American agriculture is unmatched around the world. Yet with this success comes an even greater challenge: Who will replace the half-million farmers and ranchers who plan to retire over the next two decades? Look no further than our next class of America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers. They are among the best of their generation. They embrace the future of agriculture and are developing the technical and managerial skills to build their own successful businesses.
Martin Williams remembers a pivotal day when he was 9 years old. "We were working the ground below our homestead, and my dad put me on the [Versatile] 895 four-wheel drive tractor pulling the disk." His father, Dennis, put the tractor in low gear and jumped off with it going. "I remember how independent I felt. That was the day I knew that I would be a farmer."
Watching his father run the farm as he grew helped form an image of the farm Martin wanted to run after college. "[Dennis] always stressed the importance of education, hard work and loving God. Through every drought and flood he showed me, without even realizing it, what a farmer does," Martin says. "He leaned on God to be the ultimate provider for us all."
Martin, 34, is the fifth generation of his family to work land outside Red Rock, Okla., population 282. He began farming in high school in the late 1990s and returned to the family operation after graduating with an agronomy degree from Oklahoma State University. He also met his soon-to-be wife, Crystal, there. It was 2004. Today, their M&C Farms produces winter wheat, corn, winter canola, grain sorghum, soybeans, winter barley and native-grass hay. The farm is 100% no-till, and Martin runs a commercial Angus-mix cattle operation of more than 100 cow/calf pairs and several dozen stockers.
"I learned some things in college that I wanted to adapt. No-till was one. Variable rate was another," he says. Martin's farm is vastly more diversified than earlier generations. Much of the ground he farms now saw nothing but wheat for 100 years.
M&C Farms (Martin and Crystal) is entirely the Martin Williams' operation. Father and son decided early that Martin would build his own entity, a decision that gave him a range of farming experiences and independence early in his career.
"It gave me early experience in managing my employees, building my financials, and I learned how to produce, to manage a harvest," he says.
Martin's initial farming challenge was finding the land to farm. He purchased one piece of land and looked to rent more. "I ended up taking abandoned or undesirable land people were letting go," Martin remembers. The farming neighborhood soon saw that land became productive again. That changed minds. "I had people calling me. 'Will you rent my land?'â€‰" Martin recalls.
Martin made the move to 100% no-till the year after he was married. He invested in a full line of used, no-till equipment. "I took many side jobs; pushing coal at a power plant, did custom farming, and started a commercial corn, grain sorghum and soybean seed business to pay for it," he says.
He expected the investment would pay dividends. "Being an agronomist, I knew that practicing no-till in the area was a very lucrative option to increase conservation and sustainability on my farms," he says. "It also had the most significant impact on my farm and on my future in agriculture." The results were lower production costs, a diversified income stream and an ability to spread risk among a handful of crops. No-till also opened an avenue of attack on weed problems that had grown over a century of monoculture wheat production.
Martin has gained a reputation for his no-till work. In 2014, Oklahoma State University's (OSU) Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources (DASNR) awarded Martin its Master Agronomist Award. The honor is the most prestigious presented by DASNR. It recognizes individuals who have actively participated in agronomic education efforts and contributed valuable public service through their efforts in the disciplines of soil conservation, range management or crop production.
"He has generously donated land, equipment and his time, energy and effort," says Brian Arnall, OSU Extension precision nutrient management specialist. On one occasion, Martin met with Chinese Extension specialists to discuss his management practices.
The Master Agronomist Award honored Martin for his use of the Oklahoma State-developed GreenSeeker technology on his sprayer, for his soil sampling routine, for the use of variable-rate, nutrient-application technology and for his use of cover crops. GreenSeeker sensors are used to make mid-season nitrogen rate recommendations.
It's for his no-till work, adaptability to a sharp learning curve and willingness to share his experiences with other farmers and researchers, that DTN/The Progressive Farmer names Williams as one of its 2016 America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers honorees.
"Being innovative in his farming practices and becoming one of the foremost leaders in the States with no-till agricultureâ€¦and finding ways to find niche markets, he is a role model to those around him," says Holly Carroll, vice president of field service and leadership development for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau. "He always manages his business in a way to find success."
Ask Martin about an innovation he is proud of, and he comes up with an unexpected answer about oil. This part of Oklahoma is oil country. Visitors will find working rigs planted everywhere among corn and wheat fields. Martin built a direct farming link with a local Conoco Phillips crude oil refinery to help it solve a wastewater-treatment problem. Partnering with a good friend employed by the refinery, he developed a way to use barley straw to inhibit algae growth in wastewater lagoons.
The treatment issue for the oil refinery is this: The refinery releases thousands of gallons of treated water back into the Arkansas River daily. Prior to that release, the water is held in large lagoons where it's tested against the requirements of federal and state quality standards. Algae tends to proliferate in the lagoons. As it respires and reproduces, it causes the pH of the water to rise, sometimes up to 11–a level found in household ammonia. To counter that, the refinery was mixing hydrochloric acid into the water to reduce the pH back to 7, or a level found in distilled water. Through trial and error, Martin and his friend developed a "green" way to use barley straw, an unused by-product of his profitable endeavor, with production costs around only 20% of the total gross sales and a very small time commitment." He now sells 12,000 linear feet of "barley booms" to aid in algae control on the refinery's freshwater lagoons. "Through this innovation, we have been able to expand our farming operation and further invest in equipment and land to help our business grow."
Martin is connected well to his community. He's a past chairman of the board for his local church, Ceres Christian Church. He works with the local food bank and supports the school's backpack program. Crystal hosts "Prairie to Palette" on their farm to engage the community in agriculture.
"We value our community, and the tight bonds that surround us," Martin says. "We strive to be leaders in all that we do." He serves on the Noble County Conservation District, is a past member of the Two River's Cooperative board and has served on the board of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers board. He currently serves on Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin's Council for Workforce and Economic Development.
Father and daughter, Ava, 7, have a mutual fondness for a good song. "Whenever we can gather an audience, and I can take a day off the farm, we love to entertain and sing for groups," he says. They do it all, from country and western to gospel.
Martin names his father, Dennis, as his most important mentor. He can't imagine growing up any other way than on his father's lap or making circles in the field, or being with him as he prepared the equipment for harvest. "Being able to share the good times, and the bad, with my mentor at my side, has been the highlight of my farming career," he says.
Dennis taught him about the value of being a good neighbor. "Anybody can come out here and try to farm. Anyone can learn the agronomics and economics of the farm. But what really has taken time to learn, and that's really important to me, is the way he has treated people. He has been fair and honest in the way he has dealt with people," Martin says. "That has cultivated in me a business sense and a business ethic that your character speaks more of who you are. He is an honest man, well-respected in the community. He puts his faith and his family first."