John Motter, a third-generation farmer in Jenera, Ohio, started farming with his father, Ralph, at an early age. He literally followed in his father’s footsteps. As a 3-year-old walking across a farm field behind his dad, he would put his shoes inside his dad’s footprints.
He also started farming by himself at the early age of 25, after he lost his father to a farm accident. “There is nothing that changes farming more than the loss of the main force of the farming operation,” Motter says. “The manner in which decisions are made is completely changed.”
He had to find his way, and all the decisions were now on Motter. “During this most tragic time, it was difficult to be a manager,” he says. “That’s a lot to take on as a young man. Neighbors and those in the coffee shop were betting against me.”
Motter proved them wrong and was named an Ohio Master Farmer on March 5 in Ada, at the Ohio Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference.
The onetime farrow-to-finish hog operation, which also included cattle, is now focused on 800 acres of corn and soybeans using rotational no-till on mostly clay ground. Grass waterways help keep nutrients in place, and a fertilizer containment system makes sure the environment is protected.
Nominator Gary Wilson of Hancock County, a retired Ohio State University Extension ag educator, describes a Master Farmer as a conservationist who keeps up with technology to figure out ways to be successful, while also being a leader willing to help others succeed.
“Farming is one of those occupations where you never know what next year is going to bring,” Wilson says. “It’s always a new year, and we don’t know if it’s going to be the best year or the worst, but we’re going to try and make it the best year. John was always very noted for doing the best, trying new things and being very, very good at what he does.”
Motter uses GPS, autosteer, yield monitoring and corn population monitoring. Subsurface drainage has been installed, and grid sampling is done to monitor soils. FieldView software is used to integrate data. He lives by the saying, “Be neither the first nor the last to accept new technology.”
Motter’s farming background starts with his grandmother in the late 1920s. “My grandfather contracted polio and was confined to a wheelchair in 1929,” he says. “It was my grandmother and her oldest son (Dean) that made the decision to move 14 miles, from the original 40-acre homestead to a 60-acre farm. It was during the war, and they plowed out on their own.”
When Motter’s father returned from the war, Dean bought his own farm, leaving Ralph to farm with his parents.
“Dad always told me that you had to be making money while you slept,” he says. “If you didn’t have crops growing or didn’t have livestock in the barn, you couldn’t make money when your eyes were closed.”
Motter started with one gilt when he was 8 years old and grew a swine herd. By the time he was 14, a neighbor asked him to plant a field of soybeans.
Growing up, Motter remembers the farm being a real team effort. “My oldest sister was in the kitchen helping Mom, my next sister would get the nicer tractor to pull the baler around. The next set of duties were mine — that meant I loaded the wagons or I raked the hay, I fed the livestock, and I was the one that got to take those nutrients out of the barn and scatter them back out on the farm.”
As more and more ground was rented, Motter says he had to evolve and try new things. “We tried sugarbeets — that was a baptism of fire,” he says with a smirk.
As the livestock was phased out, he started growing popcorn in the early 1990s, which was very successful. So much so that Ohio growers saturated the market.
In the early 2000s, Motter got interested in soybean traits and low-lin (linolenic) soybeans. “I was told we [Ohio producers] couldn’t grow them because we didn’t have a defense package,” he says. “I set out to prove them wrong, and within three days my Pioneer dealer had lined up 5,000 acres and two destinations [for delivery].”
He has since started growing high-oleic soys, which produce a healthier oil. “We were 100% high-oleic beans for several years, but the market demand has not kept up. We need additional marketing to create demand.”
After surviving three barn fires in a 20-year window, Motter says he is extremely grateful to the many people that helped him clean up and rebound. “I try to find ways to pay it forward,” he says.
He has served on many county and state boards, including chairing both the state and national soybean boards and 28 years on the fair board. He was the founding president of the Youth Leadership program in the county and has devoted 20 years to United Way.
Motter is currently the farmer-representative to the Nutrient Stewardship Council. “We need to keep nutrients that we buy on the land we’re farming,” he says. “That’s not something I want ending up in the creek and into Lake Erie.”
Motter says there is always room to get a little better. “I’m thinking, ‘What can I do tomorrow that I learned from yesterday to make it better?’” he explains. “Dad always taught me to leave the ground better than we found it and to be a steward to the land we’re farming. I get up every morning thinking about those two things.”
Looking to the future, Motter says his son, Jeremy, loves the farm and wants the farm, but is not a farmer. “I look to my two grandsons [Ryan and Randy]; I would love for them to have the opportunity if that’s what they choose,” Motter says. “They’re still a little young to make their choices, but if they want that opportunity, we would do everything to keep it in the family.”
For any young people wanting to go into agriculture, he says the No. 1 thing they need is common sense. He adds, “Mix in honesty and integrity, and build the farm around that bundle.”
Master Farmer profile
Name: John Motter
Farm: Motter Farms, Jenera, Ohio
Nominator: Gary Wilson, retired OSU Extension ag educator
Leadership: Hancock Leadership Alumni Association, president; Hancock Youth Leadership, founding president; Convention and Visitors Bureau, chairman; United Way board of trustees; Regional Planning Commission; Emmanuel United Church of Christ, elder
Ag leadership: United Soybean Board, nine years, including as chairman, vice chairman and treasurer; Ohio Soybean Council, 15 years, including as chairman, vice chairman and secretary. Hancock County Fair board, 28 years, including as president, vice president, secretary and treasurer; Hancock Soil & Water Board of Supervisors, 12 years, including as chairman; County Extension advisory board, 12 years, including as chairman; State Extension advisory board, eight years; Nutrient Stewardship Council, six years
Awards: Distinguished Leadership Award (1998) from National Association for Community Leadership; Outstanding Service Award (2009) from Hancock Youth Leadership; Appreciation Award (2000) from Ohio Extension agents’ association; Outstanding Pork Promoter (1999) from Hancock County Pork Producers; and Hancock County Agricultural Hall of Fame (2017).