Following in the Family’s Farming Footsteps

Odd Jobs, People
on February 29, 2004

A faded 1952 Western Union telegram is tucked in one of the Dvorak family scrapbooks. Oklahoma Gov. Johnston Murray wired the message to Frank Dvorak:

“Congratulations and best wishes as you prepare to accept that most treasured of FFA awards, the American Farmer Degree. All Oklahoma is proud of you and grateful for the spotlight of friendly publicity.”

A 1977 photograph of Scott Dvorak shaking hands with President Jimmy Carter is pasted in another scrapbook. He received the same treasured FFA degree 25 years after his father.

A 2002 story in the Perry Daily Journal spotlighting Joe Dvorak is glued in another scrapbook. He, too, received the same FFA degree 25 years after his father.

For more than 50 years, an FFA blue and gold corduroy jacket—colors that represent national blue and ripened corn—has been part of the Dvorak family wardrobe in Perry, Okla. (pop. 5,230). The three generations continue to cultivate a love for farming that was planted two generations earlier by Dvoraks who staked claims during the 1893 Cherokee Strip Land Run.

“This is all I’ve ever wanted to do,” says Scott, 47, as he steers a massive four-wheel drive John Deere tractor, churning a red-dirt field to prepare it for wheat planting. He points out a depressed area, a buffalo wallow from more than a century ago.

“I enjoy growing things and being my own boss,” Scott says. As a boy, he knew that farming and ranching would be his full-time profession and FFA laid the groundwork inside and outside the classroom.

Future Farmers of America began in 1928 when 33 farm boys, agriculture leaders and teachers gathered at the Baltimore Hotel in Kansas City, Mo., to form the agricultural education program. Today, there are 461,043 members in 7,308 chapters in every state.

“People usually think of production farming when they think of FFA, but it’s really much bigger,” says Mickie Miller, marketing specialist for the National FFA in Indianapolis. The high school program gives students training in more than 300 careers in the food, fiber, and natural resources industries.

To be eligible for the organization’s highest award—first called the American Farmer Degree and now called the American FFA Degree—a high school graduate must have earned and productively invested $7,500 through a supervised agriculture program. Leadership ability, community involvement, and grades also are considered. Fewer than one-half of 1 percent of FFA members receive the honor, making it even more significant that three generations of the Dvorak family have earned the degree.

Cows and crops

Joe Dvorak, 22, a biosystems engineering major, has always preferred working with crops more than livestock. During high school, he raised wheat, showed Angus heifers at livestock shows, and started a cowherd. He also designed the Web page for the Perry FFA chapter.

When he headed off to college, his brother, Justin, 14, bought his cows. Justin enjoys showing cattle and was the first from his FFA chapter to show longhorns. He also excels at public speaking and parliamentary procedure. Their sister, Alison, 19, also is away at college, majoring in agri-economics.

Frank Dvorak, 71, credits FFA with helping him adjust from a one-room country school to the “big city” high school in Perry in 1945.

“I liked to show cattle and liked the judging contests and field days,” says Frank, who still lives on the family homestead three miles from his son. “Gosh, we got to go to Kansas City and stay in a motel.”

Frank’s talents took center stage at the American Royal livestock show in Kansas City in 1949 where he had a Reserve Grand Champion Berkshire hog. Page after page of blue ribbons and photos from livestock shows fill the family’s FFA scrapbooks.

“FFA has contributed a lot to our country—it teaches us morals and hard work,” Scott says. “I learned public speaking. I learned record-keeping, although I didn’t think much of it at the time,” he says with a laugh.

Scott’s wife, Carol, 48, handles the extensive bookkeeping for her family’s 5,000-acre ranch, along with teaching business technology at Meridian Technology Center in nearby Stillwater (pop. 39,065). The family raises wheat, corn, soybeans, milo, alfalfa, and prairie hay. They also raise 250 head of beef cattle.

A world of change

“In Dad’s day, everything was basically on a sheet of paper with a pen,” Scott marvels. Carol notes that they have a satellite feed so they can monitor grain and livestock prices by computer throughout the day. That high-tech part especially appeals to Justin.

“I take my laptop out to the field and do my cattle records,” the teenager says. “I keep records on feed, minerals, hay, medicine, where we’ve moved the cattle . . .”

The Dvorak farmers have seen a world of changes. When he was 12, Frank worked the land with horses, then graduated to his father’s 1944 John Deere tractor, now a family heirloom. The family grew corn, barley, and oats, and raised beef cattle.

“Dad used lime and commercial fertilizer and raised vetch, a good soil builder,” Frank says. “We milked by hand and raised chickens and sold eggs and fryers. We mixed our own chicken feed. Those were dusty days.”

After the Dust Bowl era, area farmers switched from corn to wheat, which was better suited to Oklahoma’s hot, dry weather. The trend now is from crop specialization back to a more diversified farm, says Scott, who once again is growing corn like his grandfather.

“As time goes by, it takes more land to make a living,” Scott says. “And we’re probably putting in longer hours than Dad did. He had to quit plowing at dark and get home to milk the cows. Dad’s tractor didn’t even have headlights.”

Scott watches as Joe and Justin prepare to swath a field. During long summer workdays, Carol often brings lunch to the field, which is how she caught Scott’s eye in the first place. During high school, he worked for her father, John Steichen, 81, who still farms nearby.

“These guys were so hungry, they’d eat anything,” she says with a laugh. “Dad would hire workers and my sisters and I would help Mom prepare the meals—big meals with meat, potatoes, vegetables, homemade jelly.”

That aspect of working together on the farm hasn’t changed through the decades and that’s something Scott cherishes.

“There aren’t too many professions any longer where you can work with your family,” he says. “Dad liked that, too. When he talks about those days, there’s a spark in his eyes.”

Although all three Dvorak children plan to work in an agriculture-related profession, Justin is most likely to continue farming on the family homestead. He also hopes to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, father, and older brother and earn the American FFA Degree.

For now he’s saving all of his FFA-related awards, programs, ribbons, livestock receipts, and newspaper clippings in a box and will assemble them during his senior year of high school—along with one more magazine article to paste in the Dvoraks’ family scrapbooks.

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