MANSFIELD — An innovative and influential farmer near Mansfield has been named the 2020 News-Gazette Farm Leader.
Ken Dalenberg has traveled the world through his work on international soybean organizations and has been an early adopter for the current wave of precision ag equipment, helping test products and tech for everyone from top manufacturers to California startups.
He’s also helped countless researchers at the University of Illinois, running different trials on the farm he’s expanded since graduating from the UI in the 1970s.
“He’s very serious about what he does,” Former University of Illinois President and dean of its College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences Bob Easter said. “Not only is Ken focused on … his farming operation and how to make it successful, he’s also very supportive of, engaged in and willing to take time to work on issues of importance to the broader agricultural community.”
Dalenberg grew up on a dairy farm in Bond County outside of St. Louis.
“We grew up milking cows and baling hay and doing those sorts of things,” he said.
Like many who study at the University of Illinois, he stuck around.
“I came to the University of Illinois for school and never went home,” Dalenberg said.
As a student, he worked for a soil conservation service and learned “he didn’t like having a boss.”
Farming looked like a better option, and after college, he rented his first piece of land, “which I still have today.”
Over time, he’s grown his farm into a successful business, married his wife, Barb, and raised three kids.
On top of that, he’s helped researchers and innovators by testing the latest ag tech on his farm, and he’s been involved with virtually every local, state, national and international agriculture organization, helping to sell American soybeans around the world.
Dalenberg said he first got involved with the Champaign County Farm Bureau and was mentored by several former Farm Leaders.
By 1980, he was elected to the Land of Lincoln Soybean Association, and over the years, he’s been a national officer for the American Soybean Association and served as a member of the Illinois Soybean Operating Board, the United Soybean Board, the Chicago Federal Reserve advisory board and the Chicago Board of Trade ag advisory committee.
He helped form the United States Soybean Export Council to encourage sales of beans to other parts of the world, which took him on his international trips.
He’s worked on projects with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, served on NASA’s 10-year planning committee for agriculture and helped work on two Farm Bills in Washington, D.C.
Dalenberg said he sees it almost as his duty to share his time and talents with the ag community.
“You have to have an interest in them,” he said. But “part of it is a willingness to give back, to do something to make a difference.”
His colleagues said he played key roles on those boards and was always well prepared and thoughtful.
John Baize, who ran the Washington office of the American Soybean Association and served as a consultant to the U.S. Soybean Export Council, said Dalenberg has been “a good spokesman for the industry.”
“He really cares,” Baize said. “He was a guy that everybody looked to that knew his stuff.”
Baize, who accompanied Dalenberg on some of his international trips, said he became leaders on the various boards because “he was better prepared, more knowledgeable — people knew he was knowledgable. He did the studying necessary to do these things.”
“And quite honestly, he took the time to do some of these trips around the world,” Baize said. “Because that’s not easy if you’re running a farm to take off and go somewhere for a week or two weeks and address these problems.”
Baize, who lives in Virginia, also said Dalenberg avoided the internal politics that can often be present in organizations and earned the respect from farmers around the country.
“He’s a friend, but I admired him. He was very serious, and he stayed out of the politics,” Baize said. “He wanted to say, ‘Let’s do the right thing.’”
1991 Farm Leader John Reifsteck, who first got to know Dalenberg through the Champaign County Farm Bureau, said he has a “great ability to lead.”
“He’s been involved in all of it and a willing participant, stepping up to do the things necessary,” he said. “He has a broad range of experiences where he’s provided leadership.”
“He is accommodating and deliberate,” Reifsteck said. “It’s important to be traditional, but then you’ve got to step out of your comfort areas to do some of these other things, and that means you’re willing to take a little bit of risk, a little bit of effort to learn, and so he’s done that, stepping back and forth between those. Not all farmers are comfortable doing that.”
Reifsteck described him as focused and disciplined, whether that’s in the board room or his front yard.
“The farmstead is always meticulously mowed and taken care of. His fields always look good,” Reifsteck said.
Easter said he got to know Dalenberg through his service on the Crop Sciences department’s advisory board.
He said Dalenberg was focused and would always ask good questions.
“Ken is a scholar of agricultural production … in every dimension: the agronomy, economics, the market, fertility programs, all of those things,” Easter said.
Former head of the Crop Sciences department, Germán Bollero, said he “had a lot of really great conversations about how (Ken) saw the direction of the department.”
Bollero, who is currently the Associate Dean for Research in the College of ACES and who did his own masters research on one of Dalenberg’s fields, said this year’s Farm Leader “has always been a ‘what’s next’ kind of producer.”
Dalenberg has been “very thoughtful, very much engaged in the research questions,” Bollero said. “We need to work with people like Ken and others, to have networks of real producers.… Ken has been wonderful to work with.”
2015 Farm Leader Chris Hausman said he’s always been impressed with Dalenberg.
“He was always a very innovative thinker, and especially when it came to international trade issues and what can help the Illinois soybean producer, Ken was a tremendous asset,” Hausman said.
His colleagues also described him as innovative and an early adopter.
“The other thing that always impressed me about Ken was, he was always on the cutting edge of innovation and was always willing to try and do new things,” Hausman said. “And he was willing to share his experiences. He didn’t keep it to himself.”
He has run trials for UI researchers and tested new technology from startups to large corporations such as John Deere.
“Most of the precision ag stuff that’s on the market today, I probably had my fingers in one way or the other over time,” Dalenberg said. “We had GPS back in the early ’90s. We had auto-steer before auto-steer was a common thing.”
Dalenberg said he had an early interest in computers and enjoys learning new things and working with the different companies.
“I do a lot with startups in California that are working in ag,” he said. “A lot of those people are great data scientists but don’t have the practicality of knowing the agronomics or what’s a farmer’s view or farmer’s needs. It’s kind of fun to work with those groups because they’re brilliant people who do brilliant analytics, but yet, you have to ground them and bring them back to reality.”
Harold Reetz said he’s brought international visitors to Dalenberg’s farm and has known him since college.
When Reetz worked for the Potash & Phosphate Institute, he had test plots on Ken’s land.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with him,” Reetz said. “He was always a good cooperator if we wanted somebody to try new things.”
He said companies like Deere “respected his opinions.”
“Because he was detail oriented. He would tell you what worked and what didn’t and always had good ideas to pass along,” Reetz said. “We depend on those kind of farmers.”
Quentin Rund, who has tested different technologies on Dalenberg’s farm since the ’90s, said he has “always been very exploratory on his new technologies.”
He’s “always wanting to try new things and gives them an honest evaluation,” Rund said. “That’s what Ken does a great job of: just bringing these new technologies home and say, ‘Hey, this is worthwhile. This isn’t.’”
With the Champaign County Farm Bureau, Manager Brad Uken said Dalenberg has been generous in opening his farm to visitors.
“Ken has always been willing to help me when it comes to hosting an event out on the farm, whether that be the the Ag in the Classroom bike ride that the Illinois Farm Bureau had — we made a stop at his farm with a bunch of bike riders — to toolshed meetings at his farm,” Uken said.
Dalenberg, who declined to share his age, said he doesn’t plan to retire any time soon.
“How long do farmers farm? Until it isn’t fun anymore,” he said.
Is Dalenberg still having fun?
“Oh yeah,” he said.