For Yankton banker Erik Koenigs, the best crop in the region isn’t necessarily found in the field.
The best crop may be the area high school students receiving the Promoting Agricultural Youth (PAY) scholarships. Koenigs chairs the Yankton Area Chamber of Commerce’s Agri-Business Committee, which awards the scholarships.
"The scholarships help our area high school seniors who are interested in attending a two- or four-year school and entering an agricultural field," he said. "We’ve been doing this for 13 years, and (the recipients) have gone to a variety of schools and into a variety of careers."
The scholarship fund was created in 2009, with the first award for $500, Koenigs noted. Since that time, $103,500 in scholarships has been awarded to young women and men. With this year’s winners, who were recognized at last week’s Ag Gala, the amount will grow to a total of 49 recipients receiving $127,500 in scholarships.
"This year, we gave away eight scholarships of $3,000 each," he said. "We’ve had recipients go into anything from veterinary medicine, biology and botany to diesel mechanics and agronomy. It’s not just production agriculture."
Koenigs pointed to two past scholarship winners as examples of area students who entered agriculture-related fields.
"Alec Weber and Carla Pick both pursued careers in the agronomy field, and now they’re back in the area," he said. "Alec was originally from the Wagner-Avon-Tyndall area, while Carla was from the Hartington (Nebraska) area."
The PAY scholarships are awarded in conjunction with the annual Ag Gala, also sponsored by the Agri-Business Committee. The event salutes area producers and recognizes their value to the regional economy.
The PAY scholarships are funded entirely by the silent and live auctions at the Ag Gala, Koenigs said. From the beginning, a number of businesses and individuals have provided items for the auctions or made direct cash donations.
"Greg Ryken does the live auction for us, and things have become bigger and bigger as we receive more donated items. It seems like holding (the auction) with the Ag Gala creates interest for the items," Koenigs said.
The PAY scholarship fund has grown because supporters believe in it, Koenigs said.
"People see a need for it. They see it as an investment not only in our young people but also in agriculture," he said. "We have businesses who hope someday that one of these students will come up with the research and technology to increase yields or benefit agriculture in other ways."
The Agri-Business Committee takes its role seriously in building up the PAY scholarships, Koenigs said.
"It’s the dedication from the people on the committee. It takes a lot of work to raise the money for scholarships," he said. "They solicit auction items, and people are very generous in what they donate. It’s not something that just happens."
The selection committee also seeks to be good stewards of the scholarship funds, Koenigs said.
"These (committee members) are on a mission. Their goal is to help people get into ag-related fields," he said. "The intent is that the scholarships go to people who want to return to our trade area. It’s also a matter of whether we have the employment so they can relocate here."
The chamber’s agri-business committee is meeting today (Wednesday) to discuss the recent gala and whether to make changes in the future, Koenigs said.
"With the PAY scholarships, I think we’re getting to the stage now where we can look back and see who has come back to our area," he said. "And we can track how many of those kids stuck with agricultural fields. We would like to see what direction this is going, to see where past recipients have gone."
With Yankton High School’s introduction of its FFA chapter, Koenigs sees tremendous potential for growth in the number of PAY applicants. In turn, he would like to see more donations to grow the scholarship fund.
"Did we envision that it would grow like this? It’s something you hope to see. We’ve achieved great things in agriculture because of education and research," he said.
"For these students, the (PAY) scholarships provide an opportunity to invest in themselves. And we’re looking for kids with that passion for agriculture."
The following is a profile of this year’s PAY scholarship winners:
• Taylor Eitemiller, the daughter of Chet and Angela Eitemiller of Armour, attended Wagner High School. She will attend South Dakota State University (SDSU) in Brookings to pursue a degree in animal science, along with a degree in biology. She seeks to become an embryologist and work for Trans Ova Genetics.
• Dawson French, the son of Doug and Melanie French of Bloomfield Nebraska, attended Bloomfield High School. He will attend SDSU to pursue a degree in animal science, specializing in animal nutrition. Once he becomes a nutritionist, he plans to return to the Yankton area and help local cattle producers.
• Lance Haak, the son of Laren and Gina Haak of Yankton, attended Yankton High School. He will attend SDSU to pursue a degree in Agricultural Business. He plans to return to Yankton and contribute back to the ag industry and the community.
• Ethan Lange, the son of Roger and Alison Lange of Hartington, Nebraska, attended Wynot (Nebraska) High School. He will pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering at SDSU. He would like to return to the Yankton area after graduation, so he can help contribute back to agriculture in his area.
• Justin Lange, the son of Brian and Stephanie Lange of Hartington, Nebraska, attended Wynot (Nebraska) High School. He plans to attend Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska, for two years and then transfer to SDSU for a major in Animal Science and minor in Agricultural Business. His goal is to take over the family operation, as well as help other area farmers.
• Noah Schenkel, the son of Dave and Julie Schenkel of Tyndall, attended Bon Homme High School. He will attend Mitchell Technical Institute (MTI) to pursue a degree in Animal Science. He plans to return to the Yankton area to work with local farmers and his family’s demolition business while building his own herd of cattle.
• Ashton Vaith, the daughter of Dean and Jennifer Vaith of Menno, attended Menno High School She will attend MTI for Agricultural Business. She plans to return to the family farm upon graduation to help improve and expand the operation.
• Riley Zimmerman, the son of Mark and Kristi Zimmerman of Yankton, plans to attend SDSU and pursue a degree in agronomy. He plans to promote agriculture in the Yankton area and stress the importance of ag in people’s everyday life.
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