Before proposing marriage to girlfriend Sarah Huber at North Dakota Farmers Union camp, Josh Kramer kept his distance.

“He was very different that whole week,” Sarah recalled. “He didn’t want to talk to me, and I thought that was very strange. It was making me more mad than anything.”

Josh went for shock value and he got it, asking Sarah to be his wife in front of nearly 20 other camp counselors at an evening celebration on Aug. 13, 2003.

“I had no idea that was coming,” she said. “He caught me completely off-guard. I was completely shocked.”

“She had been upset with me — thankfully I had a ring to present to her,” Josh joked.

The Kramers, who reside just north of Bismarck, have a long history with Farmers Union camp, having gone since they were third-graders. And the couple has every intention of sending all five of their children. Camp registration has started and can be done online at ndfu.org.

Josh and Sara went from camp newbies to the pinnacle, becoming Torchbearers – NDFU’s most prestigious youth honor. They also participated in the State and National Youth Advisory Committees.

“Farmers Union camp meant a lot to us,” Josh said. “We got to know each other. A lot of those friends that are Torchbearers are great friends of ours today.”

Teaching kids the value of cooperatives is one of the foundational pillars of camp. Campers run a co-op store and even have a financial meeting the final day.

That’s something Josh can be reminded of every time he walks into his office, as he’s the executive vice president and general manager of the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives in Mandan. He’s also editor of North Dakota Living magazine.

“Serving on the co-op store and understanding at an early age why we have co-ops,” Josh said, “the co-op-store model is a good way to teach kids about organizing to get things your consumers want and raising enough equity to do it. It’s a simplistic model, but the fundamentals are the same as any co-op business would run. That’s what drew me to (co-ops).”

The couple watched 11-year-old daughter Sophia go to her first Farmers Union camp last summer, and they’re hoping those leadership roots are planted to grow the same way it did for them years ago. The same goes for Brody, 8, Carter, 5, and twin girls Claire and Olivia, both 11 months old.

“I loved it,” Sophia said. “My favorite thing was probably the camp fire the last day and swimming.”

“Right away, it’s just kind of fun,” Josh said. “But you start to see you’ve developed leadership skills. I utilize them, and I’m sure Sarah does. You use them on sports teams and in schools. They stick with you, and that puts you a step ahead.”

NDFU camp is made up of kids from both urban and rural settings, but the Kramers said they’d like urban parents to better understand that Farmers Union camp isn’t only for those who live on the farm.

“It does have to do with rural America, but it’s not just for kids on the farm,” Sarah said. “It doesn’t matter where you live. Your kids will have fun no matter where they’re coming from. You get to meet kids from all over the state.”

Becoming a well-rounded individual is important, the Kramers said, and camp teaches shy kids to speak up and take charge.

“One of the things I’m most proud of when we were camp counselors was getting the quiet kids who have a hard time fitting in to have a good time,” Josh said. “I think that’s what Farmers Union counselors are good at — bringing everybody out of their shells.”

Finding time to fit camps in when kids hit junior high school can be difficult, as sports camps and other priorities take hold. However, Josh said parents should think about the life lessons and leadership learned from Farmers Union camp and see that education all the way through.

“We’re pretty good at spending top dollar and sending our kids to sports camps,” Josh said. “But sports are going to end at some point in high school or college. There is stuff you learn at Farmers Union camp that you take with you forever.”

– Chris Aarhus, NDFU