Rankin Powell, University of Kentucky (UK) alumnus and retired extension agent from the Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, was recently honored with the Shirley H. Phillips No-Till Award. This annual award is given to individuals whose career has been devoted to promoting no-till practices — commemorating and celebrating Shirley H. Phillips’ legacy work as a UK extension specialist who helped develop no-till agriculture over 60 years ago in Kentucky.
"Mr. Powell started working with no-till farming when the concept was extremely new, and most farmers were extremely skeptical,” says Chad Lee, Grain and Forage Center of Excellence director and extension professor at Martin-Gatton CAFE. “He patiently worked with other growers and led by example using no-till on his own farm. Like so many of the no-till pioneers, Mr. Powell's positive impacts on both Kentucky's agriculture and environment are immeasurable."
Now a retired County Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) Agent from Union County, Ky., Powell worked in this county for about 19 years; however, his story begins almost 60 years ago.
Student at UK
While serving in the Army Reserves, Powell graduated from UK in 1964 with a Master of Science in Agronomy (now Plant and Soil Sciences). He was one of the first graduate students to plant no-till corn on campus. Powell’s graduate research plots were near the water tower where the Arboretum State Botanical Garden of Kentucky is located today.
Powell, along with other graduate students and agricultural engineer Ed Smith, built a no-till drill designed by Tim Taylor. Taylor was Powell’s graduate advisor. Although primarily a forage drill, it could be slightly adjusted to plant corn. The drill was used to plant the first no-till corn on a UK farm for Shirley Phillips’s demonstration plots. This drill design would eventually become the John Deere power till no-till drill.
Powell, as a UK employee, worked with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in western Kentucky counties that drained by the Tennessee River. During that time, he first started teaching other farmers about no-till.
TVA had programs to help farmers who were displaced by dams on the Tennessee River. TVA bought Powell’s 2-row Allis Chalmers no-till planter. Along with fertilizer furnished by TVA, Powell pulled that planter with his truck to all the farmers in the area willing to try no-till. Over time, they saw how well it worked.
This project started about 5 years after the first commercial no-till field of corn was grown in Herndon, Ky. Powell’s 2-row planter was one of the first commercial no-till planters in the country.
Powell later worked as the county agricultural extension agent for Livingston County. While in Livingston County, Powell bought a farm. He started no-tilling on that farm and purchased one of the earliest Allis Chalmers no-till planters. Nearby farmers would stop and watch Powell run a planter into a field that had not been tilled.
Powell recently donated that planter to the Grain and Forage Center of Excellence for display at the UK Research and Education Center at Princeton (UKREC). FFA students in Hopkins County restored the planter. The Maddux Family, who had owned an Allis Chalmers dealership in Christian County, financed the restoration. The restored drill survived the tornados at Princeton in 2021.
Powell lived in Livingston County for about 12 years. Then, he made the difficult decision to return to his family’s farm in Henderson County because his father’s health was declining.
Powell converted the farm in Henderson County to no-till, and again farmers watched what he was doing. Powell notes that all his neighbors run no-till today. He jokes that he used to get sediment on his creek-bottom fields from erosion from his neighbors, but now that they are all no-till, he no longer gets that sediment.
Powell farmed for about 20 years and was asked to return to UK Extension. He had a farm near the Henderson County and Union County line. For about 19 years, Powell remained an agent in Union County, which has the highest percentage of the best soils for row crop farming in Kentucky. There he helped farmers switch to no-till and minimum till.
Giving Back to UK
Over the years, Powell and his wife Dolly have been generous donors to Martin-Gatton CAFE. For their generosity, the demonstration classroom at UKREC will soon bear their names. The Cooper House’s conference room is named after them as well.
Powell was proud of his UK experiences, contributions to no-till and continued to embrace his passion until he officially retired at 78.
“The University of Kentucky is the best place I worked in my life,” said Powell. “It never seemed like I was going to work. I was on a mission to help farmers, help the general population and contribute to society. If you really enjoy what you do, then it doesn’t seem like work. My advice is if you are in good health and enjoying what you do, keep working.”
Learn more about the UK Department of Plant and Soil Science’s awards at pss.ca.uky.edu/awards.