On the Record with Paul Taylor

ESMOND – Farmer Paul Taylor received what many in Illinois agriculture call the “lifetime achievement award:” he was named a 2021 Master Farmer.

Taylor and two other farmers, Kenneth Hartman Jr. of Waterloo and Kent Hodel of Metamora, were named 2021 Master Farmers at Prairie Farmer magazine’s annual recognition program during the Farm Progress Show on Sept. 2. The award recognizes exceptional agricultural production skills, commitment to family and service to community.

“These farmers are at the top of their game, and this award is based on their entire body of work in the field, in the family and in the community,” Prairie Farmer Editor Holly Spangler said in a news release.

Prairie Farmer first offered the Master Farmer award 96 years ago, in 1925. Nearly 350 Illinois producers have been inducted as Master Farmers or Honorary Master Farmers over the program’s history.

Taylor spoke to MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton about receiving the title of Master Farmer, farming through the years and this fall’s harvest.

Milton: How did you become a farmer?

Taylor: The two generations before me on both sides of my lineage were farmers. My grandfathers were farmers, my parents were farmers, my uncles were farmers. Becoming a farmer seemed natural. Farming is what the entire community was built on: the mechanical side of things, livestock and the outdoors. What I love about farming is that it’s something different every single day. It’s also eventful with challenges.

Milton: How has farming changed through the years?

Taylor: When I was a child, labor was really important. Now it’s much more capital-intensive and there is more specialized labor. The amount of productivity per person is a huge increase. Technology has also changed. There are higher yields of crops, electronics and technology and much different equipment out in the fields.

Milton: Why have you continued farming?

Taylor: Well, I wasn’t always a farmer. In the 1980s, it was tough financially. I washed out. I had a farm sale and was near bankruptcy. I made a career change. I went to graduate school to be prepared for a job off the farm. But family changed the course of history. My dad passed away, my older brother passed away, and the opportunity presented itself to come back to the family farm, which I left 17 years earlier. It was a blessing to me to come back to the family farm.

Milton: Has farming become easier?

Taylor: We don’t have livestock on the farm anymore, that affords an easier time, so farming is not as demanding because I don’t have those chores every day. Not having livestock has afforded me the opportunity to travel a little more and have time off and still be involved in agriculture. It has always been somewhat difficult to begin farming and make it. In my grandfather’s generation, all you needed was hard work and sacrifice. Farmers still need hard work and sacrifice, but it’s more labor-intensive.

Milton: Do you have advice for new or young farmers?

Taylor: Don’t try to start with commodity crops like corn and soybeans. Try specialty crops, like pumpkins or vegetables, or try raising livestock. Use sweat equity to build financial growth. Small acres of specialty crops could be a good way to start, because you won’t be competing with farmers who have thousands of acres and have been doing it for generations.

Milton: What is your reaction to being named a 2021 Master Farmer?

Taylor: Extremely flattered to be recognized for my involvement in agriculture and join the group of peers I’m recognized with. There are around 30 other Master Farmers in DeKalb County over the years. Only three or four are named each year in Illinois. I was nominated by the folks at the Illinois Corn Growers Association. I didn’t have an interview, but I shared stories of what I’ve done that’s impacted agriculture and the community.

Milton: Do you consider yourself a Master Farmer?

Taylor: Most of us when we look at ourselves from inside, we see our inadequacies. All of us have shortcomings. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as masters of our profession. However, I think that I have been very active in local, state and national organizations and leadership. I’ve made 38 or 39 trips to Washington, DC, to talk to policymakers about energy, biofuels, crop insurance and other agricultural issues. I think it’s extremely important to talk to policymakers about agriculture. The percentage of the population with direct ties to agriculture, or who have had parents or grandparents that farmed, has declined over time. As a consequence, our story is not well known. Every industry, person, family and community has a story. My goal has been to share farmers’ stories to help lawmakers create informed public policy decisions.

Milton: Will you retire soon?

Taylor: I will be 70 in the spring, and I recognize that I’m not going to be farming forever. I’ve been slowing down, reducing the size of my operation, and at some point, I’ll transition out of it. However, I intend to stay in the community and stay involved. I was told once that “the world is run by people that show up,” and I think my success as a farmer has just been about being at the right place at the right time. I showed up. Now it’s time to pass the hoe, the baton, the torch.

Milton: How has harvesting been this year?

Taylor: Harvesting started about a week ago, and it’s early this year. Early harvest has been brought on by the drought, which accelerated maturation. Corn yields will be a little less because of lodging, or when it’s blown over. Soybean yields will be about what people are expecting. We’ve had a good season, just enough rain, even though it’s been a little bit too dry. It looks like the harvest will finish early.

Katrina Milton

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.