SDFU celebrates local heroes with Rural Dakota Pride Awards

Farm Forum

HURON — South Dakota Farmers Union has recognized five South Dakotans for giving back to their rural communities with the Rural Dakota Pride Award.

“One survives with the other,” said Karla Hofhenke, South Dakota Farmers Union Executive Director, of the integral connection between those who work in South Dakota’s number one industry and their rural communities. “Without thriving communities, it’s difficult to encourage young people to return to their family’s farm or ranch. Rural communities are key to the future of South Dakota’s agriculture industry; which is why we like to recognize those individuals who help them thrive.”

Selected through a nomination process, the 2014 Rural Dakota Pride Award recipients include: Cindy Wilk, Huron; Jeff Kieser, Wessington Springs; Alan Vedvei, Lake Preston; Nick Nemec, Holabird; and John Wheeting, Groton.

Read on to learn how these individuals contribute to their rural communities.

Jeff “Hub” Kieser, Wessington Springs

Jeff Kieser, or “Hub”, as everyone calls him, can trace his Wessington Springs roots back to 1881 when his great-great grandfather, H.H. Kieser settled in the area.

Today, Kieser continues to farm and operate -81 Enterprises Inc., a tractor repair and restoration, welding and fabrication business near Wessington Springs.

Like the land he farms, his connection to his church, United Methodist Church of Wessington Springs, runs deep. “My family on my father’s side has been Methodists since way back before they dug the river,” he says, of his family’s founding membership in the 1903 Viola Township Methodist Church and the three generations of Kiesers who have attended services in Wessington Springs.

For years, Kieser has shown his commitment to his church by serving its membership as a trustee, board and finance chairman and as a founding member and chairman of the Wessington Springs Church Concessions Group. “I’m very interested in supporting my church and community. Without one, you don’t have the other.”

Established in 2003 to support the community’s efforts in launching the annual Foothills Rodeo, the group organizes all eight local churches to serve breakfast and concessions during the rodeo and other community events. “All told, with the rodeo, bull bash and wagon train breakfast, we serve more than 3,000 meals each year. This provides a needed service to our community. The Foothills Rodeo brings a lot of people and money to our town.”

For their efforts, all eight rural churches bring back about $300 to supplement their church’s annual budget. “It may not sound like much, but the truth is, rural churches are suffering financially because of the expanded list of priorities people give to – but that doesn’t lessen the church’s needs.”

In addition to chairing the Wessington Springs Church Concessions Group, Kieser is also chairman of the Charity Cemetery committee, Community Center committee, served on the Wessington Springs 125th Planning Committee, is a member of the Foothills Classic committee and is a member of Farmers Union.

Nick Nemec, Holabird

A fifth-generation Hyde County farmer, Nick Nemec, 55, has always served a community which extends beyond county lines – this being the community of folks involved in South Dakota agriculture.

So, when Storm Atlas devastated western South Dakota ranchers, Nemec and the other volunteer members of the nonprofit, North Central Resource Conservation and Development District (NCRCD) didn’t sit idle. They adopted Heifers for South Dakota, providing them with NCRCD’s 501c3 status so that cattle producers from South Dakota and surrounding states could receive tax benefits for their donations of heifers and funds to help young producers who lost cattle during the storm.

In the end they were able to donate about 1,000 heifers and more than $2 million dollars to ranchers in need.

As president of the organization, Nemec spent countless hours organizing the effort which processed all paperwork related to the effort; he answered questions and drove cross country to help sort cattle. “At one time I was a beginning farmer, and there were years when things were nip and tuck for a while. I know what it is like when things completely out of my control impact my bottom line,” Nemec says. “That’s the thing about farmers and ranchers – it doesn’t matter where we live in the state, we can all relate to each other’s struggles.”

In addition to NCRCD, Nemec has served the greater South Dakota community as a S.D. State Legislator for Dist. 23 (’92-’96), served in the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserves, is a member of the board for St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Highmore, on the Hand County Hospital Board, member of the Highmore Knights of Columbus, Public Utilities Commission Candidate (2004), on the Executive Board of the S.D. Democratic Party, as well as a member of the National Democratic Party Committee.

John Wheeting, Groton

When John Wheeting looks at his family tree, there is a 4-H leader on several branches. “My dad was a 4-H leader, my grandpa was a 4-H leader and my great-grandpa was as well.”

Although Wheeting was never a 4-H leader, he does follow the family tradition by giving back to the organization he credits for inspiring his career in South Dakota’s agriculture industry. For the last 24 years, the District Sales Manager for Producers Hybrids has volunteered as Superintendent of the Open Lamb and Swine shows at the Brown County Fair.

“4-H and FFA exposed me to the off-farm opportunities available within the agriculture industry,” Wheeting, 49, says. “The experiences I had through these organizations also provided me with communication and leadership skills that I use every day.”

When his three daughters were young, Wheeting and his wife, Chris, encouraged them to become involved in 4-H as well. “I think the responsibility they learn through taking care of a livestock project is a great learning experience.”

He adds that the responsibility 4-H involvement instilled in him and his children is not unique to their family – the reason he continues to volunteer even though his daughters are mostly grown. “I see kids in our community that I’ve worked with through 4-H livestock shows, and after they graduate from 4-H, they go off to become successful. Whether they pursue an agriculture career or not, 4-H gives them a strong foundation for success.”

Wheeting also serves his community through active involvement in the Groton Area Chamber of Commerce and holding several leadership positions in St. John’s Lutheran Church. Under his leadership, the church started a Christian preschool. Today, St. John’s PreSchool welcomes about 35 youngsters each fall. “Like 4-H, this is a program that lays a foundation for young kids.”

Cindy Wilk, Huron

Helping women in her community has been Cindy Wilk’s calling for more than 30 years. It began when her mother, Jan Manolis was among a group of women to open a women’s shelter in Huron.

“Domestic violence is something that is very dear to my heart. Before this shelter, there was no place for women to go for help. If they didn’t have help from family or friends, there was nothing – no shelters or no counseling,” explains Wilk, who serves as a volunteer advocate.

Today, thanks to the Jan Manolis Family Safe Center and numerous volunteer advocates, not only do victims and their children (the shelter also helps men who are abused) have a safe place to stay if they are in an abusive situation, but they also have an advocate to help them move forward. “We make sure they are not alone,” Wilk says.

As an advocate she carries a shelter cell phone for two weeks, answering calls from victims and helping them with anything they need. “We are there to let them know we are on their side.”

In addition to her work at the shelter, Wilk also serves as National Director for South Dakota to Miss Rodeo America, is Jr. Miss Rodeo South Dakota Queen Coordinator and is on the Miss Rodeo South Dakota Board. “South Dakota has great cow girls!” Wilk says. “Our daughter was Jr. Miss Rodeo South Dakota in 2006 and she had to do it all on her own. I’m here so other girls don’t have to go it alone.”

Working fulltime with her husband, Red, in the family business, Red Wilk Construction, Wilk says serving her state and community is something she makes time for because it’s important. “It’s important to give back and do what you can,” she says.

Along with the shelter and Miss Rodeo South Dakota, Wilk gives back to many local organizations through her involvement in the following: Salvation Army Advisory board, Spirit of South Dakota Committee, Women’s Expo Committee, Volunteers at Safety City, is a United Way reading volunteer, member of Riverview United Methodist, Beadle County Democrat Women and VFW Auxiliary.

Alan Vedvei, Lake Preston

A third-generation Lake Preston farmer, Alan Vedvei always knew he would return to his hometown after college. “I really like this community. I like its friendliness and, even as a young college student, I felt like the community supported me and gave me opportunities. I thought, ‘what better place to raise a family?'”

Vedvei works to ensure that all Lake Preston youth feel the community’s support through his 15-plus years of service on the Lake Preston Higher Education Board. The board’s fundraising efforts provide scholarships to all Lake Preston High School graduates pursuing post-secondary education.

In 2014, the Foundation gave each graduating senior a $500 scholarship from the funds which have grown to more than $100,000.

“$500 may not sound like much, but I believe these scholarships give the kids a tie to the community of Lake Preston. No matter where they go after high school, they know that their hometown believes in them. I don’t want these kids to forget their roots.”

Vedvei, 56, returned to Lake Preston in 1978 after pursuing a degree in General Agriculture from South Dakota State University and began working for Arnold Wienk, the owner of Wienk Charolais and the man who would eventually become Vedvei’s father-in-law when he and his wife, Deb married. The couple purchased their own farm and began building what would become a 300-head purebred Charolais herd and raising corn, soybeans, small grains and alfalfa 7 miles from Vedvei’s family farm.

Even when their now grown children were young, Vedvei would “shut things off and go take care of off-farm business,” to coach or referee girls’ basketball games; serve as a 4-H Leader or FFA volunteer; or attend a meeting of one of the many boards he serves/has served on including: Kingsbury Conservation District, Conservation Commission, Kingsbury Electric, East River Electric Power Cooperative, Prairie Ag Partners, United Church of Christ Council, Purebred Charolais Breeders of Kingsbury County, South Dakota Charolais Breeders, and the American International Charolais Association.

“Rural communities are limited in the number of people who are able to be involved – that’s why everyone who can needs to be involved.”