Ralph Neill was born and raised on the family farm in Adams County, Iowa. After graduation from Corning High School, Neill served two years in the U. S. Army. He graduated from Purdue University in 1962 with a B.S. in General Agriculture. During his Purdue years, he attended two summer sessions at Northwest Missouri State University. In 1963 he graduated from The Ohio State University with an M.S. in Rural Sociology. From 1963 to 1964 he did post-masters study and research as and Organization of American States Fellow to the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Facultad de la Sociologia. In 1964 he returned to Iowa and the family farm.
Neill and his wife Joyce own and operate the 1856-acre Douglas Center Stock Farm. Their home is located on a quarter section that has been continuously owned by the Neill family since 1875, so their intense devotion to the stewardship of the fertile Middle Nodaway River valley and the adjacent hills is easy to understand. In 1969 Neill purchased a cow herd and discontinued his yearling feeding operation, and for the next 30 years he grew crops on the river bottoms, while devoting the hills to forage production and pasture lands for the cattle. Neill never grew crops on erodible acres, and he was much stricter than the government in defining erodible (“anything with a slope” is his definition). All calves were fed out on the farm, and from the beginning all the cattle performance records were tracked from birth to slaughter to optimize production and profits. Neill has long been a cooperator with Iowa State University’s Animal Science Department and Cooperative Extension Service, making his farm available for various research projects. His conservation goal is to hold on the farm all the rainfall that falls on it, bringing erosion as close to zero as possible and protecting the river and streams on their land. Water retention ponds have been systemically built in sloping pastures to capture water before it flows onto, and erodes, the crop land below. Hybrid willows were planted on streambanks to control erosion and planted trees by the hundreds to create windbreaks and provide wildlife habitat. Great blue heron nests are now common sights on the farm, and in recent years bald eagles have been sporadic visitors. Neill has hosted numerous cattle and conservation tours on the farm, with visitors coming from around the globe, for groups ranging from the World Bank and the Beef Improvement Federation to the World Angus Forum. Neill has given more than 25 professional presentations to conservation and livestock organizations since 1980. A career highlight was the celebration of the farm’s 125-year anniversary, and its five generations of Neill management, in July 2000 that included speakers, tours, entertainment and the serving of almost 700 meals—beef, of course.
Neill has given service to a number of local, state and regional organizations. He has been president of the Iowa Beef Improvement Federation, the Corning Public School Board, and is currently president of the Iowa Master Farmer Club where he is working to establish a foundation to support the Iowa Master Farmer Award program. He has served as vice president of the Green Valley Area Education Agency Board, the Iowa State University Extension Citizen Advisory Board, and the Iowa International Farm Youth Exchange (IFYE) Alumni Association. He has served in a number of positions at both the Iroquois Masonic Lodge where he is Past Master and at Corning United Methodist Church where he has been lay leader and chairman of the administrative board.
Neill’s accomplishments and environmental stewardship have been recognized with a number of honors and awards. The Iowa Beef Improvement Association named him Commercial Producer of the Year in 1978 and gave him its Distinguished Service Award in 1981. In 1986 he received the Bryon Lodwick Pasture Management Award from the Iowa Chapter of the Soil Conservation Society of America. In 1993 he and Joyce were named the regional winner (five state area) of the National Cattlemen’s Association Environmental Stewardship Award. And in 1994 he was named an Iowa Master Farmer by Wallace’s Farmer magazine.
In 1999 twin tornadoes cut a two mile path across the Neill farm, destroying most of the cattle facilities and changing what the farm had been all about for five generations – raising beef. Nearing retirement, Neill elected to expand the alfalfa enterprise rather than rebuild the lost facilities, saying that production agriculture continues to change and he, too, was determined to change with the times and to continue succeeding while farming in an environmentally sensitive manner.