Ellis and Rita Yoder were recognized as the McPherson County 2018 Farm Family of the Year at the 34th Annual Farm Forum held Feb. 28.
“My first thought was I didn’t think we were worthy, but we’re very honored and grateful,” Ellis said.
Ellis represents the fourth generation of Yoders to farm in McPherson County. His great-grandfather bought land between McPherson and Inman around 120 years ago.
“The barn out here was built in 1904 and then they built the house in 1912,” Ellis said.
Ellis said his father was one of the first farmers in the area to use a tractor — a machine his grandfather bought, but would never drive.
“I grew up driving a little Farmall Model M tractor with a three-bottom plow behind it all day in the dirt and the heat,” Ellis recalled.
Ellis intended to help his dad farm after graduating from McPherson College in 1971, but his plan was interrupted.
“I ended up serving in the Air Force because of the draft; the Vietnam War was going on,” Ellis said.
He would serve five years in the Air Force before coming back to Kansas and his family’s farm.
“I’d had enough of being told what to do and I was ready to become an independent, self-employed person,” Ellis said.
Still, his experience as a navigator on a C-130 gave him a love for flying. Ellis joined the Air Force Reserves and then the Air National Guard in Topeka. Later, he became the commander for the 18th Air Refueling Squadron out of McConnell Air Force Base. In 2000, he retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel after serving 22 years.
Rita, who grew up on a farm in Dickinson County, earned a degree in home economics education and
served as county extension home economist in Trego County for three years before transferring to McPherson County for five years.
“(Ellis’) cousin was on the board who hired me, and so she kind of introduced us and here I am,” Rita said.
The Yoders had three sons and Rita was kept busy caring for the children, keeping house, cooking for harvest crews and running farm errands.
“When I got out of the extension, I stayed home with the kids for a while and then I taught preschool in McPherson for 14 years,” Rita said. “Now, I’m retired from that and I sew bags for The Muffin Factory.”
Ellis and Rita also got involved with community organizations like 4-H and they are still active in their church. Ellis also served on The Cedars board for 19 years and is now on his township’s board.
“There is plenty to do and plenty to get involved with,” Rita said.
Not only have the Yoders volunteered their resources to aid local groups; they have also supported humanitarian efforts in other countries.
Ellis has gone on eight trips to Kenya to help build orphanages and is has participated in Growing Hope Globally for the past 11 years. Three churches in the area choose a farming initiative supported by the nonprofit to which they will donate pooled income from farmer’s fields.
“We use some of that resource that we use to grow food here and we help third-world countries and the people there who are hungry feed themselves,” Ellis said. “...We have a field out here just west of our house that is 18 acres. For the last 11 years, the income off of that 18 acres has gone to a project overseas.”
Ellis noted the flexible nature of working in farming allowed him to participate in those global efforts.
“Those of us who grew up on farms, we appreciate the independence of it,” Ellis said.
That is part of the reason why he encourages people to get into farming — and why he is still at it.
“No two years are identical to each other and it’s a challenge,” Ellis said. “That’s what makes life interesting, the challenges.”
In some ways, farming is easier now than it was for those who did it in the past.
“It’s gotten easier physically, that’s for sure,” Ellis said. “...I can ride in the tractor all day. It steers itself; I’ve got air conditioning and can listen to the radio. It’s quite comfortable.”
“Now, we have a tractor with GPS,” Rita laughed. “That would have just blown their minds.”
The Yoders currently grow crops on 1,440 acres. Ellis said he started using no-till techniques about 20 years ago and went completely no-till 15 years ago.
“Since the plow was first brought to this country, soil health has gone downhill,” Ellis said. “I think we’re just now starting to realize what creates good soil and tillage is not part of that process and neither are chemicals.”
Now, he is looking into planting cover crops and adding livestock back to the farm.
“When my dad and his dad were farming, the farms were small and had very diversified livestock,” Ellis said. “...Over the next 50 years, I think farms are going to actually start decreasing in size and will become more diverse. We’re going to go back to livestock and we’re going to go back to the way Mother Nature set up this whole food production system.”
The evolving research around farming practices makes each year different and interesting, Ellis acknowledged.
“I told myself years ago I was going to keep farming until I did everything right,” Ellis said. “So far, the longer I’m in farming, the more I realize I’m doing things wrong, so I don’t know when I’m going to retire.”
Contact Patricia Middleton by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her stories on Twitter at @MiddleSentinel.