Changing with the times: Ohio farmer sees benefits of stewardship in 50-year career

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A man holds an ear of corn in both hands, standing in front of a corn field. He is looking at the ear of corn and wearing a baseball hat and glasses.
Myron Wehr examines an ear of corn from one of his fields, in New Waterford, Ohio, Sept. 17. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

NEW WATERFORD, Ohio — A shelf containing Myron Wehr’s milk bottle collection sits near his desk in his office at his farm in New Waterford, Ohio. His desk is surrounded by filing cabinets, binders labeled with sticky notes and newspapers.

Though his office is filled with paper and physical mementos of the past, Wehr isn’t afraid of technology — or the future. He holds up his cell phone and explains how it lets him keep track of the 1,600 acres that he farms across five counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“To me, it’s unreal,” he said. “I’ve got every field on here.”

Technology isn’t just a constantly evolving language that’s hard to stay fluent in, to him. It’s a tool.

Wehr, 80, has been a crop farmer for more than 50 years. He’s seen many other farmers refuse to adapt to changing times, instead farming the way their fathers did. That’s not him.

“If you do that the same way long enough, you ain’t gonna be in business,” Wehr said. “You gotta evolve and make changes as things evolve.”

Changes

Over the years, Wehr has gone from picking corn with a one-row picker to using combines with eight-row heads. He’s gone from planting two rows at once to 16.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes in my lifetime,” he said.

He’s been doing no-till and reduced tillage since the ’60s. He’s learned and experimented with the best times and ways to apply nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.

He works with Heritage Cooperative to test his soil in 2.5-acre grids so that he can apply fertilizer and lime based on what each grid needs.

If you do that the same way long enough, you ain’t gonna be in business … You gotta evolve and make changes as things evolve.

Wehr also doesn’t apply liquid manure on top of the ground anymore. He incorporates it so that he loses less of the nutrients from it to runoff, especially during storms.

“I want to protect the environment and help keep the soil in the fields,” he said.

Focus on soil health and stewardship has paid off for him in many ways. He’s seen his fields become more productive. He’s seen his costs for fertilizer and lime go down.

“We’re treating what needs to be treated,” Wehr said. “We’re not increasing the best spots in the field as far as yield goes, but we’re bringing the low spots up, and increasing the overall yield average.”

Learning

Wehr has a degree in dairy science with a minor in agriculture engineering from Ohio State University.

“I spent four years down at Ohio State, but I’ve spent 50 years since then getting more education,” Wehr said.

Wehr likes seeing how he can improve his yields and his crops. He’s eager to experiment with different practices, try things out and see what works and what doesn’t.

“[Farming is] what keeps me going,” he said. “It’s something to do.”

One of his fields will produce four crops in just three years. He double cropped barley and soybeans this year.

“Those acres will be my most profitable acres,” Wehr said.

In some fields, he has something growing almost year-round.

A man wearing a baseball hat and glasses leans down and holds his hand over a field of soybeans. He is standing in front of the field.
Myron Wehr shows off one of his most productive fields at his farm, Sept. 17, in New Waterford, Ohio, where he is double cropping soybeans and barley this year. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Subsidies

Wehr has gotten federal subsidies for some of his conservation and stewardship work. He’s gotten payments to participate in various programs and for things like putting in waterways and drain tile.

He has also applied for and gotten subsidies from other programs, like the Market Facilitation Program and COVID-19 relief packages.

Those types of programs weren’t always part of farming for Wehr. In 1974, Wehr sold corn for $4 per bushel. But as other things — pick up trucks, healthcare, etc. — got more expensive, with more middle men and more global competition, crop prices didn’t go up.

“It took a lot less bushels of corn to buy something in 1974 versus today,” he said.

Increasing yields per acre helps, but he views subsidies as something to balance out the difference during tough times. He reads several farming newsletters and publications to stay up to date on what is available.

“I’m not gonna pass it up … I think most farmers are applying for all of those things,” Wehr said. “We’re foolish not to.”

He also carries crop insurance, which he tends to break even on every four or five years.

It protects him from a complete disaster, which he could have had in the late 1980s, when there was a bad drought year.

Potatoes

At that point, he was farming potatoes in addition to some other crops. The first year he tried potatoes, he made money on it. The second year, he broke even. After that, he lost money.

“I should have quit after the first year,” he said.

Then, as potato farming and harvesting became more mechanized, it moved on to areas where there was less labor available than in Ohio, since less was needed for harvesting. So, Wehr got out of potatoes and focused on other crops.

A man in jeans and a collared shirt, facing away from the camera, walks next to a field of corn.
Myron Wehr walks along one of his corn fields at his farm, in New Waterford, Ohio, Sept. 17. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Starting out

Wehr grew up on a small dairy farm. His dad never milked more than 25 cows. His dad also farmed some small plots of land. Wehr primarily farms corn, soybeans, wheat and barley.

His dad was disappointed that he didn’t want to take over the dairy farm. But if Wehr had joined, they would have had to double the number of cows to support two families. His dad farmed through the Great Depression and saw other farmers go into debt and lose everything. He didn’t want to expand.

So Wehr started crop farming, first doing work for other farmers. The first year he farmed for himself, he had 200 acres. He added acres as he could handle them. At one point, he was up to about 2,500 acres. Now, he also farms with a neighbor, and between the two of them, they cover 2,300 acres — enough to justify the equipment he still has.

When Wehr first met with Heritage Cooperative to talk about grid soil sampling, he remembers them talking about the concept as something new. But when his dad farmed, he didn’t have fields bigger than five acres. He sampled and treated each field accordingly.

“It was and it wasn’t [something new],” Wehr said. “Because the smaller dairy farms had small fields, and they treated it accordingly … it was a form of soil sampling before it was even talked about.”

Reason

Back in his dairy science days, Wehr participated in the dairy judging team at Ohio State. He recalled one competition where he placed all of the cows completely opposite of how the judge of the competition would have placed them.

Wehr was meticulous in pointing out the good and bad points of each cow. He just had different priorities than the judge in placing.

“He says, ‘you placed the class exactly the opposite of the way I did, but you’re gonna get the highest grade for reason,’” Wehr said.

Wehr is equally deliberate in the way he farms. He talks about fields where he wants to plant cover crops this year, especially hilly ground that is prone to erosion.

He rattles off names of extension educators with Ohio State and Pennsylvania State universities he has worked with over the years. He recalls field days and conferences. He’s always learning, and taking that knowledge back to his fields.

“If you don’t change things … the results are gonna be the same,” Wehr said.

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