in Yankton County.

He said, “Jim Petrik posted on Facebook that we farmers really need to do ‘something’ in response to the lawsuit against a long-time Yankton County farm family: Louie Johnson was sued by 30 people — most of whom probably didn’t know where he lived — because he received a permit to build a 2,400-head nursery hog barn. Most of the people who sued him weren’t his neighbors — they were people scattered all over the county from the northwest part to out by the lake to people who live in the city of Yankton.”

Williams said it was clear that there was a need for education and advocacy around modern farming.

“We agreed that farmers need to start responding to what were very misleading statements that just aren’t an accurate representation of modern ag practice and management in the 21st century,” he said.  “Jim and his wife, and Sandy and I got together to talk about what was happening and what might we do about it. Tara Pirak from Valley Ag supply also joined us. We decided that another voice needed to be heard, a voice in support of modern agriculture practices in Yankton County and the region.”

He added that agriculture has changed greatly in recent decades.

“Modern ag is more efficient than it was 15-20 years ago — let alone when I went to my grandpa’s farm or when I was a kid on the farm and walked both ways uphill to the barn,” he said.

But Zane also pointed out that not all of the change in agriculture has been positive, noting the loss of 1.5 million acres of ag land to urban sprawl each year.

“Farmers represent about 2% of the workforce, so with fewer farmers, the need for greater efficiency is really important,” he said. “How are we going to continue to feed our country? A nation that has a food deficit is a weak nation.”

With Families Feeding Families set up in 2019, the group started working on bringing its message to the area, establishing a presence on Facebook and a standalone website.

Having brought together support from farmers, agriculture-based businesses and even non-ag based entities, the group held its first “Farm Families Speak Up!” event in March 2019 which attracted more than 500 people despite closely following a blizzard in Yankton.

“That was a fun event, but for a first time of anything in Yankton County and a small town the size of Yankton, to have 500 people out … that’s pretty phenomenal,” Sandy said.

The year proved to be a busy one for the group and included interactions with the Boys & Girls Club of Yankton, appearances at local events, forums which featured County Commissioners Cheri Loest and Don Kettering, and a host of appearances with local and regional media.

Families Feeding Families-AGvocacy, as with most groups, was unable to escape the effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Many in-person activities such as visits with the Boys & Girls Club and participation in area events were curtailed.

However, the group remained active with several forums and a second Farm Families Speak Up! event in September. Even with social-distancing protocols in place and the pandemic looming over the event, the 2020 event managed to attract more than 250 people.

And according to Sandy, the group is drawing some notice from elsewhere.

“We’ve had outreach from people in other states — Iowa, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming — where people have reached out to us to say, ‘How are you helping to organize? There’s some anti-ag groups that are very active that have some deep pockets and we’re just farmers. How do you do that?’” she said. “People from Nebraska are part of our group. We have people from Clay, Union, Lincoln, Minnehaha, Turner, Hutchinson, Bon Homme counties that are active in what we’re doing.”

Families Feeding Families-AGvocacy isn’t slowing down.

“This fall, one of our ultimate goals was to incorporate as a non-profit,” Sandy said. “We’re now our own non-profit, so our organization is here to stay.”

Zane said hopes are to continue to expand the group.

“We had one person who said, ‘I wish there was a group like this in every local ag-business community to get the word out to people because so many young people are so far removed from the farm,’” he said. “We want to grow it. We’re looking for more members. We need more good people to join us in our cause to get our message out.”

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Follow @RobNielsenPandD on Twitter.

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