Kansas Master Farmer and Master Farm Homemaker Howard and Lori Elliott’s story begins with a chance work-study assignment back in 1979, at what was then known as the North Central Area Vo-Tech School, in Beloit, Kan.
Lori was the only female in the production ag class, which also included Howard. By chance, the two wound up working for a nearby hog farm for work-study.
“We worked for brothers near Beloit — Howard in the nursery, and me in the farrowing house,” she says. “We rode to work together, so we saw each other’s true colors, you could say.”
“That first day we went to class, I noticed this cute red-headed girl over there,” Howard says. “When we got our work assignments, by the grace of God we got paired up to work for these brothers.” Their friendship that started on drives to work grew into love, and then the two married in 1980.
And so a chance work-study pairing turned into more than 40 years of a commitment that’s resulted in three children, five grandchildren and the continued success of a farming operation that will celebrate its 120th anniversary this year.
From the beginning, Howard and Lori say they put communication at the top of the list for the success of their farm and their growing family. To this day they start out each day with a group meeting to go over the day’s duties and who should handle them. Whether that’s around the dining room table during spring calving season, or at the farm shop during corn and soybean planting, or fall harvest, that start of the day is important to keeping the family and the farm running smoothly, they say.
The Elliotts farm with two of their three children: Son Mathew and his wife, Amy; and daughter Teresa and her husband, Levi Manche. Mathew and Levi farm full time, while Amy is a clinical lab scientist at the nearby Hiawatha Community Hospital and Teresa works for Frontier Farm Credit, Lori explains. The Elliotts’ youngest daughter, Sara, teaches eighth grade algebra at Fort Riley Middle School.
The Elliotts have a diversified farming operation that includes no-till corn and soybeans; a 160,000-bushel on-farm storage grain facility, with a continuous flow grain dryer, and a herd of 50 crossbred spring-calving cows bred to Angus bulls. So, each day brings plenty of work to be done, but Howard and Lori emphasize that making time for their adult children to spend time with their young families, to go home and have supper with them in the evening, is something they both wanted for the next generation that they may not have had when they started out as a young farm couple in the 1980s. Howard says it’s also important to the future of the farm that they make time for Mathew and Levi to participate in farm organizations to bring education and experience back to the farm.
Divide and conquer
Like any great farm couple, the Elliotts learned from the beginning to lean on the other’s special skills. For Howard, it’s working the fields. The family took on more acres to accommodate the next generation returning to farm, so Mathew and Levi do the bulk of planting and harvesting; but Howard still plants and harvests quite a few acres. And he still handles all of the spray application work on the farm.
“It lets me get over every acre and see if we have any troubles,” he says. Howard also works tirelessly to continue the farm’s strong soil and water conservation heritage.
“Terraces and waterways were built on all of our crop ground; and in the late ’70s my dad built some of the first tile outlet terraces, allowing us to be able to eliminate some of our grass waterways,” he says. Today they use no-till and minimum till, along with variable-rate application and grid sampling to help them better steward the land.
Back when the couple was still farming with Howard’s father, Lori was tapped to learn how to operate the family’s 160,000 bushels of on-farm storage and the continuous-flow grain dryer.
“Through the years, I learned how to dry the grain and put it in our bins, and I’m passing that on to Mathew,” she says. “I can stand in there and hear when things aren’t running quite right.”
“Drying the grain is critical,” Howard says. “We don’t take it for granted. We’re not worried about it, because she’s there and can know when something is going wrong, while we’re focused on doing our jobs in the field.” Sure, they have software and technology now that allows them to monitor the grain dryer from their smartphones in the field, but it’s still nice to have someone there on-site, he adds.
Lori also loves to work with the family cow herd — especially the calves — and is passing that love on to their grandchildren who have started their 4-H cattle showing careers.
The next generation
Howard and Lori credit 4-H and FFA as setting not only themselves, but also their children, on a solid path in farming and in service to their community. When their children were members, the couple invested many hours with the program.
“Lori took her turn as club leader,” Howard says. “I think 4-H is one of the most wonderful things; it just helps kids grow.” Both Howard and Lori credit their experience speaking before groups and leading meetings with helping them in their adult lives, volunteering on local boards for the co-op, watershed and hospital, to name a few.
Now they’re helping their grandchildren start on that same path. From picking out show calves from the family herd, to helping with woodworking projects and more, they mentor and guide as much as they can.
During the pandemic, that also included Lori stepping up to help school their grandchildren when the school had to turn to virtual learning.
“I set up a schoolroom down at the farm, because that’s where we had stronger Wi-Fi, and I could do other farm chores,” she says. “Later, when things eased a little bit, the class came out to the farm for a tour and the teacher was shocked to see that, no, that wasn’t a picture Zoom background — it really was a spray rig that she’d been looking at all semester.” The setup worked out really well — until, that is, her son or son-in-law would come looking for her to help move equipment or drive a truck.
“I told them, ‘We have recess in 15 minutes. You’ll have to wait until then,’” she says with a grin.
Luck and perseverance
Howard and Lori’s story might have started out with a chance school assignment, but it’s been perseverance and reliance on each other that’s helped them weather the challenges of farming and raising a family together, as a team.
“There were lean years, and short and tough years,” Howard says. “My grandpa made it through the Depression, and his whole theory in life was, just work harder. You work hard, you’ll get through it.” But if you’re especially lucky, you’ll do it with someone beside you who makes the load a little lighter.
Master Farmer extras
Advice from family: Howard says his father’s advice to keep working and focusing on the end goal is something he hopes to pass on to their children. “Keep focused on what needs to happen to keep things going, because we all know that not every year is good, not every day is good,” he says. “Things come in cycles. But if you keep your head focused and working at it, you’ll be OK.”
Family history: The Elliott farm sits less than an eighth of a mile from a branch of the Oregon Trail that crossed the river at St. Joseph, Mo. In one of their pastures is a natural spring that was a stopping point for travelers to rest and water their horses.
Be sure to read about each of the members of the new class of Kansas Master Farmers and Farm Homemakers here:
Ellis and Rita Yoder: Yoders grounded in respect for land, community
Yoder photo album: Yoder family emphasizes family legacy, farm improvements
John and Sharon Hendricks: Providing opportunities for next generation to grow
Hendricks photo album: Kansas Master Farmer couple finds joy in the land