"I didn't think I'd
ever have the opportunity to farm," Richard recalls. But then he met
his wife, Mary Ellen. Soon after, some ground came up for rent where
Mary Ellen was raised, so they went back to farm near Lincoln.
Richard worked odd jobs on the side -- driving school buses, working
a lime quarry, helping with road work -- all the while renting a
little more ground every few years.
"I don't know how you
tell when you've made it," Richard chuckles humbly. "But I'm still
at it!" By many standards, Richard has indeed "made it." He and Mary
Ellen enjoy a month each winter as Southern snowbirds, returning
each spring to farm more than 1,200 acres in Logan County, along
with son Larry, who also farms his own acreage. He has the respect
of his son-in-law, Clark Oltmanns, who farms in a separate operation
with wife Dana, a nurse.
Richard has even earned
such trust from three of his landlords that they have him handle
their checking accounts, turning over complete financial and
management decisions to him. He's kept computerized farm records
since 1983, using them to help analyze his farm business.
Efficiency is the name
of the game on the Martin farm, where they base nearly every
decision upon cost of production per bushel. Richard develops
personalized spreadsheets to keep detailed production records,
helping him make better financial decisions.
Saving money is also
the goal when he embarks on a special interest: machinery
innovations. It started at age 11, when he and his dad built a
tractor from scratch. Then he set neighbors abuzz by installing one
of the area's first tractor cabs and radio.
of second column in this article]
In the early 1980s.
Richard came up with an experimental tool bar, which was essentially
the beginning of strip till. His tool bar applied fertilizer in a
strip so that he could come back and plant directly on the strip in
the spring. Today, son Larry markets his own "sweep clean" row
cleaner, which they've developed based on their own strip-till
"It's an efficient way
to farm," Richard says of strip tilling. "Our tax man can't believe
how little fuel we use." Today, Richard lays his success at the feet
of strip till's efficiency and his landlords' good will. Yet it may
well be his ability to roll with the punches -- like going from
pilot to farmer -- that's made him the Master Farmer he is today.
Drive onto Richard
Martin's place and one of the first things you'll see, just off to
the left of the drive, is a long grass airstrip. Orange windsocks
whip in the wind, and tucked inside his machine shed, next to the
tractors, sits a Cessna 172.
Flying has long been a
hobby for the Martins, and even wife Mary Ellen caught the flying
bug, obtaining her license in 1976. Over the years, Richard has
flown for USDA, taking aerial photographs of set-aside ground across
central Illinois. Today he takes young people on their first flight,
through a program called the Young Eagles. The Martins have also
flown themselves all over the country, most recently to this past
fall's Farm Progress Show.