By Matt Reese
In the late 1930s, 8-year-old Ralph Dull — the youngest of four children — felt as if he was on top of the world as he held the reins of a well-trained mule team, guiding them in the task of raking hay.
“Bob and Tom were the mules used for raking hay and they knew what to do so I didn’t have to do much,” Ralph said with a grin. “I wasn’t old enough to drive a tractor yet but felt pretty important driving the mules.”
Young Ralph would have had no way to comprehend the changes that were ahead for agriculture and the Montgomery County century farm he has always known as home.
Ralph’s father, Vernon Dull, and grandfather, Ira Brenner, purchased three parcels totaling 127-acres in 1918 and started farming the ground in 1919. The earliest days of the Dulls on the land included a diverse crop rotation and a variety of livestock, but Angus cattle were a key focus of the farm. Vernon’s wife Lucille is remembered for her love of egg layers and her success in that side of the business. By 1947, she was filing her own taxes earning nearly $3,000 on eggs alone from sales at the Third Street sidewalk market in Brookville. It seems no coincidence that in 1948 the family purchased a brand new Chevrolet Fleetline Sportsmaster.
Vernon was a meticulous record keeper and the farm still has all his books from 1922 until he retired in 1960 and Ralph took over managing the farm. The Dull family has long been known for service and civic involvement off the farm as well. Vernon served in a wide array of community roles in service to church, education and agriculture. He was especially fond of his work with the Heifer Project that was founded in 1944 to provide livestock, equipment and agricultural training to people in areas of the world suffering from food shortages. The effort was continued by Ralph and continues today.
As Ralph got older, he took on more of the farm responsibilities in the 1940s.
“I would get up early and plow for a couple of hours before school. I’d plow until the school bus went by so all of the other kids could see and then I’d ride my bike to school,” Ralph said. “Then I’d ride my bike home after school to keep plowing.”
Ralph and his siblings were active in 4-H and had success, especially showing the family’s quality Angus steers. Pigs, though, were Ralph’s favorite and they have been a part of the Dull farm for most of its history. One exception was during the time period when Ralph was drafted into alternative service in 1955 for 2 years in Baltimore, Md. Ralph was tasked with making improvement to low income housing and his title was the Director of the Brotherhood Pilot House, but he describes it somewhat differently.
“They started calling me the mole because I was in the basement so often pouring concrete basements and walls to keep rats out,” Ralph said.
The pigs were sold at Ralph’s departure from the farm, but they were not gone for long.
“Dad bought gilts while I was still in Baltimore so they’d have a running start when I got home,” Ralph said.
When Ralph took over the farm soon after, the Angus cattle were sold and a farrowing house was built.
“I went to Purdue for a short course and saw pasture was not the best use of this ground,” Ralph said. “So in 1960 we built a farrowing house and that is the only time I heard dad complain about something I’d done. He said, ‘You were doing all right before.’”
Prior to the farrowing house construction, and even for a short while afterwards, the sows farrowed in a 4-acre woods. The sows were branded to keep track of them and rings were put in their noses to discourage them from rooting under the fences. One group of sows would farrow in June and March and another group would in September, using nests they made in the woods. Ralph’s farrowing house project was the first step in some revolutionary changes on the farm for hog production. A couple of years after construction, the farrowing house was raised (Ralph said 2-inches at a time using jacks) for the addition of slats and manure pits. They have grown to the size where they contract some hogs out to area farms and have 500 sows with 14,000+ hogs finished per year.
“Most things we did would only last for a couple of years before something better came along,” Ralph said. “I was satisfied with an 8-pig litter back when the pigs were in the woods and now we have some 16-pig litters.”
Seed production has also been a crucial component of the farm’s growth and four generations of success. Ralph’s father started growing hybrid seed corn for Walter O. Rhoads in 1942 and that continued until 1960 when he retired. Farming on his own, Ralph did not have the labor force to continue the seed business. That changed, though, 16 years later when his four children showed interest in coming back to work on the farm and the operation was incorporated, forming Dull Homestead, Inc. At that time the Dulls started growing seed for Robinson Hybrids, Inc. owned by Cecil Robinson in Delaware. The Dulls built a seed corn dryer and got to work de-tasseling 255 acres that first year back in the seed business. Robinson retired in 1987 but the Dulls were able to continue seed production with newly formed Seed Consultants, Inc. in 1990. Since then, the Dulls have had as many as 1,300 acres dedicated to seed production and the operation has added a new seed production plant, two storage warehouses, a dryer, sorting barn, and sheller building to mange their seed production from growing to packaging the seed.
“Growing seed has been a tremendous opportunity for us,” Ralph said.
And, the seed business has inspired the newest venture for the farm that is taking the Dull family back to their roots. The seed is harvested wet using sweet corn harvesters to keep most of the husk on. After processing the seed, there is quite a bit of corn residue to manage.
“This left a lot of material here. We started chopping all the corn residue and got back into cattle. We chop, blow it into silage wagons and it is bagged and fed to cattle,” said Mike Dull, Ralph’s son. “It has good feed value and we supplement that with DDGS, shell corn, and soymeal. Now we have 150 calves being fed out and we are expanding that.”
The Dulls grow seed corn, soybeans and wheat for seed. They hire around 150 young people each July for detasseling efforts. They also grow around 600 acres of corn to grind for feed on the farm and raise commodity soybeans. Crop rotations are being diversified with the use of cover crops, continuing the farm’s long time commitment to conservation that started with Vernon. Ralph was among the earliest no-tillers in the area getting his start in the 1960s. The farm is all no-till today with the exception of minimum-till for the seed corn acres.
Since 1919, there have been plenty of interesting tales of life on the farm. In 1954, the farm was part of Dayton Power and Light’s participation in the nationwide “Light’s Diamond Jubilee” celebration commemorating the invention of the incandescent light bulb. There were 13 area farms selected to be highlighted for their “efficient use of electricity as the ‘hired man’ on the farm” among other measures. A commemorative sign highlighted the recognition for many years after.
In 1982, Ralph created a stir when he attempted to pay the tax bill from the previous year with a load of corn as a statement in opposition to tax dollars being used for military funding. It was speculated by media at the time that Ralph’s aim was to dump the corn on the steps of the federal building, though Ralph claims that was never the plan.
The farm has also been at the forefront of alternative energy (solar and wind), farmland preservation efforts (with 1,000 acres preserved in easements), and service to others both at home and abroad, including in 2019 when a devastating tornado ripped through nearby Brookville.
Ralph, like his father before him, has been keen on getting the next generation involved.
“I had a business meeting in Washington, D.C. and I was gone for a week. I came back and everything was fine. Then a while later I was gone for a month and I came back and everything was fine. Then in 1989 my wife and I went to Ukraine for six months teaching people about agriculture. We came back and everything was fine and that was it. I haven’t been a manager here of anything since then,” Ralph said. “It is best to let the family have more responsibility. They have more fun that way and decide what they like to do.”
Today 91-year-old Ralph’s three sons, one daughter-in-law, eight grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren work on the farm. The grandchildren are the fifth generation of the family to make their living on the farm. Today’s operation is a far cry from the world of 8-year-old Ralph Dull driving mules to rake hay. The transformation has taken years of toil, innovation, faith, and the coordinated work of generations to turn the century-old dream of a family farm operation into a modern reality.