Wallaces Farmer

Iowa Master Farmer Exceptional Service award winner Elwynn Taylor laced weather and climate facts with fun for 40 years as Iowa State University Extension climatologist.

Gil Gullickson, editor of Wallaces Farmer

March 15, 2024

4 Min Read
Elwynn Taylor, with wife Carolyn
EXCEPTIONAL SERVICE: Elwynn Taylor, with wife Carolyn, served Iowa farmers for 40 years as an Extension climatologist. Although he fielded many calls over the years on his radio call-in show, none was as memorable as a question about ball lightning. Gil Gullickson

At a Glance

  • Iowa’s weather offers floods, droughts, blizzards. “Everything that a climatologist loves,” says Elwynn Taylor.
  • Ever heard of ball lightning? Elwynn Taylor has. He and his wife, Carolyn, have seen it.
  • A glacier that covered northern Iowa 14,000 years ago deposited rich soil, which farmers reap the rewards from today.

Elwynn Taylor was fixing a National Weather Service station on a Georgia farm when a famous peanut farmer stopped by to chat.

Meanwhile, panic ensued at the farm’s headquarters.

“They discovered the president of the United States was missing,” Taylor recalls. “They had six, maybe eight, Secret Service agents assigned to guard him. They didn’t know where he was.”

All the while, President Jimmy Carter was safe and sound, visiting with Taylor about the weather station.

That brush with presidential fame was just a precursor of the stellar career that awaited Taylor as Iowa State University Extension climatologist from 1979 to 2019.

“Over the years, I’ve heard many speakers on climate topics, but none better than Elwynn,” says Rod Swoboda, editor emeritus of Wallaces Farmer. “Addressing climate and weather history, trends, implications, and applications — his ability to deliver his message with visuals and a bit of humor is superb.”

For his dedication to Iowa farmers and agriculture, Taylor is receiving the 2024 Iowa Master Farmer Exceptional Service to Agriculture award.

Starting out

Taylor grew up in Utah, where his father was a professor of soil physics at Utah State University. Taylor’s father had an office in the same building as the climatology department.

Related:Devotion to dairy drives these Master Farmers

“I got to know those guys quite well,” he says. “In high school, I worked in the laboratory of the state climatologist.”

Showing a knack for weather as a youth, Taylor built a soil moisture measuring device that he sold to numerous clients.

“After three months, I was being paid more than any university professor because so many people were buying this little product,” Taylor says.

Taylor later attended USU as an undergraduate, racking up five majors and three minors in such subjects as electrical engineering, botany, climatology, soils, chemistry, physics and mathematics. He later obtained a doctorate in ecology from Washington University in St. Louis.

Taylor says he was miserable in his job at the National Weather Service. “My mother also knew I was miserable,” he says.

She was the dean’s assistant at USU. Back then, announcements on open positions were circulated among land-grant universities before being publicly announced.

She tipped her son off about the Iowa State Extension climatologist position. Taylor interviewed for the position, and by the time it was announced, he had already accepted it.

Coming to Iowa

“I was thrilled to come here,” Taylor says. “The weather’s just what I wanted, with lots of variety, lots of extremes. We have blizzards, we have droughts — everything that a climatologist loves.”

Related:Delving into details defines these Iowa Master Farmers

The glacier that deposited rich soil in the northern part of Iowa 14,000 years ago fascinated him. “It brought Minnesota’s [rich] soil down to Iowa. When the glacier melted, it was there for all of us.”

Taylor, wife Carolyn and their two children immediately got a dose of Iowa’s weather extremes.

“I love it now, but I didn’t when we first moved here,” Carolyn says. “We moved from Alabama where it was 85 degrees [F] when we left and minus 5 when we got here. You could walk up to the roof of our house on a snowdrift.”

Taylor quickly settled into his new position, making countless visits and giving myriad talks to Iowa farmers about weather and climate. He also answered questions on a radio call-in program for years.

“It was all volunteer,” Carolyn says. “He had one of the first cellphones at Iowa State, and he’d call in from wherever he was to do his radio show.”

For Taylor, serving as ISU Extension climatologist was a pleasure, he says. “There’s no finer people in this world than Iowa farmers,” he adds.

“He just loved talking to them, loved being on the radio,” Carolyn says. “He dearly loved the farmers.”

Ball lightning: It’s a real thing

Taylor fielded numerous questions on his call-in radio program. None was more memorable than one about ball lightning, which the National Weather Service defines as “a rare and randomly occurring bright ball of light observed flowing or moving through the atmosphere close to the ground.”

Related:Relationships matter for these Master Farmers

“A caller asked if it was real,” recalls the retired Iowa State University Extension climatologist. “I told him it was.”

This triggered more calls from listeners, particularly when Taylor said both he and Carolyn had seen it.

Growing up, Carolyn saw ball lightning sit on a stove in her family’s kitchen. “It sat on the stove for about four seconds; then it snapped,” she says. “My family just sat there and sat there and finally said, ‘OK!’ ”

Taylor saw it as a youth rolling down a hill. “It was the type of hill where if you rode your bicycle, you’d be down in 20 seconds,” he says. “But that ball lightning just slowly came down the hill, and finally fizzled out after two minutes.”

Master at a glance

  • Name: Elwynn Taylor

  • Family: Wife Carolyn Taylor, children James Taylor and Susan Quinton

  • Location: Ames, Iowa

  • Position: Iowa State University Extension climatologist from 1979 to 2019

  • Interesting fact: “My great-grandmother had walked from southeastern Iowa to the state of Utah on foot in 1847 [as part of a Mormon move to Utah],” Taylor says. “She probably got to know a lot about [Iowa] weather!”

Read more about:

Master Farmers

About the Author(s)

Gil Gullickson

editor of Wallaces Farmer, Farm Progress

Gil Gullickson grew up on a farm that he now owns near Langford, S.D., and graduated with an agronomy degree from South Dakota State University. Earlier in his career, he spent 13 years as a Farm Progress editor, covering Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Gullickson is a widely respected and decorated ag journalist, earning the Agricultural Communicators Network writing award for Writer of the Year three times, and winning Story of the Year four times. He is a past winner of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ Food and Agriculture Organization Award for Food Security. He has served as president of both ACN and the North American Agricultural Journalists.

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