Ask Matt Gunderson why he devotes as much time as he does to agriculture education, literacy including 4-H, the answer is simple; he does it to give back to the programs that shaped who he is today and to pay it forward as a gift for those individuals to have participate in the same programs that gave him opportunities he never imagined. He lives his life by a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” He wants to see youth, urban and rural alike see their dreams fulfilled while creating a bright future for them in the process.
Matt Gunderson’s passion for agriculture, livestock and education started at a young age. He grew up on a farm near Yankton, South Dakota and the WNAX Radio Towers, one of the tallest AM Radio Towers in North America. Agriculture programming is still front and center today at the radio station. He started helping on the farm at age four (4) where his father was raising purebred Suffolk sheep. Between the ages of four (4) and five (5) he was driving a tractor and raising his pregnant mother up and down in the loader so she could paint the house. When the neighbors asked her why he was doing it, her response was he was better at the loader controls than her husband.
His passion for 4-H and the youth livestock show world started at an early age. Matt started at age seven (7) as a Cloverbud in the local Yankton County 4-H program as a member of the Mission Hill Hillers 4-H Club. The Club was very traditional from the standpoint of it was an all boy club. The club members and he voted several years later to add girls, a great decision allowing the club to thrive yet today. He exhibited purebred Suffolk sheep during the early years of 4-H and participated in livestock judging at the local and state levels. Yankton County was then and still is today one of the toughest sheep counties in the state of South Dakota to show in. Getting a purple ribbon to qualify for state was tougher there than getting a purple ribbon at the state fair.
As he grew, his involvement in 4-H continued to grow; he expanded his showing career to include cattle and poultry in the early 90’s. He also expanded his involvement in 4-H by getting involved in the local Junior Leaders program and his final two years in 4-H helped develop him greatly. He was selected as a South Dakota State 4-H Council Ambassador and also selected as one of four (4) winners to the National 4-H Science and Technology Symposium at the newly created Disney University in Orlando, FL. He and the other delegates learned about Science and Technology bringing it back to South Dakota to teach other 4-H staff and Council Ambassadors for the 1997 State Youth Conference. Matt was asked to Chair that year’s State Youth Conference where 400 youths called South Dakota State University home for a week.
In the early 90’s, his youngest uncle farmed helped run the dairy cattle farm with his maternal grandparents in northeast Nebraska and he broke his leg in a four-wheeler accident in the spring. They had dairy cows due to calve and he took care of the bottle calves. Matt’s parents offered to help bottle calves; soon 10 huts showed up at the farm and they were helping feed the calves.
Matt’s father found an interest in the cattle operation and this started the next chapter of the livestock operation, one that still continues today. The family evolved from feeding bottle dairy calves to keep some of the angus cross heifer replacements and started adding beef cattle while building a feedlot and a vet shed with a calving area. Matt’s height continued to grow and showing sheep was getting more difficult given his height. He transitioned to showing cattle and poultry and his sister who is five (5) years younger showed the sheep. He discovered a real interest in the cattle industry and the breeding that went with it.
The family through contacts discovered Maine-Anjou cattle and were introduced to showing in Maine-Anjou junior shows where he developed relationships that still continue today. He showed mainly breeding heifers in 4-H as those heifers would go back into the herd to become foundational females. They would run around 27 head of cows for several decades until Matt’s father retired last year and they started increasing the herd size to around 35-40 today. He continues to go back to the farm monthly assisting in the cattle operation.
He from middle school on knew he wanted to attend South Dakota State University (SDSU) and major in agriculture. He attended SDSU from 1997-2001 majoring in Animal Science with a Business and Production emphasis and received minors in Agriculture Business and Agriculture Marketing.
Matt thoroughly enjoyed participating in the contests at the Maine-Anjou Junior Nationals in the mid to late 90’s. He was on the national champion quiz bowl team in 1997 and 1998. 1998 found Matt and his father on the planning Committee for that year’s Maine-Anjou Junior Nationals in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Helping plan for that year’s show fueled in interest in learning more about livestock exhibitions. He was charged at age 19 to find the family night out at Junior Nationals for 300 kids and their families. He rented an entire water park in Sioux Falls for all of the show families to enjoy; it was a hit.
That same year, Matt helped get cattle ready for the DeJong Ranch family at the National Western Stock Show in Denver. The super bowl of cattle shows was a great place to view the best cattle in the nation and see more people in a weekend to discuss cattle and cattle genetics than you could in a year. He has sold cattle and embryo’s over the years through Maine-Anjou sales in the yards. He continues to attend the National Western annually to see the best genetics and rekindle the relationships.
1998 continued to serve as pivotal year for fueling the fire of his passion by him getting a job as an Assistant Livestock Superintendent for 4-H at the South Dakota State Fair. He found he really enjoyed learning and helping behind the scenes with penning, shows, facilities, etc. He moved up through the ranks to become the Overall Livestock Superintendent in 2001. His involvement during his years at South Dakota State was extensive as well. He was involved and served in leadership positions in Alpha Gamma Rho, the SDSU Livestock Judging Team, Ag/Bio Prexy Council, Block and Bridle, Little International. The SDSU Little “I” is the largest student run agriculture exposition in the nation, he served as Manager in 2001. Matt founded the SDSU AGR Steer & Heifer Show in 2000, which still continues today. The first year of the show garnered 120 entries.
All of the involvement he had at this point had prepared him for his first professional role. He started in 2002 serving through 2004 as the 4-H Extension Assistant in charge of youth livestock and equine programming for SDSU Extension. He oversaw the 4-H livestock and horse programs statewide including the South Dakota State Fair. While in that role, he helped in the founding of the South Dakota Spotlight, South Dakota’s largest youth livestock shows outside of the State Fair.
During this time period he also serves as the Coach for South Dakota’s 4-H Livestock Judging Team to participate in Louisville in the National 4-H Livestock Judging Contest. He also entered South Dakota’s first time in the National 4-H Livestock Skillathon Contest. His success and professionalism garnered the attention of chair of the National 4-H Livestock Contest Management Committee, Dr. Monty Chappel. Dr. Chappel asked Matt if he would be interested in serving on the National Management Committee helping with both the Livestock Judging and Skillathon Contests. He was honored and humbled to be asked to join such a prestigious group. He accepted and joined the Committee in 2003.
He served as the Superintendent for the National 4-H Livestock Skillathon Contest from 2005 to 2010, Assistant, Associate and Superintendent of the National 4-H Livestock Judging Contest from 2010 to 2016. Starting in 2017 started serving as the Chair of the National 4-H Livestock Contests Committee, which oversees the Livestock Judging, Livestock Skillathon and starting this year, the Livestock Quiz Bowl Contests.
Matt was recruited in the fall of 2004 to serve in an Administrative Faculty position as 4-H Activities and Events Manager with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension (UNCE) in Reno, NV. He loved living in Reno and traveling the state of Nevada working across all aspects of the state’s 4-H programs and taking Nevada’s delegation on 4-H trips. The UNCE staff, 4-H leaders and volunteers across Nevada’s seventeen (17) counties were great to work with.
Matt moved back to the heartland in 2006 to begin working for the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben Foundation. Ak-Sar-Ben, Nebraska spelled backwards is the oldest foundation in the state with a deep, rich history. He began as Vice President primarily working with River City Roundup (the name previous to the Ak-Sar-Ben’s River City Rodeo & Stock Show) overseeing sponsorship fundraising, livestock auction fundraising, logistics and assisted the 4-H stock show and other foundation board activities. He expanded the sponsorship and fundraising efforts across the entire event, and worked to expand the 4-H Stock Show to more states, started the National 4-H Livestock Quiz Bowl Contest and a Livestock Judging Contest that became the largest one day livestock judging contest in the nation with over 500 senior college, junior college sophomore, freshman and 4-H’ers participating at the same time. He expanded the development of the Purple Ribbon Auction into giving out scholarships to the winners and also created a general scholarship program for senior 4-H’ers to apply for. He tightened and enforced the rules of the Show, which several said would reduce numbers; it had the opposite effect. Entry and participation numbers increased because all exhibitors were held to the same standard. He served as Executive Vice President of the Foundation and Executive Director of Ak-Sar-Ben’s River City Rodeo & Stock Show.
Gunderson’s philosophy has always been, if you run a high-quality, well organized event; enforce the rules and create as many opportunities as possible to succeed; people and families will attend and participate. The participation whether they realize it or not builds memories and develop life skills for the youth. Today besides chairing the National 4-H Livestock Contests Committee, he is chairs the Douglas County Fair Advisory Board where he led efforts to revitalize the Fair as the last agricultural education and literacy event left in the Omaha area.
The Douglas County Fair is the first fair in the United States to have a campus style concept where it embodies the tagline of “Where Urban and Rural Meet”. The Fair is held at an outdoor urban shopping center with an amphitheater, donated storefronts and a parade attract audiences. The rural component is held several miles west on an expressway where livestock shows, equine events and interactive agriculture education and displays brings the traditional fair component. Attendees park at a local community college and take free, air-conditioned shuttles to each location. The fair is managed by the Friends of Extension Foundation where he serves as the Immediate Past President. The Foundation supports University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
Matt also serves on the Nebraska Farm Bureau Foundation Board of Directors, which is home to the Nebraska Agriculture in the Classroom program and also this year was the main organization for Disaster Relief efforts due to the March 13th bomb cyclone that hit the state of Nebraska and Great Plains. He also is a member of the Omaha Chamber Agriculture Council and Omaha Agri-Business Board of Directors.
Professionally, he is a Vice President of Farm and Ranch Management for Farmers National Company, which is headquartered in Omaha. Farmers National Company is the nation’s largest farm and ranch management firm also offering a full range of rural landowner services from the largest agricultural real estate firm in the nation to the largest independent processor of oil and gas revenue, a forestry, hunting lease, insurance, ag stock, lake management, appraisal and consultation business lines. He oversees client relations, backend processes, consultations, special projects and business development for farm and ranch management. Matt is married to his wife Mitch and they have one daughter, Maryn. Matt’s parents, Jim and Patty are enjoying retirement and the farm; his sister Jennifer, who is an SDSU graduate and has her Masters in Meat Science from Kansas State is the Research and Development Department of one the leading food companies on the nation.
One of the main reasons that Matt Gunderson is involved in the programs that is he is today is for the next generation. For him, it is in large part to give his daughter as well as the sons and daughters of everyone the same opportunities to learn about agriculture, education and livestock and hopefully have those kids find a sliver of the same passion he has.