ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
John Mellott, who lives west of Peabody along U.S. Highway 50, has many of the same worries other farmers do.
For one thing, this year’s wheat crop made only enough cash to put cover planting the next crop-with no profit for his efforts.
Mellott said it was the poorest wheat crop he’s had in the past 20 years, averaging maybe 30 bushels an acre.
“And it costs a fortune to plant now,” he said.
Mellott begins to depart from the average farmer at this point because he also remembers when 30 bushels wasn’t a bad yield at all. At least then, the fuel prices didn’t take such an enormous bite out of his pocket-as long as he was raising the feed for the horses that pulled most of his equipment.
At one time, he even planted wheat on a farm operation he worked for with a single-row horse-drawn drill between rows of corn to give the wheat an early start-sort of an interesting twist to the idea of double cropping.
“It didn’t yield a lot,” he said.
You see, John Mellott is 89 years old, and has farmed right through most of the huge changes that have occurred in agricultural practices of the 20th and now 21st centuries.
And, he’s still farming with some practices that resemble more what he has always done rather than what his neighbors are doing.
“I talked about quitting at one time,” he said. “But I had by-pass surgery six or seven years ago. The doctor told me I wouldn’t be living long if I didn’t keep on doing what I was doing. I had to have a hobby or some work to do or I wouldn’t last long.”
Mellott also has to contend with the income squeezes like everyone else. He said Social Security checks don’t go far by the time one pays $400 a month health insurance. He can use the money he usually makes from farming.
“You have to live on something,” he said.
Mellott barely remembers a time when he didn’t do farming of some kind. He’s had temporary jobs over the years, and he still has one part-time, off-the-farm job: he owns a backhoe and digs graves in eight different cemeteries.
Mellott averages three or four graves a month and normally charges $100 per grave-but up to $240 if he has to use an air hammer on rock.
Mellott has five tractors he can use in farming, but they’re all small by today’s standards-ranging from a small Allis Chalmers to a John Deere 4020 that was still one of the larger tractors 30 years ago.
He still moldboard plows, using two to four bottoms, on the 200 acres he owns and on 60-acre and 80-acre fields he leases. Mellott believes in the benefits of turning under the plant litter for better soil and moisture savings.
One of Mellott’s concerns about modern agriculture is “burning up” the soil-leaving too little organic matter in it with high fertilizer and pesticide applications.
“You have to rest the ground sometimes,” he said.
Mellott said planting nitrogen-fixing cover crops like red clover, then plowing it under, was a highly beneficial practice that has gone by the wayside as hard-pressed producers try for more profit.
Even letting weeds grow to plow them under later would be a better restorative process than practices now, he said.
“You could realize good two crops for two to three years after plowing clover under,” he said. “Alfalfa’s good too.”
Mellott said he doesn’t see the earthworm populations and life activity in the soil that he used to because ammonium-nitrate fertilizer has “burned” the bugs and microbes that made the soil “live.”
That’s a two-edged sword, he said, because using the fertilizer at high rates will require continuing to use it at high rates to get the yields.
Mellott said he’s glad he started farming when he did, because if current trends continue, a time may come when only two or three farm operations are left in Marion County-until the day they too are supplanted by a large corporation or the government.
Mellott said it used to be that free-market supply-and-demand had immediate effects. The announcement of a large import demand from a foreign country would have a large, immediate effect on markets.
He doesn’t see that market existing so freely anymore, thanks to government controls and set-aside programs.
Mellott doesn’t have much hope for a young person starting farming unless they “have it handed to them” by family.
“I feel sorry for the kids that want to try something now,” he said.
He acknowledged that a young person trying to enter the business slowly by building up a cow herd might have some hope, “but you can’t do it starting with machinery.”
“Most of the guys farming now have to have other jobs, too,” he said. “There are guys who are doing pretty good in farming now, but they already have the money to control things.”
Mellott identifies the real beginning of his farm operation as 1937, when he married Elda. His parents and hers each gave them a cow as a wedding gift. They started farming with two cows and four horses.
Then, land was readily available for anybody to start farming, Mellott said-a fundamental difference from today.
“There was land to rent everywhere for anybody,” he said.
Mellott never thought he would see land prices as high as they are today. He said he didn’t think a neighboring piece of land could bring $900 an acre-but it did, and now it’s been resold at $1,200 an acre.
For awhile, Mellott had worked for a farmer at Moundridge for $40 a month. He tended a flock of 100 ewes, but never kept sheep himself.
Elda was from Moundridge, but John has lived in the Peabody area nearly his entire life. At one time his parents thought they might like Oklahoma. But it took his father only two years there to decide Kansas was better.
Looking back, the 1950s turned out to be some of the best and most profitable times to farm, Mellott said.
“Even in the 1930s I could keep as much money in my pocket as I can now,” speaking in terms of relative values.
Mellott kept farming during the war years, even though he worked two or three years for Beech Aircraft. The first two years, he said Beech would let him off for harvest. But the third year the aircraft company told him if he left to farm when it was needed, he would be laid off permanently.
Mellott chose the farm, but he said there have been times when he thinks he might have been better off to stay with Beech, and retire on a pension.
Son Richard grew up helping with the farming, but so did Mellott’s two daughters, Joan, now Joan Jost at Hillsboro, and Esther, now Esther Brooks at Peabody.
Richard moved to the farm John left, further to the northwest of his current home, “after a tornado blowed me away sometime there between 1970 and 1975.”
Mellott said, at 89, his biggest physical weakness is in his back. Picking up a tree limb can lay him low for a day. But once he’s in the tractor seat, Mellott said he can feel comfortable there for a full day’s work.
“My girls used to drive the tractors just like the boys,” he said. “They tried to enter the tractor driving at the Hillsboro fair, but they wouldn’t let girls enter-just the boys. I’ll bet my oldest girl (Joan) could have beat all the boys.”
Mellott’s first tractor was a 1020 International. He had three five-foot tractor-drawn combines over the years before he moved on to a bigger one.
“We didn’t get much done in those days compared to now with the bigger equipment,” he said. “They can cut about as much wheat getting turned around as I did in a day back then.”
At one time, Mellott kept a mixed farming operation, more typical of small farmers then, that included 10 to 12 milk cows plus a stock cow herd. He still had cattle after the tornado when he moved to his current farm.
But after some of his cattle got out on U.S. Highway 50, he decided the potential liability of owning cattle along a major highway was too high for him.Cattle are a thing of the past.
Now, Mellott is still puzzling what to do about next year’s crop, with wheat’s poor performance this year.
But he is happy for the life he’s had and the way he started, and continued in farming.
There is the chance, too, he said, that next year’s crop will do better.