An honest love of the land and the seasonal process it takes to raise crops and livestock are what have kept four generations of our honored family on the land in Dawson County.
Our honorees tonight, the Howard and Linda Benjamin family, trace their beginnings to the early 1900s when Harry Benjamin, Howard’s great-grandfather, came to Dawson County. While he later moved his family to territory 60 miles west of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada, Dawson County beckoned his son, Howard.
Howard’s grandfather, also named Howard Benjamin, came back about 1920 to settle northwest of Cozad. His son, Ralph O. Benjamin was born in 1922 and the family put down roots. Howard continued to seek out additional ground, purchasing a half-section in 1934 just across the road from the present Benjamin residence because it had a chunk of bottom ground that even in the dry years could grow enough to feed the livestock.
“My grandfather bought the current place in 1944, sold it to my dad in 1959 and we’ve been here ever since,” noted Benjamin.
Young Howard’s parents, Ralph and Noreen Benjamin, raised Howard and his sister, Kathy, in both Custer and Dawson Counties. After a short stint in Callaway, where they had dairy cattle and chickens, they returned to the Cozad area and lived on what is now the home place.
Howard attended Cozad High School where he was active in sports, including football, wrestling and track. He graduated in 1967 and went on to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he graduated with a business degree in 1971. He was invited to return to the family farm and after a short experience managing a Lincoln chain store, some financing research, and a family discussion on the future direction of the existing business; Howard made the decision to return home.
In the meantime Linda Phillips was growing up in Curtis where her father had the Chevy dealership for many years. After graduating from the then University of Nebraska School of Agriculture High School in 1967, she went to Kearney State College and obtained a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1971. Linda taught in St. Paul, Neb., at their Catholic school for a year, but budget cuts cost her a job and she obtained a position teaching second grade at East Elementary in Cozad the next year.
The couple met through a mutual friend and was married on Aug. 18, 1973. By the time he was married Howard was beginning to set his farming and ranching goals. There were some hogs for a while, too, but notes Howard, “We’ve pretty much been cattle feeders all our lives.”
He began investing in new haying equipment, worked to improve his cattle feeding operation and started to purchase his own land and transition existing family holdings from one generation to the next by incorporating the original family farm. In 1976, Howard’s father, Ralph O. Benjamin, cosigned a $200,000 Federal Land Bank loan to allow him to purchase his first quarter of Platte Valley land.
Along with the livestock and grain, the Benjamins were raising another crop on their farm. Son Ralph was born in 1975 and daughter Jessica followed in 1979.
By this time Linda had left her teaching job and became a full-time partner in the operation. She handles the books and billing and is the all-around go-pher.
She also took on responsibilities as a 4-H leader; working with the Knight Riders 4-H Club throughout the years her children were members. Riding seems to be in the Benjamin blood as both Ralph and Jessica earned their share of ribbons and trophies at 4-H and other riding events and Ralph went on to do high school rodeo as well.
“Horses were a common source of entertainment for my brother and I. Most winters were spent riding bareback through the snowdrifts. Several good wrecks occurred when we raced our horses,” recalls Jessica. “Colonel vs. Sunny usually ended with Sunny lowering his head at full speed and abruptly stopping, sending Ralph flying over his withers. Ralph never got hurt, he was too tough to get hurt.”
The Benjamin youngsters were active participants in the family farming operation as well, helping work cattle, ride pastures and irrigate.
Life was never dull on the Benjamin place and one of Jessica’s fondest memories revolves around a rather unfortunate skunk. “My mother loves cats and it is common at our house to have a litter of kittens by the back doorstep. Dad was gone for a few days to buy cattle and our dog alerted us that there was a problem outside. A skunk had discovered my mother’s baby kittens. Mom grabbed the old .410 shotgun and marched outside in the freezing cold in nothing but her nightgown and bare feet. I watched as the skunk ran for the darkness and as mom raised the gun. Boom, dead skunk. Dead skunk all over the back porch. It smelled for weeks!”
In 1983 Howard was honored by the Cozad Jaycees as their Outstanding Young Farmer. His application reflects the attention to caring for the land as he outlined the soil and water conservation practices he had adopted in his operation.
Already in 1983 he had adopted ridge-till practices to conserve soil moisture and reduce erosion. In 1981 he began working with a Hiniker Computer Facts metering system for his anhydrous and herbicide application and employed an agronomist to scout his fields and take soil moisture readings on a weekly basis to aid in irrigation scheduling.
The family erected their first center pivot in 1979 and has continued to work toward improved irrigation efficiency through installation of underground pipe, grassed waterways and turn rows. In 1982 Howard signed all his electric wells up for load control through Dawson Public Power District, a practice he continues today.
Even 30 years ago it was evident that water conservation was going to be a key issue. He noted in the Young Farmer application, “Nebraska’s irrigated farming industry depends on conservation steps we take now to prepare for a water resource regulated future.”
Over a five-year period in the late 1970s Howard and Linda planted more than 1,000 cedar and pine trees to serve as living snow fences and windbreaks, replacing dying cottonwoods.
They installed two miles of underground pipeline and set new tanks to aid in grazing dispersion and cut down on the distance to water from any point in the pastures. Pasture dams reduce runoff and serve as additional water storage.
As the next generation was growing up on the farm, it was evident son Ralph was taking more and more interest in the family operation. He graduated from Cozad High School in 1994 and went to Chadron State College. But after two years he was back for good.
He and his father have divided the operation to maximize their talents. Howard runs the commercial feedlot, which is permitted for 4,500 head, and Ralph manages the cow-calf herd that consists of 422 head.
A big chunk of time each year is spent backgrounding not only their own calves, but also many more for customers at Darr Feedlot, Inc., of which Howard is a part-owner.
In addition, with the help of three full-time and two part-time employees, the Benjamins now have 2,500 acres of tillable ground. Of these 600 are alfalfa and grass hay, the rest are devoted to corn and soybeans in rotation.
To run their cow-calf herd they have 6,000 acres of pasture.
“It took a lifetime, but we finally have it all in one place,” notes Howard. “All of the tilled ground and the pasture are within a nine-mile radius.”
While the Benjamins devote the bulk of their time to running their farming and cattle operations, both have been active in the Cozad and Dawson County communities.
From 1995 to 2009 Linda served as a Dawson County Commissioner. Recently her primary focus has been the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) program, serving as an advocate for children caught up in the court system.
She has been on the Foster Care Review Board for 17 years and in January was appointed to the Cozad Community Hospital Board. She serves on the South Central Development Board and numerous other advisory boards.
Howard is a member of the Dawson County, Nebraska and National Cattlemen’s Associations, is a past director and president of the Dawson County Corn Grower’s, and has participated in the Cozad Area Arts Council, Gothenburg Water Users Association and Cozad Elks Club.
The Benjamins are long-time members of the Cozad Chamber of Commerce and Linda has served on the board, the Ag Committee and also the Cozad Development Corporation.
Their children continue to pursue their vocations and hobbies as well.
For the past six years Ralph has had a team of Belgian horses. They have appeared in the Cozad Hay Days parade and been used at various church events.
Ralph and his wife, Brenda, have a blended family and are the parents of five children: Colton, Braden, Brandon, Joel and Carlie.
Daughter Jessica teaches at Creighton University in Omaha where she is an adjunct assistant professor and Lied Art Gallery Director. She has taught graphic design and has investigated 3-D printing technologies for journalism, media and computing.
She has her own art studio in the Benson area and her artwork focuses on water usage in the Great Plains area, a regional concern related to phenomenon of global drought. Through her research, she has discovered many structural similarities between jackstones, water and ethanol molecules, and water pumps and faucets.
Jess was recently an Artist in Residence at the Cedar Point Research Station at Lake McConaughy and currently has an exhibit at the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney.
She and her partner, Amy Wendling, are the parents of a daughter, Bailey Rae.
As he filled out his Young Farmer application in 1983, Howard outlined his philosophies regarding faith, family, and his industry, ones that still hold true today. “We must look at the positive things we have, push our industry, and be good stewards of the things we have been given. The system will work.”
The Howard and Linda Benjamin family of Cozad were honored by the Cozad Area Chamber of Commerce Tuesday night as the 2014 Farm Family of the Year. Family members include, (front row from left) Colton, Braden, Noreen and Brenda Benjamin and Carlie Burkholder. (Back row) Amy Wendling, Jessica Benjamin holding Bailey Rae Benjamin, Linda, Howard and Ralph Benjamin, Brandon and Joel Burkholder.