Getting out of school was the biggest challenge 4-H member Gary Sharp faced while exhibiting beef and dairy cattle in shows throughout South Dakota and across the nation.
Then one day his school's principal said, "Your time in 4-H and traveling probably gives you a better education than missing two days of school anyway," recalls Sharp, of the story that is among many memories he created throughout his long 4-H career which culminated with serving as South Dakota State 4-H President in 1965.
"I met a lot of people, and to this day I have a lot of friends throughout South Dakota whom I met through 4-H," says Sharp. This includes his wife, Donna, whom he met as a teen attending State 4-H Conference in Brookings. The couple later reconnected during a Collegiate Block and Bridle meeting at South Dakota State University.
Along with education and friends, Sharp says 4-H gave him the drive to get involved - which he has done with gusto.
Sharp presently serves as a South Dakota State Fair Commissioner and was a 4-H leader for 20 years. He is President/Co-founder of Brown County 4-H 4-Ever, Inc., Past President of the Brown County Fair Board, Past Director of the S.D. 4-H Foundation, President of Northern Electric Cooperative, CCD, a past Township supervisor, Director of Avera St. Luke's Hospital Board, President of Associated Milk Producers, Inc., Dist. 91.
He has served as a Director of the National Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board Executive Committee, S.D. Beef Industry Council, S.D. Agricultural & Rural Leadership Advisory Board and Dairymen's Association of South Dakota.
He has also held leadership roles with the S.D. Dairy Promotion Assoc. Dist. 4, First United Methodist Church, S.D. Northern Area Dairy Promoters, Inc., Aberdeen Board of Education, North Central Dairy Herd Improvement, National Milk Producers YC's and S.D. Irrigators Association.
Sharp is a member of S.D. Farmers Union, S.D. Cattlemen's Assoc., Aberdeen Scottish Rite, 32 Degree Mason, Aberdeen Yelduz Shrine, National Dairy Shrine, S.D. & National Holstein Association, Elks Lodge, S.D. Wheat Growers, American Legion and Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity.
In 1997, the Sharp family received the S.D. Outstanding 4-H Family of the Year and in 2002 Sharp was awarded the Northeast South Dakota Agri-business of the year.
When asked how he made time for service while operating a crop and livestock operation near Bath, S.D., he says, "It's called giving back. These organizations, communities and people have been good to me and my wife over the years. This is what we do to repay them."
Although his journey began on his family's farm near Bath, Sharp took a short break from the farm in 1971 when he joined the Air Force after graduating from South Dakota State University with an Animal Science degree.
However, the mindset necessary to succeed as an officer was not a good fit for Sharp. "In the military you're a number - nothing against that, but I grew up with the philosophy that you treat those you work with as people - the way you want to be treated. Even to this day, we make sure that our hired help feel like they are part of our family," Sharp says.
He and Donna returned to farm with his dad, Robert, in 1973. At that time they fed cattle and raised crops. To increase the farm's income, they began milking cows in 1979. The dairy herd remained part of the Sharp farm until this last January when they sold their cows due to labor shortages.
However, Sharp's farm remains diversified. "You have to protect yourself from the cycles and that's what diversification does." Today, he and his two sons, Brian and Bradley, operate a cow/calf herd and they background feeder cattle, as well as raise replacement dairy heifers and do some custom backgrounding of cows. They also raise corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa.
His sons are the fourth generation of Sharps to farm the land, a fact of which Sharp is very proud. "We're proud to have the heritage that goes back to my grandfather's days. This was a good place to raise our children. It gave them all a good work ethic," says Sharp, whose dad, Robert, 86, is still living and was also named Eminent Farmer in 1989. His wife Donna was named Eminent Homemaker in 2006.
Their daughter, Kristin, and her husband operate a business in Aberdeen. "All our children and eight grandchildren reside close to the farm. For us, this farm has provided a lifestyle that Donna and I love."
A point of interest to their family and many of their friends is the fact that all three of the Sharp children were born on May 23 - and no, they are not triplets!
When his sons graduated from SDSU and wanted to return to the farm, Sharp was determined to find ways that the farm could support three families. They increased their cattle herd and secured more farm ground.
"It's tough to make room for the younger generation, but we are committed to making this work," he says.
With both of his sons working full-time on the land, Sharp takes more time away from daily farm operations to serve the many organizations he is actively involved in.
As he looks to the future, he sees a bright one, not only for his farm, but for agriculture throughout South Dakota.
"The future is promising. The only thing holding us back in South Dakota is our weather. The economy is growing, we have great leaders; no matter which party they belong to, we have great leaders. Our state's leaders are aggressive, progressive and working to create a healthy business climate for agriculture," Sharp says.
By Lura Roti for SDSU Colleges of Agriculture & Biological Sciences and Education & Human Sciences