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Running a cooperative has been a part of camp curriculum from the beginning since the South Dakota Farmer’s Union began it’s camp programs 90 years ago.

It’s Camp Season! SD Farmer’s Union celebrates 90 years

HURON, S.D. – Rural youth from across South Dakota have been attending South Dakota Farmers Union (SDFU) Camp for 90 years. And although the programming looks a bit different today than it did in 1934, Farmers Union Camp remains relevant because over the years it has evolved to meet the agriculture, cooperative and leadership education needs of South Dakota’s youth.

“Educating rural youth is among the ways we support South Dakota’s family farmers and ranchers,” explained Karla Hofhenke, SDFU Executive Director. “Farm and ranch youth understand agriculture.

Through our camps, we provide them with hands-on leadership training so they are empowered with the skills they need to be ag advocates and future leaders of our state’s No. 1 industry.”

In addition to leadership training, during 2024 Farmers Union camps, rural youth of all backgrounds receive an inside look at agriculture careers and animal science.

“There are a lot of careers within agriculture that are not on a farm or ranch,” said Samantha Olson, SDFU Education Program Specialist. “We will introduce campers to several agriculture professionals so they can learn about day-to-day activities and ask questions.”

Youth will get to learn about ag careers from an agronomist, meat processor, ag journalist and a food scientist. During the State Leadership Camp held in the Black Hills June 9-14, teens will have an opportunity to tour Sturgis Meats, a local meat locker and the home of Sturgis Jerky.

Campers will also delve into veterinary science, exploring the different digestive systems of animals. Youth ages 9 to 12 will have an opportunity to tour a veterinary clinic during the State Youth Camp held near Huron at Camp Byron, July 21-24.

“Learning at camp is much different than learning in a classroom at school – we keep all the activities fun and hands-on,” Olson explained.

woman standing in front of cherry trees at U.S Capitol
Kelcy Schaunaman, 30, is among the thousands of South Dakota youth to attend Farmers Union camps over the last 90 years. Today she works as a senior policy adviser for the administrator of the Farm Service Agency at USDA.

Creating a cooperative business is among the hands-on activities. Together with their camp counselors, youth elect officers and run one of five cooperatives as a team: newspaper, housing, insurance, store and credit union.

“Campers learn about the different roles on a board of directors, but they also learn that even if you are not an elected officer, in a cooperative all members have a voice and a vote,” Olson explained.

Running a cooperative has been a part of camp curriculum since the beginning and it’s where Beresford farmer Larry Birgen first learned about the cooperative business model. “Everyone wanted to be in the Camp Store Co-op because then you got to run the store that sold candy to campers,” said Birgen, who serves as SDFU District 1 Director. A fourth-generation farmer, Birgen recently retired after 24 years serving on the Southeast Farmers Co-op board of directors.

The fifth of seven kids, Birgen said he and all his siblings went to Farmers Union Camp because their parents, Matt and Maureen, were actively involved in Farmers Union.

“Camp ingrained in us from a young age to be a leader,” Birgen said. “I got involved in FFA in high school and became Chapter President and then District Vice President.”

And in 1979, Birgen followed in his older siblings’ footsteps and was awarded the Torchbearer Award. It is the highest award youth can receive in the organization. “I remember it was a big deal. I drove myself to Huron to receive the award at the State Convention.”

In addition to gaining leadership skills and learning about cooperatives and agriculture, since its inception, Farmers Union Camp provides campers with an opportunity to participate in traditional camp activities, like archery, hiking, campfires, dances and talent night. And of course there are the camp traditions like songs.

“I really enjoyed seeing my own children attend camp and have similar experiences – making friends and singing the camp songs as I did,” said Clark farmer Gail Temple.

Temple serves as SDFU District 3 Director. She received the Torchbearer Award in 1983. Her children Jordyn and Jay also received the award.

“Growing up, it was either work on the farm or go to camp,” Temple said. “We always looked forward to Farmers Union Camp. In those days, you could write or call your friends, so camp was also a time to catch up with the friends we made the year before.” and Senior Advisory Councils are made up of youth who plan the theme and activities of Farmers Union State Camps. Today, in addition to these responsibilities, the youth leaders’ role has expanded to include facilitation of all camp activities. Youth also serve as camp counselors.

“Serving as a JAC (Junior Advisory Councilor) was really the first chance I got to work with a team and develop ideas and organize an event and make a plan,” Temple said.

In addition to serving on the state board for Farmers Union and as the president of Clark County Farmers Union, Temple also serves on the Darlington Township Board, St. Paul Church Board and is the Education Director for Clark County Farmers Union.

While Olson develops the day-camp curriculum, education directors help organize the nearly 40 day camps across the state that SDFU youth education interns help lead.

“We are so grateful for our dedicated team of education directors. They are invested and truly care about educating the future,” Olson said. “Education directors know their community, so they volunteer their time to help us set a date, find a location and we collaborate with them to connect local youth with agriculture professionals from their local cooperative or other agriculture businesses.”

Each year more than 600 rural youth attend a Farmers Union Camp. Kelcy Schaunaman, 30, is among the thousands of South Dakota youth to attend Farmers Union camps over the last 90 years.

Growing up, she lived on her family’s fourth-generation crop and livestock farm near Aberdeen. Today, she lives in D.C. where she works as a senior policy adviser for the administrator of the Farm Service Agency at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Farmers Union Camp gave me the building blocks of advocacy,” Schaunaman explained. “As people get further and further removed from the generation who grew up on farms, we need more of us with boots on the ground experience to work to help shape policy. I see every day how the work I do here in D.C. impacts producers like my dad and my uncle on our family farm.”

As a South Dakota State University student, in 2015 Schaunaman traveled with her dad, Kirk, and other South Dakota family farmers to attend a National Farmers Union D.C. Fly-In.

“It was the first time I had been to D.C. During the Fly-In, I realized how exciting D.C. was,” said Schaunaman, who made a connection during the Fly-In that led to an internship working for a North Dakota senator. This internship led Schaunaman to law school.

“In law school I fell in love with agricultural policy,” Schaunaman said. “That is when I knew I wanted to get back to D.C. and work for producers like my dad and uncle because I knew I brought a needed perspective because I grew up on a farm and had seen the day-to-day activities.

All Farmers Union Camp alumni are invited to be the 90th Anniversary Reunion June 13 from 6-8 p.m., with the banquet starting at 6:30 p.m. during State Leadership Camp held in the Black Hills at Storm Mountain Retreat Center. To attend the alumni event, email Samantha Olson at [email protected] or call 605-554-3022.

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