If you run into 2018 Master Farmer Tom Martin from Mount Pulaski, Ill., don’t bother asking him what he’s working on. Ask him, “What’s next?”
“I love what I’ve done, but I’m looking ahead at the next 30 years,” he says. From pioneering conservation practices to saving his hometown’s historical courthouse, Tom has a knack for stewardship, leadership and giving back.
Only one thing trumps farm and community: his family.
Tom manages Martin Agricultural Enterprises LLC, a 2,700-acre corn, soybean, wheat, hay and straw operation, with his 25-year-old son, Chris. Tom’s wife of 35 years, Cheryl, is a certified public accountant and partner with Kerber, Eck & Braeckel in Springfield. Their daughter, Kari, and her husband, Justin Gardner, live in Edwardsville with their two children, Haddie Jean and Tate Thomas.
“When I think about the person I want to grow up to be, it’s my father,” Kari says. “He not only has enough love to spread to my family, but he shows the love he has for the land he farms and his community. He gives unselfishly not just to my family, but to those around him.”
For the love of the land
Tom doesn’t mince words about soil conservation. “Farming is an independent, ‘Do it the way you believe,’ philosophy,” he says. “I have 10 neighbors who all farm differently, and they all believe in what they do, and that’s fantastic — except when I saw soil blowing around this spring. That shouldn’t happen in today’s world.”
In 1984, two short years after returning to the family farm, Tom tried no-tilling corn following soybeans. “It yielded like everything else, and I was hooked,” he says. He leaned on a group of “like-minded people” called the Logan County Soil Savers for no-till advice. They shared ideas, toured minimum-till and no-till farms, and forged a new path for soil conservation efforts in central Illinois.
“It was an innate thing,” he says. “It just made sense to me. I didn’t understand turning black soil and watching it blow away. I knew there had to be a better way.” By 1988, without the proper no-till equipment and chemicals available today, Tom went 100% no-till before soybeans — and he didn’t stop there.
“Tom was strip tilling before strip tilling was cool,” says Shaun Tyson, seed adviser with Beck’s. In the late 1990s, Tom began experimenting with strip till because he prefers placing nutrients in the furrow versus broadcasting surface applications.
Tom isn’t always a trailblazer. “Certain things I can analyze in six months and feel comfortable, but some things take me three or four years to feel like they will help my operation,” he explains. “It has to work, and we can’t go broke doing it.”
Tom had to see how precision planting technology, like variable down pressure and automatic row shutoffs, impacted emergence and yield before upgrading his planter. “That convinced me it was the right thing to do, especially as valuable as every seed is today,” he says. “You have to separate what’s viable and what’s worth another $10,000, and what isn’t — because you can’t do it all.”
Tom bought a new planter from his local dealer because he believes in supporting local businesses. He works tirelessly to preserve Mount Pulaski’s rich history and to stimulate community involvement.
Love for the community
To understand Tom’s predisposition for community service, you have to look at his family tree. His grandfather Harry Wible published the town newspaper for 39 years, and Tom spent years at his side attending local events. “I grew up knowing you give back,” he says. “You are the community.”
Tom’s grandfather coordinated Mount Pulaski’s 125th anniversary, his mother helped managed the 150th, and Tom led the yearlong 175th celebration. Immediately following those festivities, Tom set his sights on a new project: Abe’s Million, a $1 million effort to restore Mount Pulaski’s courthouse where President Abraham Lincoln practiced law for the 8th Judicial Circuit. He recently stepped down as the courthouse foundation chairman to focus on his new duties with Mount Pulaski’s economic advisory committee.
“I feel like there are things that I know I have the ability to do, so I should do them. I spend a lot of time being a cheerleader, trying to get people jacked up about something,” Tom says. “I’ve always believed that one person, or a group of people, really can make a difference.”
PRESERVATION: One of Tom Martin’s many community projects includes a $1 million effort to restore the courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law for the 8th Judicial Circuit. What has Tom learned through community involvement? “Don’t ever pass up the opportunity to say what you believe,” he says. “I’ve always believed that you do what you believe is right.”
Mastering financials and marketing
Tom Martin spends more time at his computer than in the shop during the “off-season.” Why? Financial reporting and marketing are more demanding than ever before, he says, and they’re often the most challenging part of farming. He uses QuickBooks to track finances and focuses his marketing efforts on a gross-per-acre goal.
“Tom puts together a set of financial statements that any lender would love to work with,” says John Hartman, Farm Credit Illinois. “Besides the basic balance sheet and income projection, Tom prepares accrual income statements and trend information/ratio analysis. He also has a very good understanding of working capital and its importance to a farm operation.”
When Tom isn’t pulling together financial reports, he’s reading market forecasts and forming his own “gut” decision. “Remember, you only know this much about the big picture, so make the best decision you can — but make a decision,” he says.