Editor’s Note: At the same time as Howard Martin’s death on Feb. 29, 2024, at age 79, his contemporaries were sending letters of support for Farm  Equipment magazine’s “Shortline Legends Hall of Fame." While he will be inducted into the 2nd class of Shortline Legends Hall of Fame later this year, we regret that it will be done posthumously. But with his inaugural No-Till Legend induction in 2017 and 2-time No-Till Innovator of the Year Awards in 1996 and 2021, we’re confident that the humble Martin knew the lasting impact he’d made on no-tillage for generations to come. 

Our staff appreciates the time he’s given us over the years, and we won’t forget the in-depth tour of his Elkton, Ky., facilities and a thoughtful, and personal, history lesson field trip he accompanied us on. He insisted that we join him at the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site before we left to meet John and Alexander Young at no-till’s first commercial plot in Herndon, Ky. The article that follows is a contribution that Howard wrote for my dad, Frank, for his no-till history book, From Maverick to Mainstream: A History of No-Till Farming. – Mike Lessiter, President

Innovative No-Till Row Cleaner Eventually Leads To New Business Entity

By Howard Martin, Martin Industries, Elkton, Ky.

The late Harry Young created quite a stir with his pioneering no-till efforts during the 1960s. I was fortunate to live just one county east of his farm and attended several of the field days held at his farm. Harry was a great teacher and host.

It wasn’t long after a friend bought an Allis-Chalmers planter that I rented it to plant some soybeans. After that successful experience with no-tilled soybeans, I mounted a bar on the front of my John Deere planter and attached wavy coulters. 

No-Till Worth a Try

Like all planters in that era, the depth-gauging wheel trailed behind the opener disc and the furrow wall was not controlled as it was being opened. To overcome these concerns, I added a depth tire with a large center rib (similar to what was used on the Allis-Chalmers planter) and was able to get some seed-to-soil contact even though there was very little soil left in the row area to cover the seed. That’s because the no-till coulter and seed disc had thrown most of the soil out of the row area.

The first year that I no-tilled corn, the planting season was dry and my stands were good. The following year was a wetter spring, and my no-till corn stands were very poor. That corn should have been replanted, but by the time it was dry enough, it was time to plant soybeans.

Martin’s Industry-Impacting Innovation Almost Didn’t Happen

By Mike Lessiter, President

The future of Howard Martin’s industry-leading innovation, which was so critical to success with the new no-till method, was in doubt on several occasions. 

You wouldn’t have called Martin, a sharecropper, a successful farmer. He tried no-till in the early 1970s but abandoned it before returning a decade later. He found the combination of hardpan and thick residue in the soil caused excessive moisture, resulting in stands suffering by 50% or more.

Inspired by an Iowa State University study about the correlation between crop residue and soil temperature, Martin was intent on improving the no-till method. He was convinced that if he could push the residue aside, it would help the soil dry faster, raise the soil temperature and improve his stands.

His innovating period came during the 1980s, which proved tough on the Martins. He had to sell off most of their farmland (2,000 to 900 acres) and machinery, and his children and wife had to get jobs in town. Steve worked as a mechanic at Roeder Implement in Hopkinsville, Ky., John at a factory in town, respectively. Meanwhile, Howard's wife, Linda, started a lawn care company, mowing factories, cemeteries and churches. Howard was the "weedeater," and the brothers often mowed before school to keep groceries on the table.

In the winter of 1983, Martin started working on the row cleaner, which he took to the field in 1984. Good friend and neighbor Eugene Keeton (also a No-Till Farmer Legend & Innovator), who’d sold his finger pickup design to John Deere, connected Martin to Deere reps who bought Martin's design and promised a royalty on each sale. The Martins planned to keep farming and raising tobacco and wait for the royalty checks to arrive.

But the ag depression of the 1980s wasn’t a good time for Deere to invest in another row attachment, so it got shelved. In need of those promised royalties dollars, Martin pleaded with Deere to let someone else manufacture it. After John Deere dusted it off licensed it to Yetter, Howard grew concerned that the iterations made to his creation were too light to hold up in the field.


“It wasn’t about the money,” says Steve Martin (R) pictured with dad, Howard. “It was the thought of making something that farmers would appreciate and hopefully not go broke doing it.” Photo by: Jeff Lazewski

So he decided to build it on his own in 1991. There was no cash to outsource the work, so Martin turned to his son, Steve, a self-taught mechanical prodigy, who figured out how to fabricate it. With no capital to invest in a tooling, Steve’s technical knowhow was a blessing to his dad, who knew little about manufacturing.

“Had we understood what we were getting into, we would’ve had no business trying,” Steve says, recalling that the business couldn't even get an operating loan. “Once we got our feet in it with our money tied up, problems started arising. We had no experience in manufacturing. We were too dumb to do it, but we made it work.”

About the same time that Martin Industries was formed, Dawn Equipment (founded by former John Deere engineer Jim Bassett) entered the market, and there were suddenly 3 shortline manufacturers in the row cleaner business.

It was a card table display with just 1 Martin-produced row cleaner at the 1991 National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville where that hinted at what was ahead. Farmers wrote checks on the spot at the sow for their spring units, and the father-son had to figure out how to deliver all the sales, with the clock ticking before spring, on their drive home. Steve and John would work around the clock that spring, as did sister Deanna after her teaching day was through.

In addition to Keeton, the Martins credited personal help along the way from Kinze’s Jon Kinzenbaw and Harry Deckler, and Illinois-based Tracer Industries who, after being terminated by Dawn, suddenly had capacity to supply Martin's fledgling demand. It took 3 years before the company netted a dime, but it was on its way.

“It was one of those God things,” recalls Steve. “Had we come out with it 10 years earlier, the market wouldn't have existed. The government started talking about taking away subsidies if no-till wasn’t practiced, and things fell into place. As unfortunate as the floods of 1993 were, our business exploded. Because of the floods delaying planting, we got to send out a bunch more product than if there hadn’t been a flood."

Fast forward to 1996, and Howard was sued by Dawn Equipment for $4 million over an adjustable pin squabble. The suit, and the $250,000 legal fees that Martin incurred, nearly broke the company. While the court deemed the lawsuit frivolous in 1998 and awarded the Martins court fees, Dawn filed bankruptcy, meaning the Martins were left holding the bag for all legal expenses.

Howard told his son, “You just got a crash course in patent litigation, so you know what a patent is good for and what it’s not.”  

Steve recalls that the Martins had enough loyal customers by that time that believed in them, and they bootstrapped their way back into the black. Once the legal ordeal was over with, the Martins doubled down and invested in a facility in 1999.

It was obvious that my soil type was not suitable for no-till corn using the equipment available at the time. Unfortunately, the next several years were spent wearing out a variety of large horsepower tractors and tillage tools in our corn fields.

Tough Times in 1980s

The 1980s were not kind to many grain farming operations. Being highly leveraged with adjustable rate credit and marginally productive soils, it only took a couple of droughts to turn our farm’s balance sheet to red. We ended up surrendering our best farmground and most of the machinery, except for enough tools to farm our remaining small acreage.

My family stood with me as they had done through a number of earlier tough times. Our sons went to work in town, and my wife, daughter and future daughter-in-law cooked and served BBQ at our farm machinery auction to earn needed cash.

“Martin’s invention of row cleaner wheels opened the door for farmers who wanted to no-till. Without the innovation, no-till would still be in its infancy…” – Marion Calmer, Alpha, Ill.

Soon after the auction, my wife bought a used commercial lawnmower and soon she had more work than she could handle alone. Before long, I was recruited to operate the string trimmer. However, whacking weeds was not what I’d planned to be doing at age 45.

No Royalty Checks

At that time, it had been almost 5 years since I had sold my row cleaner patent to Deere. Due to confusion and indecision, they had not produced any of my row cleaners. My vision of large dollar royalty checks arriving in the mailbox was growing dim, especially with a daily dose of salty perspiration drenching my eyes from tackling lawn weeds.

During this time, the Deere planter factory manager called to tell me they were not going to build my row cleaner. He said it was a good idea, but not good enough to add to the Deere product line.

‘Dad Did it His Way'

Steve Martin recalls a time when he wasn’t all that happy with dad, Howard. “He'd be writing these orders and sending them out with a ‘NC’ on the bottom of it. 'No charge, Dad?,' I said. 'Why are you giving these parts away?'

“He said — repeatedly — ‘I don’t want anybody to buy my parts and go to the coffee shop and complain.’ He said, ‘We're going to warranty them' and did so even sometimes when they were out of warranty. He was committed to making it right for any reason, even if it meant me driving all night to get the units to western Iowa. When we exhausted all resources, he wrote them a check. That was hard for me when we were struggling financially to understand. But it built our name.”

On another occasion, the Martins devised a unit for a neighboring no-tiller on his Case IH planter. It was added to the 1992 catalog and 450 or so were sold all across the Corn Belt. Yet when conventional farmers put them to use in non-no-till situations, they didn’t work. Howard quickly put Steve on designing one that worked and swapped all of them out in 1992-93, also at a time when the company was barely breaking even.

He wanted to know who I would suggest they license it to so they could get back some of their engineering expenses. My suggestion was to contact Yetter Manufacturing and Yetter ended up licensing my row cleaner from Deere.

A New Start

I was glad when 1990 arrived. The 1980s had been very stressful for our family, and I was looking forward to a time of less pressure. Soon after I received a license from Deere to use their row cleaner patent, which was ironic since it had been my patent. I’d escaped the frying pan only to fall into the fire!

My family again came to my rescue, and we were able to establish our Martin row cleaner name in the market and secure enough loyal customers to start a successful business. Both our banker and the Internal Revenue Service were soon happy.

My accountant warned me that earning enough income to be required to pay taxes was going to be very painful. Since we previously had little money, I told him it was OK, as the government would be letting me keep at least 50 cents of each dollar of income.

“Whacking weeds was not what I planned to be doing at age 45…”

We sold our first Martin row cleaners in January of 1991 and added closing wheels in 1994. A unit-mounted fertilizer opener and other attachments were later developed.

By 2000, we had relocated the business to our county seat town of Elkton and moved into a state-of-the-art facility that was within sight of a newly opened 4-lane highway.


Howard Martin is flanked by No-Till Farmer's Frank and Mike Lessiter at the 2007 National No-Tillage Conference Awards ceremony in St. Louis. Martin's floating row cleaner earned the top spot in No-Till Farmer's Reader's Choice award. The company would receive 8 awards in the program's 11-year history. Martin is also the only one in the No-Till Innovator of the Year program history to earn honors in different categories. Photo by: No-Till Farmer

I take a great deal of satisfaction from having played a part in the no-till movement and finding new ways to help farmers prevent soil erosion. I treasure all of the friendships made while dealing with no-till customers across the country.


Below is a sampling of the tributes shared with No-Till Farmer and Farm Equipment on the late Howard Dean Martin, an inaugural No-Till Farmer Legend from Elkton, Ky. who died in February 2024 at the age of 79. 

He started no-tilling to earn a decent living from poor-quality land and later developed specialized no-till equipment that led to the formation of Martin Industries. The development of row cleaners, fertilizer openers, closing wheels, gauge wheels and other no-till row-unit attachments has come from a humble one-person farm shop beginning to a highly successful manufacturing company that’s a leader in the no-till planter and drill accessory market. 

Have a memory or tribute of your own to add? Please use the “Post a Comment” field below to add your own comments to the collection.

I met Mr. Howard, through his work developing practical and applied solutions for successful No-Till farming planter attachments. We met at the first Milan No-Till Field Day back in 1981. He was one of the first supporters and exhibitors of the field day. He was truly an innovator, inventor and leader in no-till and conservation of our soil resources.

Mr. Howard was the first real inventor of mechanical row cleaners that I am aware of. He, single handedly, towed his own tractor and 4 row no-till/conservation till John Deere planter with the newest no-till attachments from Elkton, Ky. to the nationally known and largest attended field day every year for over 30-plus years. He gave the University of Tennessee the idea to set up a no-till planter demonstration field to compare ‘in the field under real no-till conditions’ planters, attachments and drills.

Mr. Howard demonstrated his Martin-Till attachments himself. He not only shared the benefits of his inventions but helped thousands of farmers understand no-till farming principles and basics. The No-Till Demonstration Field was always the biggest hit of the entire Milan No-Till Field Day.

Mr. Howard’s row cleaners, closing wheels, and soil covering devices worked! Because they had been field tested by Mr. Howard.

As Director of the University of Tennessee Milan Experiment Station (1983-1997), we were approached by many companies to test no-till planters, drills and an array of planter attachments. Large companies like John Deere, Case IH, Allis Chambers, White, Tye, Marliss, Great Plains, Yetter, Kelly and others. Martin-Till attachments were the ‘Gold Standard’ of which all were compared. Mr. Howard Martin produced a superior quality product that worked in the field under most residue and soil conditions by real farmers. 

It was very rewarding to watch his company grow from a small farm shop business to a nationally known product line distributed through many dealers mentioned above. He was also accessible to all dealers and especially farmers that called on him for advice and help.

Above all, Mr. Howard was a Christian and a Godly man. He loved God, his family and the God given soil resources. He was a wonderful friend and will never be forgotten as a Christian and agricultural innovator. He will always be remembered this way.

By John Bradley, No-Till Innovator & Retired Director of the Univ. of Tennessee, Milan Experiment Station, Milan, Tenn.

“Howard was truly one of the most down to earth and humble people you could ever meet. My first encounter with Howard was on the phone back in 1993, visiting with him about a problem I had with a customer that was frustrated with an existing row cleaner on their planter that wasn’t working. Howard said, “Let me send you a couple rows of Martin row cleaners to try, I guarantee they will work. And if they don’t, send them back, as I want to make sure your customer is happy.” And as they say, the rest is history. From that conversation, I knew that Howard had a passion for No-Till planting and was genuine about his invention that he knew would work in many different scenarios and situations. I became a Dealer for Howard Martin that year in 1993 and we have helped equip thousands of planters all over the U.S., Canada and as far away as New Zealand. The explanation that Howard gave me for why his row cleaner worked best, from the diameter of the row cleaner wheel, the tooth spacing on the row cleaner wheel, how many tines his row cleaner wheel had, was why I had the confidence to sell his product for the last 30 plus years. 

I got to meet Howard & Linda Martin for the first time in person at the Farm Progress Show in Iowa in the Fall of 1993 after a successful first year of being a Dealer for them. I remember walking into the tent where their Martin & Company Planter Attachment booth was, and I walked up to Linda, and she handed me a letter opener in the shape of an ear of corn with their logo on it. I hadn’t met Linda before, only talking to her on the phone, so she didn’t have a clue who I was. After a short visit I introduced myself, and Linda said, “I’m so sorry, I just thought you were another customer!” Linda quickly went to get Howard, who was talking with other Farmers, that I could finally meet the “Inventor of the first ground driven rotary row cleaner.”   Since that meeting, I felt Howard and I had a much closer relationship develop over the years due to both of our passions to push No-Till planting across the United States to help control soil erosion, save moisture in the soil during and after planting, help with weed control, lower input cost by saving fuel from less trips across the field, the list goes on and on. 

We did a Planter Clinic in Ohio in the late 1990’s with Howard & Linda Martin where we outfitted a four row John Deere planter with two rows of the Martin Planter Attachment system and the remaining two rows were equipped with the customers system. This was the first week of March that year and we did our planter clinic going over planter maintenance and then we went to the field with this John Deere four row planter. Conditions were not very favorable, as it was wet, and the ground temperature was cold. But we wanted to prove to all the growers that showed up that we could plant in adverse conditions. We made several passes in the field and the Martin row cleaners and Martin closing system worked well versus the customers system that had problems with the no-till coulter bringing up wet soil and the closing wheels left the trench open so that seed could be seen when looking down the trench. Well, two weeks later, Howard sent me a picture of that test planting in early March from Ohio and the corn had come up and was growing very well compared to what that customer was using. This was even more of a testament that the Martin system worked.

Fast forward 30 years and I look back on the legacy Howard has built through all those years of row cleaner sales, row cleaner improvements from the first face mount pin-adjust row cleaners to floating row cleaners with depth bands to better follow the contour of the soil surface in different planting conditions and now air adjust row cleaners from the cab of the tractor. Howard and I have bounced different ideas from each other over the years while also trying to improve upon the products offered.

I feel honored to have gotten to know Howard Martin personally and know that the future of farming will always have a planter that will have a Martin row cleaner that is clearing the way to help feed the world!

By David Moeller, Moeller Ag Services, Keota, Iowa

Stressful times seem to be the driving force behind most true innovation. That could be a bigger part of the story. Why does someone deviate off the beaten path? Usually because they had no choice … and survivor instinct takes over. Exactly what happened with the Martins.” 

– Loran Steinlage, West Union, Iowa, No-TIll Innovator and No-Till Farmer Operator Fellow 2023.

I first got to know Howard while I was working at Miles Farm Supply, in fact I bought a set of row cleaners for Billy Joe Miles’ planter from Howard around 1995, to help it to do a better job no-tilling soybean into high yielding wheat stubble. I called Howard with questions on set-up and operation. At that time, I found Howard’s communication skills were excellent and he always made me laugh telling, me about “an old Indian trick” which would make them work better in specific conditions.Shortly after leaving Miles Farm Supply, to start Needham Ag Technologies, Howard contacted me and asked me if I would work for Martin Industries as a consultant. I agreed and worked on many different row cleaner, closing wheel, fertilizer opener and disc opener projects. It was a privilege working directly with Howard, often on his own farm, testing many different planter attachments within different soil and moisture conditions and comparing them to other brands on the market. 

Prior to inventing the first ground driven row cleaner, Howard wanted to successfully no-till his farm, but the poorly drained fragipan soils in North Todd County, Ky., were often difficult to establish corn in without tillage. Howard had followed the successes of Harry Young and his family, who successfully practiced no-till farming since the early 1960s in neighboring Christian County, Kentucky, but Howard recognized early on that a device which parted the previous crop residue and lightly scratched the seed zone accelerated soil warming and dramatically improved emergence uniformity. This same system helped improved closing the seed slot too, which was also a challenge on Howard’s poorly drained soils.

Howard spent a lot of time reading books and had a remarkably good memory, in fact Howard was often able to recite many different quotes which related how someone such as Mr. John Deere was able to develop and successfully market different products, some which were new to the market. Howard often recited these statements, and said it helped him persevere when exhibiting the first time at the Louisville Farm Show in February of 1991. At this show Howard and his son Steve had a 10x10-foot booth (which Billy Joe Miles helped them obtain, as he was on the Fair Board). They had a small card table and one of the first ground driven (fixed) row cleaners they had been testing on their farm when no-tilling corn and soybean. He said most people just walked past without stopping, but a few intrigued farmers stopped and allowed Howard and Steve to explain the design, its purpose and benefits. I think he said they sold around 10 early sets at the show, with not much time to manufacture and ship them before planting season which was often early April in Kentucky and Tennessee, and commercial no-tilling with row cleaners were soon adopted and added to the majority of the planters within the corn belt and many other areas of the United States.

In conclusion, it has been a great privilege to work with Howard for the last 30 years, his enthusiasm and dedication to promote no-till practices and cover crops, plus innovate, patent and market many different (most were new) planter attachments take a remarkable amount of time, money and effort. His passion of making long-term no-till successful in challenging soils has helped me and my clients adopt no-till and cover crops over a wide geography. 

By Phil Needham, Needham Ag Technologies, Calhoun, Ky.

Please use the “Post a Comment” form below to add your own personal recollections and tributes to the late Howard Dean Martin, and we’ll add them to the article above.

For more on Howard Martin, including personal videos of he and Eugene Keeton, a How We Did It podcast, a photo slideshow, Martin Industries timeline, and personal tributes from peers, visit  this link.

The 2024 No-Till History Series is supported by Calmer Corn Heads. For more historical content, including video and multimedia, visit No-TillFarmer.com/HistorySeries.