County: Fall River
Willard Benson, 67, honored in 1977 as Eminent Farmer by the Board of Regents and South Dakota State University, says he finds ranching just as fun as it was when he bought his first 560 acres of ranch and farmland in 1934, “except it’s a bigger and rougher game than it used to be.” But, it’s still the best place to raise kids, he adds.
Benson has been a rancher in the Oral, South Dakota, area since his early 20’s, beginning as a ranch hand, then leasing the ranch he eventually purchased and made headquarters for his present operation. He has a beef cow-feeder calf operation with about 250 cows and an ewe flock of 178; he also raises 105 acres of wheat and oats on his 6,000-acre dryland ranch.
An active 4-H leader for 23 years, Benson has been involved with the Fall River County Fair and the Western Junior Livestock Shows at Rapid City. He has held several offices with the Western Junior Livestock Show and served on the Fall River County Extension Board for the last 26 years, being its chairman for 20. Benson was a member of the Fall River Soil and Water Conservation District board for ten years, and was recognized three years ago as that district’s Soil and Moisture Achievement Contest winner. He has also been active in various farm organizations.
Four-H projects helped to finance the education of all four of the Benson children. One of his son’s 4-H beef, which brought the highest price in South Dakota ten years ago, was used to buy sheep. When the children grew up, the Bensons went out of sheep, but in recent years he has returned to it as an enterprise. Benson’s youngest son and partner got him interested in registered Hereford cows, and they now have a herd of about 30 registered cows in addition to the commercial herd, which is bred to registered bulls. It all began as a 4-H project.
Benson and his wife Lucy have nine grandchildren, many of whom are interested in 4-H. As the Fall River County’s Extension agent Floyd Wiedmeir says, “Benson is genuinely interested in younger people. He’s always been an out-front leader who could be banked on to get people to do the jobs that needed doing. I never saw him doing a job for some 4-H youth because it was Willard’s philosophy that the kids learned by doing it themselves.
Benson has been more conservation minded than most farmers, seeding grass when almost everybody else was plowing up ground for wheat. He has gradually built his livestock herd by expanding his land base instead of plowing up land for feed crops.
Cropland on the Benson place has been sown back to crested wheatgrass and other native pastures. The crops that are planted are done on a rotation plan, and he summer fallows and terraces. So far, about 600 acres of his land has been planted to grass.