FISHER — They may not live on a farm now, but Brad and Paula Zwilling each grew up on farms and hope one day to own their own small livestock operation.
While they're working to make that happen, they are also passionately promoting agriculture through both their paid and volunteer work.
The two are so good at it that the Illinois Farm Bureau named them the 2012 winners of the "Excellence in Agriculture" award.
"We feel extremely privileged. It's a great way to honor the people who have helped us throughout our careers from 4-H and Future Farmers of America advisers to agriculture instructors to our college professors as well as our parents and people in the Farm Bureau," said Brad Zwilling.
The Farm Bureau doesn't release how many applied for the award from across Illinois, but the Zwillings had to fill out a five-page application — this was their second attempt — that included their work, their leadership positions in agriculture and community organizations, and three issues they felt were important for the Farm Bureau to address.
The award, given to Farm Bureau members whose income does not come directly from farming, came with a cash award, an iPad, and the payment of their expenses to the annual state meeting in Chicago, the American Farm Bureau meeting in Nashville and an American Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Rancher Leadership conference in Phoenix.
The 35-year-old Zwillings met as students at the University of Illinois working at the meat science lab. Brad hailed from a small grain and livestock farm near Newton in Jasper County and Paula from a small grain and cattle operation near Mason City in Mason County. They were both majoring in agricultural economics and got their undergraduate degrees in 2000.
Paula worked for seven years at a pork-processing facility in Beardstown as a production supervisor before deciding to stay home with the couple's three boys, Dylan, 8, Caleb, 6, and Nathan, 3. The Zwillings have been married for 10 years.
Brad went on to get a master's degree in agricultural economics in 2002. That same year, he joined Farm Business Farm Management, a nonprofit network of about 6,000 Illinois farmers, as an analyst. An oversimplified explanation of his job is to collect data from farmers, analyze it and help them make informed management decisions regarding cash flow, capital purchases, rental arrangements and income tax preparation.
In August 2008, when Brad's job brought him to Urbana, they decided to settle in Fisher.
"We were concerned about school districts," Paula said of the relocation decision that they had about a month to make. "We heard lots of positive things about Fisher. We looked in different communities, but we found a house we liked (in Fisher). We both grew up in small communities and that's the way we want to raise our kids."
Three boys for Paula and a mountain of data for Brad to wade through daily might seem enough for the average person. But these two have seemingly boundless energy that they have shared with the Farm Bureau, and the community. Oh, and they also frequently travel to their parents' farms on weekends to help with chores.
"When we moved to this area, we both became involved in the Farm Bureau Young Leader program for people 18 to 35. It gave us a connection with people our own age," Paula said.
"We don't live on a farm now, but we wanted to still have a connection to the industry somehow. You can take the girl off the farm, but you can't take the farm out of the girl. It's a way we can educate consumers," she said.
"One of our biggest driving factors is our three boys. They have a desire to know and learn about agriculture. We want to make it part of their lives," Brad said. "We'd like to become owners of a small farm someday."
At the county Farm Bureau level, both Zwillings have served as board members, and on the membership recruitment, young farmer and rancher and livestock auction committees, just to name a few. They joke that their sons often help them chair their numerous meetings.
In the last couple of years, Brad was chairman and treasurer for the young farmer and rancher committee, on the FFA acquaintance day committee, and the area toy show committee and a co-chair of the bureau's anniversary trivia night.
Paula served as chair of the women's committee at the county Farm Bureau, as well as on its rural safety, harvest days and agriculture youth education committees.
In her women's committee position, she helps promote the "learning barn," a big toy box shaped like a barn filled with books, games and puzzles that teachers can have delivered to their classrooms for four to six weeks so students can use the resources to learn how agriculture affects their everyday lives.
She also is involved with a pilot project called the Adopt-A-Farmer program, an idea she massaged from the state Farm Bureau's Adopt-A-Classroom program.
"I thought it would be neat if we had a classroom adopt a farmer to stay connected," she said.
Although the program is in the pilot stages, two third-grade Champaign classrooms have connected with a local farmer by visiting at harvest and staying in touch with the farmer through email and Skype. So far, it's been well received. She's hoping more classrooms will want to hook up with a farmer, a connection she's willing to make for the students.