Tag Archives: family farms

A love for agriculture come full circle

By Bruce Stambaugh

It’s no accident that Leah Miller’s life has come full circle. Agriculture runs deep in her genes, personal life and in her professional career.

She grew up on a farm, and now her life is all about farming, both at home and on the job, whichever particular job it is she happens to be doing. In between, her career took a productive, if not circuitous route before Miller, 61, planted her agricultural roots.

Leah Miller by Bruce Stambaugh

In a rare moment, Leah Miller was in her Small Farm Institute Office in Coshocton County, Ohio.

Born in Conneaut, Ohio near her parent’s home farm at Pierpont, Miller followed some pretty big family footprints. Her father and her father’s father were both agricultural teachers, in addition to running separate farms in Ashtabula County.

Miller’s mother, Celia Wright, took charge of the family farm when her husband, Eber, moved into regional planning. Ironically, that is exactly the job Miller took in Lake County after graduating from The Ohio State University in 1971. She became Holmes County’s regional planning director two years later.

There is a bit of double-irony in this scenario. The Holmes County regional planning office was in the front of Hotel Millersburg.

“My parents spent the first night of their honeymoon at Hotel Millersburg,” Miller said. “They got a late start from their wedding reception in Columbus and following U.S. 62, Millersburg was as far as they got.”

Miller served in this capacity for six years. Once she and her husband, Mic, started their family, Miller turned her efforts to community service. She served two terms on the West Holmes Local School Board. Later, she served on the board at Central Christian School. She also served a term on the Ohio Mennonite Relief Sale board of directors, and was a 4-H advisor for a dozen years.

Miller was the first director of the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce, once it expanded from beyond Millersburg proper. In the 1990s, Miller’s leadership abilities became political. She was twice elected as a Holmes County commissioner.

All the while she found solace from her demanding schedule on her 50-acre sheep farm, Blue Bird Hill, east of Millersburg. She also kept bees, as did her father.

Her love for land and the people that farmed stirred within her. In 2001, she worked with former state representative Joy Padgett to form the Small Farm Institute.

“There was a concern about erosion and farming,” Miller explained. “The emphasis was to help farmers do more grazing with their animals.” She said the sod would help reduce run-off, and at the same time provide a natural grass diet for cows, cattle and sheep.

Miller is the director of the Small Farm Institute, which is based at the United States Department of Agriculture’s hydrological station in Coshocton County. She assists small farm operations to improve income by providing helpful information on sustainable environmental practices that support strong family and rural communities. Her focus is on production, processing and distribution of product.

“We encourage people to look for value-added production to enhance profitability,” Miller said. “If they run a produce stand, they can increase their income by making jam or canning instead of selling all their fruit and vegetables fresh.”

Much of Miller’s responsibility revolves around facilitating grazing groups. She said this has been especially successful among the Amish, who tend to form their own peer groups in close proximity to help reduce the need for transportation.

“It’s been a joy to watch them expand,” she said. “They hold pasture walks where they share helpful grazing information with one another.”

As satisfying as that is for Miller, she also supports much larger events. Her skill sets also assist the annual North Central Ohio Grazing Conference for Dairy, which brings in hundreds of people, including many from other states.

Miller also advises the planning committee for the upcoming annual Family Farm Field Day. David and Emily Hershberger will host the event on their farm, located on Saltcreek Township Road 613 in Holmes County, on July 17, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

As if she weren’t busy enough, Miller works part time as stakeholder coordinator in agricultural economic development for the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster. She splits her time between there and the Small Farm Institute. Miller is the executive secretary of the Ohio Forage and Grasslands Council, too.

Miller has traveled extensively, including Australia, Mexico, France and Honduras, touring grazing and farm production operations and doing a little mission work, too. She uses these experiences to expand what she shares about improving local farming practices.

It seemed only logical then that Miller’s leadership abilities be put to use in yet another positive way for the community. Miller has successfully lead Leadership Holmes County for employees of area businesses for several years. In that fact, there is no irony.

This article was first published in the Holmes Bargain Hunter, July 5, 2010.

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A dairy farmer at a turning point

Hershberger farm

Bobby Hershberger's farm in Paint Valley west of Millersburg, OH.

By Bruce Stambaugh

A brief glance at Bobby Hershberger’s hands, and you know his profession. Crinkled, calloused, chapped, all the marks of a born-again dairy farmer.

Not yet 50, his thick fingers belie the rest of his body. His steely eyes still sparkle, even on a gray day in Ohio’s Amish country. His rutty smile foretells his honesty, integrity, and dedication to farm, family and faith.

Modest as the day is long, Hershberger loves dairy farming. He must. He has spent his entire life milking cows, plowing ground, seeding fields, mowing hay, picking corn, feeding livestock, caring for family, serving church and community.

On good days he only works eight hours or so. On really good days, he works twice that amount. Such is the life of a dedicated dairyman.

With his equally dedicated wife, Beth, at his side, Hershberger has made it all these years, even milking just 30 Holsteins, not exactly a mega farm. The Hershberger’s also operate Pine Loft Bed and Breakfast out of their home high on a hill that overlooks Hershberger’s home farm in Monroe Township’s Paint Valley west of Millersburg, the county seat in Holmes County.

“Tilling 110 acres and milking just 30 cows, there are Amish who have bigger farms,” he said humbly. The combination of his demeanor and his gentleness tells even a visitor that there is no malice in this man.

There are 40 years of thought, vision and compassion, however. Hershberger began milking cows with his entire family. He then went 50/50 with his father, and for the last 22 years, he has been on his own. And that has worn him down.

In his lifetime of milking, Hershberger has seen a gradual but significant transition in the dairy industry. When Hershberger started helping on the family farm, farming was slower paced. Cooperation out-muscled competition, and income was much more stable, thanks in part to government milk subsidies.

But much of that has changed. In the last decade or so, the change has become more an economic stampede of sorts. To put it simply, it’s either get run over by the big guys, or step out of the way.

As hard of a decision as it was, the Hershberger’s have chosen the latter. This summer they will sell their herd, effectively ending an agricultural aspect that has kept the couple close to home 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Holsteins, after all, don’t take vacations, so neither do their owners. As the couple looked ahead and weighed their options, the decision to stop milking became pretty clear. Day in and day out, milking cows is as grueling as it is satisfying.

“The decision really came down to this,” Bobby explained. “Either we had to expand or get out.” They loved their life on the farm. But they also knew that there was more to life than milking cows twice a day until you physically couldn’t do it any more.

“Farming is a challenge,” Bobby said. “The work is never the same from day to day because something always comes up.”

“I have enjoyed being able to work from home,” he reflected, “but when you milk, you are always at home.” Hershberger said after all these years he and his wife are simply tired.

Last year was an especially horrible year for farmers, according to Hershberger. In a way, that made their decision to stop milking much easier. Bobby saw staying in the dairy business as a sinking hole.

“With prices down, you work seven days a week and end up having nothing to show for it,” he said dejectedly.

Hershberger said that the only way to continue as a dairy farmer was to expand operations. To do that, he would have to purchase or rent more land, which would require him to buy bigger, better, and more expensive farm equipment and buildings, and hire farmhands. All of that meant borrowing more money, and that just wasn’t something he and Beth wanted to do at this stage in their lives.

Hershberger wanted to be clear that this was a personal decision. He doesn’t begrudge anyone. Dedicated farmer that he is, he wants the industry to succeed. But he sees the small farmer like himself being squeezed by the system more and more.

Hershberger is a practical man. “Being a dairy farmer has gone from a way of life to a way of making a living for big business,” he said.

With that, the strong, humble man’s voice tailed off, almost in a quiet relief of the decision he had made to stop milking cows. Hershberger said he would continue to farm the fields.

“But I will have to find a part-time job someplace to make up for the lost income,” he said realistically. “I feel at peace about my decision though.”

Bobby Hershberger

Bobby Hershberger on his way home from the barn.

This story originally appeared in the Farm and Dairy tab of the Holmes County Bargain Hunter.

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