Walter H. Schwanke began his lifetime of agricultural production and rural leadership in Codington County in 1929. His 53 years of outstanding citizenship earned him the 1982 Eminent Farmer award.
Schwanke farms in Sheridan Township, about 9 miles southeast of Watertown, South Dakota, and, despite his 78 summers, he still maintains and operates an extensive truck gardening and greenhouse setup.
He was born in adjoining Hamlin County in 1904, attended school there, and moved to his new farm just as the stock market crashed. Despite times with little rain and low farm prices did not deter the optimistic young man, and he took a pretty young school teacher, Miss Edna Costar, as his wife despite the calamity around him.
“There was one year that we raised nothing…absolutely nothing,” he remembered. “We didn’t even bother to take the binder to the fields.”
But he and his young family, which by the end of the decade included three sons—Roland, Marvin, and Gerald, survived the “Dirty Thirties” primarily by good management. “We didn’t buy what we didn’t need,” he said. “and we didn’t buy what we weren’t sure we could pay for.”
In 1939, when many farmers still were eyeing hybrid corn with some uncertainty, Schwanke started raising it on the farm. He was so successful with it that by 1946 he was raising and marketing his own brand of seed, “Schwanke’s Hybrid Seed Corn.”
This led to Schwanke’s Seed Services, a Watertown store he began in 1947 and operated with the help of Edna for the following 27 years.
He was also an early proponent of water and soil conservation. He began contouring his land and planting extensive shelterbelts in the early 1940’s and became a conservation leader in his county.
He took an early leadership role in the Sheridan Township Fair, and soon his local school district, the Watertown Chamber of Commerce, the Cooperative Extension Service, 4-H, Civil Defense, the South Dakota Experiment Station, and other organizations were benefiting from his public service energies.
In time, he had accumulated 24 years as Clerk of his school district, 18 years on the Civil Defense Advisory Board, and a combined total of 69 years on the Codington County Extension Board and the Soil Conservation Board in addition to his other public service activities.
He remains active in public affairs, and, while the five acres of truck gardening and bedding plants would combine with this to make an active schedule for a man half his age, for Schwanke it represents only a way to keep active with a type of work he enjoys.
When the vegetable-selling season ends in December, it often signals an opportunity to travel. The Schwankes have a motor home, and they use it both for travel and living quarters throughout the South for about two months each winter. They return home in March to prepare for a new season of selling bedding plants and produce.