Throughout the 2021 growing season, USSOY.org will provide regular Ground Work updates from several U.S. soybean farmers around the country. Follow their updates, #GroundWork2021, to learn about their farms and commitment to producing high-quality soy.
Ralph Lott farms with his family in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, in the U.S. Northeast. Their farm is located about 430 km, or 265 miles, northwest of New York City, and less than 50 km, or about 30 miles, south of Lake Ontario. While they have raised crops there since 1980, it is not where he first learned to farm.
“My grandfather started farming in Pennsylvania, on land that is now part of the Philadelphia metropolitan area,” Ralph says. “Though I remember helping on the farm there, the city was growing rapidly. My father moved us to a nearby Delaware farm briefly, and then we moved to the panhandle of Florida in 1967 and farmed on the Coastal Plain of the U.S. Southeast.”
Ralph worked off the farm for a few years after high school, but in 1976 he married his wife Shirley and joined his father on the farm full-time.
“Florida was never a good fit for my dad, so in 1980, we sold the farm in Florida and bought a farm in Seneca Falls, New York,” he continues. “It has been a great fit for our family, and we plan to stay right here.”
Today, Ralph and Shirley farm about 1,400 hectares, or 3,500 acres, of soybeans, corn and a little wheat, with their sons Rodman and Ben. Because of the long, narrow lakes in this region of New York state, all their fields are within a 9- to 12-km, or 6- to 8-mile area, confined in part by the Finger Lakes. Rodman and his wife Tara live nearby with their son and daughter. Ben and his wife Ashley also live nearby and welcomed their first son in March 2020. Their daughter Nicole is a doctor in nearby Rochester, N.Y., where she lives with her husband Tim and two sons.
“Shirley, Rodman, Ben and I handle all the farm work together,” Ralph says. “The boys have specialized their focus, with Ben taking the lead on soybeans while Rodman focuses on corn. And Shirley spends more time in the tractor than I do.”
Ralph spends his extra time with his small “hobby” beef herd. He has a small cow-calf operation, which means he breeds the cattle and raises calves each year. Then, he works with a neighbor to finish, or feed beef cattle to market price.
As a team, the Lotts continuously look for ways to improve, and their long-standing practices fall under what now is called regenerative agriculture. The farm has been 100% no-till since 1988. That means they haven’t used any tillage equipment to break up the soil for more than 30 years. They have also been trying to incorporate cover crops into their system for the past 10 years.
“Cover crops don’t work well in our area because the season doesn’t allow much time to get them established before winter because our average frost date is about October 1,” he explains. “But we keep trying different management practices on soybean fields. That means about half our ground every year has an attempt at including a cover crop before it is planted to corn the following spring.”
They have recently started re-introducing winter wheat to their production system. They also plan to try growing grain sorghum during the 2021 season.
Today, they store most of their grain on their farm, and deliver it locally throughout the year. They sell corn to a nearby feed mill. Their soybeans go to a nearby soybean extruder, where they are processed for livestock feed and edible oil. The facility is relatively new to the area, so in the past their soybeans were delivered by rail to northeast ports like New Jersey where they could be loaded into containers for international export.
Ralph has been involved in agriculture industry leadership for years. His farm hosted an outdoor farm show for more than 30 years, though that show has now moved locations and changed due to COVID-19 protocols and other industry factors. He served with the New York Corn and Soybean Growers for 22 years, and now his son Rodman serves as a board member. Ralph was appointed to the United Soybean Board in 2013, and he currently serves as its vice chair.
“My dad was a ‘get-involved’ guy, and I am following in his footsteps,” he says. “It’s encouraging to see my sons do the same thing. That just reinforces the sustainability of our farm – that it has a long-term future.”
Ralph will share regular updates from his farm on USSOY.org throughout the 2021 growing season.