Written by Jerry McDowell
Wednesday, 23 October 2013 00:00
EUREKA - Mike Sager, former Woodford Count agricultural adviser, is shown in his home on South Main St. The photo at his left is him at age 18 when he entered the Army. The two tables in front of him he built in his work working shop for donation to charities. The wood chain on the table at right he carved from a white pine limb. Photo by Jerry McDowell.
EUREKA - Mike Sager knows more about farming than most anyone in the country.
Retired for 23 years as Woodford County’s senior agricultural adviser, he lives in a tidy red brick ranch home across from the BP station on Rt. 117 with his wife of 62 years, Genevia. From the living room windows of his 2-acre wooded lot he can peer down at the busy Lakeview Shopping Center. Large windows off the back kitchen give a view of his wood shop and occasional wild turkeys.
He feels lucky to have come to Eureka six decades ago on a cold January night as one of five candidates to interview for the job of assistant farm adviser. A degree with high honors at the University of Illinois might have made the difference in his hiring.
Sager was assistant adviser for three years, then took a job as Clay County farm adviser for three years, returning to Woodford in 1957 to begin his 33-year tenure here.
During that time he received 15 awards and honors, including the USDA Superior Service Award in 1974, and in 1986 the Rotarian of the Year Award from Rotary International District 649. Sager created the Weekly Visit news column in 1954 that still exists today, wrote three guest editorials for Prairie Farmer about the soil erosion problem, and has traveled to Peru, Panama, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and the USSR on various farming missions.
While he feels lucky to have come to Woodford County, central Illinois has benefited more to have his contributions.
“This is a special place Jerry,” Sager said. “A lot of people don’t realize it. I call myself Willie. I’d say, ‘Willie, if you think this is a special place, what makes it special?’ I can think of about three big things: the fertile black soil; the very high level of religion in this area. They’re good people. Number three, Eureka College. There’s no doubt that Eureka College has a very salutary effect upon this community.”
He continued, “As far as the farmers are concerned, for reasons that I don’t fully understand – I think it’s related to religion – the farmers have an uncanny ability to work together for a common goal.”
Sager cited examples of farmers working together to form elevator cooperatives.• “They not only work together to build elevators, they work together to do charitable things.”
Sager, who turned 87 in September, was born in a log house built by his great grandfather, the sixth of seven children. He grew up in the northeast part of Jefferson County 16 to 18 miles from Mt. Vernon. During the Depression years, his world was limited to school, church and the general store.
“When I was 10 years old, I didn’t get to Mt. Vernon or Salem more than once or twice a year,” Sager said. As a boy he helped in the fields plowing behind a team of horses with a mold board plow. To this day, he appreciates looking at horses, but that’s as far as it goes.
Sager also plowed with a pair of mules – Tom and Frank – which he said are many times more intelligent than horses. He recalled with amusement that when 11:30 a.m. came it was time for lunch. If his father was within sight in the field, Tom and Frank were willing to make one more pass in the field. If he wasn’t, they refused.
There were no school buses to take Sager to high school, so he hitched a ride with his brother-in-law after getting up at 4:45 and walking a half mile to meet his car. Farm kids arrived early, so in the winter they had to find warmth in restaurants or grocery stores until school opened.
At the end of the day his brother-in-law would pick him up to go home.
Whenever it rained and the roads were muddy, Sager had to walk a mile to meet his ride.
“But as I look back on that in retrospect, I never heard the word dropout or quit,” he said. “My mother was determined that we get our education.”
Upon graduation, he went in the Army. Since World War II was over, he was assigned to general headquarters taking care of officers’ records. That job allowed him to meet “the heroes of World War II, the officers who had overseen the battles- a fine bunch of men,” he said.
Sager then went to Centralia Junior College, graduating in 1949, and the U of I, where he graduated with high honors in 1951.
From 1975 to 1986, Sager traveled with teams or alone to Peru five times, to Ecuador, Panama, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and the Soviet Union helping with soybean production.
Some misconceptions linger as to the trips he took during those years, with farmers believing he went to Brazil or Argentina to help commercial farmers grow beans.
“Our project was humanitarian to get people to grow beans for direct human consumption,” Sager said. “Still, within the last two or three years I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Mike, I’ve got a bone to pick with you. You went down to Brazil and Argentina to teach them to grow beans to compete with us.’
“I said you’ve been listening to too much coffee shop talk. I said I’ve never ever set foot in either Argentina or Brazil. Our trips were humanitarian.”
In his detailed resume, Sager says that his “major contribution has been an aggressive and ongoing Extension educational program to teach the serious consequences of soil erosion.”
Working with local farmers and colleagues in the ASCS and SCS, he began in 1961 the effort to demonstrate the benefits of conservation tillage.
By 1982, 88 percent of the tillable land in Woodford County was under a form of conservation tillage and the county’s program was recognized in the state and nationally as a model of education to achieve soil conservation goals.
“We used to have ditches filled with good black soil,” Sager said.
The USDA award in 1974 was for, “leadership and effective pioneering of ‘Conservation Tillage,’ a new revolutionary and urgently needed farming practice, which reduces energy requirements and soil loss while improving agricultural income and environmental quality.”
Sager also organized the Woodford County Pork Producers Association; the Woodford County Beef Improvement Association, helped organize the Illinois Valley Lamb and Wool Producers Association, and worked with local leaders and encouraged development of four grain marketing cooperatives.
He is an enthusiastic supporter of genetically modified seeds.
“Everybody’s knocking these genetically modified seeds,” Sager said.” “They’re nuts, absolutely nuts. Without them, there could be no progression. You’d be stuck in the old way. You’d still be farming the way the farm was that I grew up on.”
When Sager came to Woodford County, the average corn yield was 50 to 60 bushels. Twice in the last 10 years, the county averaged the top yield in the state at 207 and 206 bushels.
“If we still produced corn at the level we did then, our population would not be 320 million, food would not be cheap, we would not have progressed as a nation the way we have,” Sager said.
Sager often disappears to his woodworking shop behind his home to work on small tables that he builds for relatives or to donate to charities.
An accident seven or eight years ago in his shop caused him to lose three fingers on his left hand.
“Foolishly, I was ripping a board and apparently not paying attention,” he said. His fingers got up to the saw and his wedding right caught on the blade. That finger was cut off and the two fingers next two it were cut at the joint.
His wife Genevia was at church, so he drove himself to the hospital and was sent on to Peoria for surgery.
“I told the doctors to just take the other two fingers off because I knew they’d be stiff, he said. “I get along just fine.”
Within a couple weeks he was healed up and back in his woodworking shop.
Working with wood has been a passion for many years. He has link chains he hand carved from white pine limbs that he picked up from the 4-H camp. One he carved in 1979 and the other in 1980.
“You just start at the butt and keep working on it until you run out of limb,” Sager said. “I always say there’s a chain inside that limb and all you have to do is set it free.”
He said the smaller links take him about 10 minutes per link, while the larger links take about 30 minutes each. Sager picked up the hobby again last winter and could carve the links, but not as refined, he said. He made 16 feet of wooden chains.
He and Genieva raised four children, Brian, Deborah, David and Elizabeth.
While he had a four-way bypass in 1998, skin cancer, and prostate cancer, Sager said he is “doing fine, but his hearing is getting away from him.”
Sager makes three points on his resume, describing himself as a people oriented person:
• That the human endeavor is of no value unless in some way, at some time at some place, it improves upon the human condition.
• He establishes a goal of excellence in everything he does.
• His greatest joy is to work with people and to see them put University of Illinois research information to work for the improvement of their lives. His professional career has been directed to this objective.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 October 2013 14:31