ELMWOOD, Ill. — Ted Mottaz was fresh out of college and all set for a career in agriculture education, but Uncle Sam had other ideas.
“I attended Western Illinois University and got a degree in ag education. I started teaching at Carthage High School and got married, but Uncle Sam wanted me more. So, I got drafted out of that position at Carthage in 1971,” Mottaz said.
He and his wife, Janet, were married in December 1970 and one month later he received a notice from the Selective Service that his number was up.
His company commander during basic training said the war in Vietnam “was over.”
“It wasn’t,” Mottaz said. “We got through it. I was there at a time when they were winding down, but it wasn’t over.”
Mottaz was a radio operator in an infantry company in Vietnam. After returning stateside, his final tour was at Fort Mead, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., where his wife, Janet, was able to join him. He was discharged in 1973 at the rank of infantry sergeant.
You can take the boy off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy, and farming has also been one of the centerpieces of Mottaz’s life.
He was born in Brimfield, the family moved to a farm at Victoria, east of Galesburg, and in 1963 moved to their Yates City farm where family still resides.
Mottaz enjoyed those days working on the family farm and as an active 4-H member in his youth. He recalled a special tractor that his father bought in 1965.
“I cherished that John Deere 4020 diesel tractor and in 1971 while I was in the military in South Vietnam somebody gave me word that dad sold the tractor,” Mottaz said.
“When I started farming with my dad and brother, I was on a quest to try to find that tractor. We did find it and put it into use. There’s nothing better than a 4020.”
After his discharge, Mottaz worked for FS and then was hired to teach agriculture at ROWVA High School in Oneida.
He taught there for five years until 1979 when an opportunity arrived to teach at Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg. He taught at Carl Sandburg until his retirement in the early 2000s.
Mottaz was asked what courses he taught as part of the Sandburg ag department.
“I was the ag program at Carl Sandburg,” he grinned.
“We had soil science, ag economics and animal science. I was also active as state president of the Illinois Association of Vocational Ag Teachers,” he said.
While teaching, he was also farmed with this brother, Jeff. They now farm about 1,200 acres of corn and soybeans in west-central Illinois, including Knox and Fulton counties. His nephews, Austin and Adam Mottaz, are part of the farming operation, as well.
His service didn’t end when Mottaz was discharged from the U.S. Army. He has been an active member of various organizations that included numerous leadership posts.
He was an Illinois Corn Growers Association director for 10 years and served as president in 2019.
His other roles included National Corn Growers Association team chairman, Knox County Farm Bureau president, Knox County Soil and Water Conservation District president, Nutrient Research and Education Council committee chairman, Illinois Council for Ag Education founding member, National Council for Ag Education chairman, Illinois Association of Vocational Ag Teachers president, Elmwood United Methodist Church lay leader and Elmwood Zoning Board chairman.
“A wonderful thing happened three years ago when I was honored by Prairie Farmer magazine as one of the Master Farmers in Illinois,” he added.
Mottaz has been on some interesting trade missions while in leadership roles with ag organizations.
On one such trade mission, he returned to Vietnam as part of a Farm Bureau group.
“My son said, ‘why in the world are you going to Vietnam? You hate Vietnam,’” Mottaz noted.
“They grow rice and everything was done by hand. There were a lot of neat things going on there.”
His wife, Janet, a retired English teacher who grew up on her family farm that is now being operated by the seventh generation, attributes Ted’s broad view of agriculture to his trade mission trips.
“I think that’s the reason Ted has been interested in the whole variety of agriculture and in the different ways to do it here at home because he saw how different farming was and how individualized it was. Nobody has grass in our yards like we do. They grow vegetables up to their door,” she said.
Each trip was a learning experience, whether it be to Cuba, Colombia or Vietnam. The Cuba and Colombia trips were trade missions with the Corn Growers.
“There was a large chicken farm in Colombia and they wanted to supply corn to. That was an interesting place,” he said.
“One of the components of the cattle’s rations in Cuba were woody stem plants. Things that we would throw away. We got off the airplane and we were escorted everyplace by people with rifles.”
Preserving the soil has been a big part of the Mottaz farming operation for decades.
“My dad, brother and I have always been willing to try different things,” he said.
His experience with soil conservation began in about 1984 with the idea to no-till a hilly field, and he told the idea to his dad and grandfather.
“My grandpa lived to be 100 years old and had a lot of ideas. We decided at that point that we would no-till half the field — 30 acres. They said they’d go along with that,” Mottaz recalled.
“I will never forget, though. My grandfather had a 1960 John Deere tractor. He’s on one of those hills in the field and he watched me plant the whole thing into no-till.
“After that year, with the results that we had, grandpa came back up to that hill and said we will never till ground again.”
The family never shied away from looking for new and better ways to farm.
They’ve been sidedressing corn since the early 1960s and made split applications of nitrogen part of their nutrient management strategy. They were one of the early adopters in the area of auto-steer.
Mottaz even was a bit of a soothsayer with his master’s thesis in the early 1980s on the use of a personal computer in agriculture.
A couple years later, he began creating spreadsheet records on a computer and would eventually expand that to inputting yield, weather and other data.
Ted and Janet’s son, Phillip Mottaz, and their grandson live in Los Angeles. Their daughter and her husband, Emily and Joe Webel, and their six children live near Yates City in the house where Ted grew up. Joe raises cattle on the farm.
Mottaz has traveled an interesting and eventful road since he was a young lad working on his family’s farm in west-central Illinois.
He has witnessed changes in a technology that would have been unimaginable over 60 years ago except for in science fiction books, and he’s seen the best and worst in mankind.
He noted the big difference between the Vietnam era and today, as well, and recently was part of a large group attending the Greater Peoria Honor Flight reception welcoming veterans back from their trip to Washington, D.C., last month.
“In the back of my mind I was trying to remember what I felt when I came off the plane from Vietnam. There were a lot of people at the airport to welcome them back from the Honor Flight,” he said.
“When I came home, there was one. That was me. We were told you have to wear a hat to cover your head because they’re going to spit on you. I will say I don’t think I ever had that happen. It was a crazy time for no good at all.”