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Richard Martin: Farming on more than a wing and a prayer       Send a link to a friend

[MARCH 22, 2005]  When Richard Martin graduated from high school and headed off to Lincoln College, the plan was to be an airline pilot. His dad was a road commissioner, so there was no ready-made farm situation, plus he already had a private pilot's license. Before long, he got his commercial, instrument and multiengine ratings.

"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.

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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 experiences.

"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.

[News release]

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