South Dakota’s Matt Birgen earns National Farmers Union Meritorious Service Award
HURON, S.D. – Beresford farmer, Matt Birgen was recognized for his leadership and service to agriculture with the National Farmers Union Meritorious Service Award during the organization’s 116th national convention held in Kansas City, Missouri March 4-6, 2018.
The National Farmers Union Meritorious Service Award recognizes members for their outstanding leadership and service to family agriculture and to Farmers Union over the course of their lifetimes.
“Matt is unselfish and very forward focused. He is always looking out for the common good,” said Doug Sombke, S.D. Farmers Union President. “His vision and leadership on the Farmers Union Industries board is exactly why we are in a position to continue to support the future of South Dakota’s family farmers.”
Birgen served on the board of directors for Farmers Union Industries for nearly two decades. The organization owns several businesses, the dividends of which go to help fund South Dakota Farmers Union along with four other Farmers Union organizations as well as National Farmers Union programming. Today, Birgen’s son, Larry sits on the Farmers Union Industries Board.
“Dad’s influence encouraged me to give back and serve agriculture – he influenced all of us kids to get involved,” said Larry, one of seven children Matt and his wife Maureen raised on their diversified family farm. “Being involved was just natural for dad. It is just something he does.”
At 88, Matt remains involved with the family farm, together with Larry and his nephew, Steve.
Along with Farmers Union Industries, throughout his lifetime, Matt, a Korean War Veteran, has remained actively involved in his local VFW, serving in many leadership positions over the last six decades; he served on the Clay County Farmers Union board of directors for more than 50 years; served on the North Central American Milk Producers Inc. board; served as President of the Clay County Board of Mutual Insurance Association board; served on the board of directors of Trucktown Cooperative; and has made several trips to Washington D.C. to advocate for agriculture.
“Our voice needs to be heard. Whether it’s as a veteran or a farmer, I believe that if I don’t participate, who will? My dad belonged to Farmers Union, he served on the board of directors, that is why I got involved,” explained Matt.
More about Birgen Family Farm
Like most South Dakota farm families 50 years ago, the Birgen’s farm resembled that of the Old McDonald’s nursery rhyme.
“We raised cattle, chickens, sheep, had milk cows and stock cows – but back then, everyone did. You sold cream and eggs,” said Matt, who bought the land where the farm is today with combat pay in 1955.
“It was easy to raise the kids on the farm because you knew where they were and they were busy,” explained his wife, Maureen. “Most of the time they were not in trouble because they all worked on the farm. We had a big garden and milked a herd of cows.”
The Birgen siblings include: Ken, Connie, Chuck, Carol Kapperman, Larry, Deb and Mary LeMieux.
During the summer months, the Birgen kids would herd their dairy cows home for milking on bicycle. Each morning after milking the cows were turned out to graze about 2 miles of ditches which lined the gravel road near their farm.
“The neighbors asked us to keep fencing the ditches because the cows kept the weeds down,” said Matt, who farmed the land his dad purchased in 1914. “My mom lived along the road, and the kids would stop in at Grandma’s for cookies when they herded the cows home for milking. She loved it.”
During the summer months, all seven kids also made time to attend South Dakota Farmers Union camps. They are all recipients of the Torchbearer award, the highest award recognizing youth involvement in South Dakota Farmers Union.
This was the farming environment in which cousins Larry, 56, and Steve, 64, grew up and developed a keen passion for working on the land and raising crops.
Today, the men farm just a half mile apart and share equipment and machinery.
“We are small farmers, so by helping each other we both benefit,” Steve said.
“Because both of our wives have careers, it’s nice to know there is someone just a phone call or text away if we need help – whether it’s one of us breaking down or we need help moving a piece of equipment we are just a phone call or text away.”
A generation earlier, Steve’s dad, Felix and Matt not only shared labor and equipment, but ran a thrashing business together. “You get the work done of three men when two work together well,” says Matt, who also shared labor with neighbor and longtime friend, Marvin Andersen. When Steve was only 6, Felix died in a farm accident.
To learn more about the Birgen family farm, visit http://www.sdfu.org and click on the Celebrating Farm Families icon.
–South Dakota Farmers Union