Ellis Yoder spent a career in the U.S. Air Force soaring through the skies, but the ground of his family’s 120-year-old farm southwest of McPherson, Kan., always called him home.
That deep and abiding respect for the land, for family and for the community is why Ellis Yoder and his wife, Rita, are one of the six Kansas Master Farmer and Farm Homemaker couples to be recognized this year.
In 1971 Ellis joined the U.S. Air Force rather than wait to be drafted into the U.S. Army. He spent his six years in the Air Force and 22 years in the Kansas Air National Guard flying as a navigator around the world in cargo planes, satellite recovery planes and KC-135 air refueling tankers. While he was serving through the 1980s and 1990s, he was also growing his farming operation back home, buying or renting pieces of ground a little at a time.
In 1990, when his KANG unit was activated for Desert Storm, Ellis’ first thought was the farm.
“I arranged for the neighbors to take care of the farm to the next spring,” Ellis says. “And they were ready to plant the spring crops when the war ended quite quickly, and I was able to come home in March, and able to get my milo and my soybeans in.”
You might not think there’s a lot of similarity between farming and service in the Air Force, but Ellis says his time as a squadron commander taught him a lot about leadership that he uses on the farm and in his community service today.
“You have a mission to accomplish, and you’re working with a lot of other people and you need to work together,” Ellis says. “Someone who is completely an individual and wants to do things his or her own way is not a good leader. You can’t just give out orders; you need to make the people you work with want to go to work with you —and that takes more than just barking out orders.”
Service to others
In 1985, Rita Lauer was working as the McPherson County Extension home economist when she met Ellis, and the two fell in love and started their lives together. Rita came from a farming family in nearby Dickinson County with its own history in the land. From the start, the couple knew they wanted to raise the fifth generation of Yoders on the homestead southwest of McPherson.
Rita stayed home to raise their three boys: Bradley, Kevin and Lane. But she continued to serve her community through the Monitor Church of the Brethren, volunteering in the school classroom, and serving as the Country Cousins 4-H Club foods project leader — among a list of activities. In 2000, she started teaching at the Good Beginnings Preschool in McPherson and did so for 14 years.
“I really liked working with others, and serving others is my calling,” Rita says. It’s a calling she shares with Ellis.
Ellis’ travels during his service exposed him to many cultures and ideas, and he and Rita wanted to give their sons that same exposure. That’s why the couple chose to become involved with the Growing Hope Globally organization.
“It’s an organization that helps farmers in other countries establish their own farms, and grow and become self-sustaining in their own lives, and grow their own food,” Ellis says.
Grounded and looking ahead
“I grew up with the plow, and my brother and I would spend days pulling a plow, turning the soil over. And we did it because that’s the way my dad did it,” Ellis says. “It wasn’t until I was older that I got tired of watching the wind blow the soil away and the water washing it down the creek. I realized it wasn’t a sustainable way to farm.”
Ellis and Rita have spent the last 30 years incorporating no-till and regenerative agriculture practices into the farming operation.
“I moved to stubble mulch farming, and it didn’t solve the problem — but it helped,” Ellis says. Today, he adheres to soil health practices that help him mimic Mother Nature. Along with no-till, he also uses a mix of winter cover crops in his rotations with wheat, sorghum and soybeans.
Ellis looks at his rotation not only for the crop yields he can take to town, but also for the residue each crop leaves that can improve the soil health. Soon the family will also incorporate livestock grazing to increase soil health.
“I see a lot less soil erosion, for one thing,” Ellis says. But there’s a lot more work to be done. Their son Kevin recently decided to return to the farm with his wife and daughter, and he will continue the work to rejuvenate the farm’s soils.
“I’m looking down the road 50 years, when my son is my age,” Ellis says. The goal is to have healthier soils so that their grandchildren will be able to continue the family’s ties to the land and the community.
Rita says Ellis’ parents’ favorite verse from the Bible was Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Walking humbly and using their talents for the land and for the benefits of their family and their community is the couple’s way to make the world a better place in which to live.
Master Farmer extras
Advice from family: Ellis Yoder’s parents’ favorite verse from the Bible was Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Family history: When Ellis and Rita Yoder got word they’d been selected in 2020, they realized that Rita’s parents, Keith and Nadine Lauer, had been named Master Farmer and Master Farm Homemaker in 1990; and her grandparents Clarence and Alma Lauer had been selected in 1960 — each one exactly 30 years apart.
Be sure to read about each of the members of the new class of Kansas Master Farmers and Master Farm Homemakers here:
Kevin and Vera Schultz story: Cattle, service to others is Schultz family brand
Kevin and Vera Schultz photo album: Faith, family and Herefords is Schultz brand