Havre Daily News
A Big Sandy certified organic farmer last weekend was one of four winners of a prestigious national award given to those who are not only successful farmers but also conservation-minded community leaders.
Thad Willis, who grows a variety of organic products on his 3,800-acre farm, won the National Outstanding Young Farmer award sponsored by the U.S. Jaycees and John Deere.
Willis earned $1,000 and John Deere memorabilia. He and his wife, Melissa, traveled expense-free to the Quad Cities area of Illinois and Iowa, home to John Deere manufacturing, and toured the company's facilities.
U.S. Jaycee spokesman Brad Gemeinhart today said Willis, who was sponsored by the Fort Benton Jaycees, was selected as one of four winners from pool of 21 national finalists. He joined winners from Mississippi, New Mexico and Wisconsin. This was the 50th year the awards were presented.
“You really have to be something to make the four,” Gemeinhart said. “And that's why it's such a big honor and has been for so many years.”
The award honors outstanding agricultural leaders between the ages of 21 and 40, he said.
“(Willis) was selected based on several criteria,” Gemeinhart said. Success in the field of agriculture is important, along with protection of the environment, he said.
“And also his involvement in the community was very important,” he said.
Willis is a Big Sandy school board member and bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Havre, and is involved with the Boy Scouts of America.
Willis had to complete a “huge” application, which was reviewed by a panel of judges consisting of past award winners and “people who know what it takes to be an outstanding leader in the field of agriculture,” Gemeinhart said.
“It's a big compliment,” Willis, 38, said today of the award. “We have the bios for the other 20 applications. All of the applicants were very good.
“It's also good to meet other people and ... see what challenges they're facing. It's not just us that have drought, or sometimes low prices, or things of that nature,” he added.
Willis and his wife rubbed elbows with ag producers from across the country over the weekend. They arrived back in Big Sandy late Sunday night after three days' worth of seminars, conferences and tours.
“It was a nice conference,” Melissa Willis said. “They really worked hard to make it a special weekend.
“I think he deserved (the award),” she added. “He worked hard and he had some pretty stiff competition.”
The couple are raising five children, ages 4 to 17, she said.
The award is not the first time Willis has been honored as an agricultural leader. In 1996 he won a state Farm Bureau competition and traveled to Nashville, Tenn., to compete on the national level.
He and Melissa served as members of the Montana Farm Bureau board, and in 2000 and 2001 the couple served on the American Farm Bureau board.
He was also one of four U.S. farmers to travel to Germany, Belgium and France as part of a fellowship program intended to enhance communication between American and European agricultural producers.
A few years ago, Willis was one of 10 producers selected by the Altria Group, a Philip Morris company, to attend seminars and classes on agricultural advocacy. One assignment of the program was to pick a local agricultural issue and work with leaders and media to stimulate change, Willis said. He chose BNSF Railway grain shipping, which is a concern for many in the Big Sandy area. Willis and state Senate President Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, worked to inform the community about the railroad's lack of service on the branch line extending from Havre to Big Sandy, he said.