- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2005

John Stelzl proposed to his wife, Sarah, in the doorway of his family’s dairy barn, close to the spot where his mother had placed her little feet in the cement as a child decades earlier.

A dozen years later, John and Sarah Stelzl are continuing the tradition of the Stelzl family farm near Winchester, Va. The past is all around them, where Mr. Stelzl’s family has owned the land for generations. So is the present, where Mr. and Mrs. Stelzl have expanded and modernized to turn their hog-and-dairy operation into a more profitable enterprise. The future is there, too, where the Stelzls’ son, Tommy, 3, plays near the hog barn that someday may be his place of employment.

“I definitely knew I wanted to farm,” says Mr. Stelzl, 34. “There was never a feeling to be called to do something else.”

Young farm families like the Stelzls are becoming harder to find. U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show the average age of American farmers is 55.3, and less than 10 percent of farm families can rely solely on their farm income. Development, competition from large-scale farms, reduction in government subsidies and poor succession planning all have contributed to the decline, says Robert Fetsch, extension specialist and professor of human development and family studies at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

“The number of farmers is decreasing, and their age is increasing,” he says. “You just don’t see many young people who want to go into it. The difference between many farmers and 40-hour-a-week workers is that farming is not a job — you are living your work.

“Work and family life are integrated,” Mr. Fetsch says. “When you are sitting at Thanksgiving dinner and you notice your cows have gotten onto the road, you can’t wait until 8 a.m. on Friday to do something about it. You have to do it now.”

The Stelzls know all about that. They have no full-time help at Fairview-Springhill Farms. Their 300-acre farm is home to 16 calves and 50 milking cows. The Stelzls also raise 6,000 hogs a year.

While Mr. Stelzl has made many features — such as the milking machines — more automated, animals have to be cared for seven days a week. Some days are lighter than others, but there hardly ever is a real day off, he says. To take their annual weeklong beach vacation, the Stelzls have to hire a substitute to work the farm.

“Some people view farming as a lifestyle more than a business,” says Mrs. Stelzl, 31. “There certainly are lifestyle perks … but you have to see it as a business.”

You also have to see being a farm family as a partnership, with defined roles for each partner, she says. Mr. Stelzl is in charge of the more labor-intensive aspects of the farm. He is up at dawn to milk cows, care for hogs and take care of other farm matters. He spends his downtime reading farm journals and being involved with the Virginia Farm Bureau, where he was president of the Young Farmers Committee for two years.

Mr. Stelzl’s parents both had off-farm jobs for most of their adult lives. Mr. Stelzl’s father, Louis, farmed full time for about seven years until illness forced him to retire. He died in 2002.

Mr. Stelzl, an only child, knew that farming for a full-time income would mean making changes to the way things had been done. He decided on grass-based dairy farming and has business deals with dairy and pork processors, which provides a more reliable income.

“John is thinking like a businessman,” Mrs. Stelzl says. “We’re making a good living. We’re both from middle-class, hardworking families. We are certainly living a comfortable lifestyle.”

Mrs. Stelzl works full time off the farm as an eighth-grade science teacher at Warren County Junior High School in Front Royal. Tommy goes to a baby sitter’s house and attends preschool part time. After school, Mrs. Stelzl feeds the calves while Tommy helps or plays nearby. Mrs. Stelzl also is in charge of office-related farm matters, such as keeping the company books.

“The role of the farm wife has changed,” Mrs. Stelzl says. “Society has changed. There are still women who are stay-at-home moms on farms, but more and more households everywhere need a double income. June Cleaver has a job now.

“We’ve worked together to build something,” says Mrs. Stelzl, who grew up nearby but did not come from a farming family. “Not that John can’t do it without me, but together we do a better job. He is a visionary — he can see the long term. I can complement him by seeing the day-to-day aspects of it.”

The Stelzls face the same challenges as many other families who farm. The population expansion near their land in Stephens City, about 100 miles from the District, is evident in the new tract housing that can be seen from the barn. Taxes and insurance rates are rising. As in any business, there is pressure to increase volume and revenue.

Still, the Stelzls say they are in farming to stay. They want to set up a profitable enterprise, and Tommy can decide someday whether he wants to continue it.

“The dairy farm is where I grew up,” Mr. Stelzl says. “Even if I won the lottery today, I probably would blow most of it on setting up the ideal farm.”

New to farming

Myron and Cathy Horst are even more of an anomaly. They longed for years to become farmers. In 1996, they got their chance when they took over a run-down farm property owned by Montgomery County.

The Horsts, who have six children ranging from age 4 to 16, restored and repaired the 25-acre property in Dickerson. Today, their primary revenue comes from 1,800 egg-laying chickens. The eggs are sold to individual customers, restaurants and health-food stores in the area. The family also raises hormone-free sheep, chicken, turkey and beef.

Mr. Horst, a former carpenter, designed and built several of the farm structures, including the laying houses for the hens. Mrs. Horst tends to business matters for their enterprise, called Jehovah-Jireh Farm.

The six children — Joel, 16; Nathan, 11; Kara, 10; Daniel, 8; Luke, 6; and Melody, 4 — all do various farm tasks. Joel milks the family’s personal cow and has beehives. Nathan cares for the sheep and gathers, cleans and boxes eggs. Kara cleans eggs and will be one of the main gardeners for this year’s vegetable garden. The children earn a small amount of money for cleaning and boxing eggs, Mrs. Horst says.

“We have no employees,” she says. “We are totally a family operation.”

The Horsts, who are Mennonite, are home-schooling their children. The farm experience is part of the curriculum, they say. In addition to the basics such as math, history and spelling, they want each child to know how to raise sheep, grow vegetables using sustainable organic methods, and raise pasture-based poultry.

The family has a morning devotional time before feeding the chickens and opening the shelters. They do schoolwork in the morning. After lunch, the children gather and clean eggs and work on various outdoor projects.

“A young person needs to know how to work,” says Mr. Horst, 42. “If they know that, they will be successful in anything. A farm is an ideal place to learn that.”

Joel says he “definitely” likes living on a farm. The children ride bikes on the farm’s gentle hills and wade in the creek on the property. They built a log cabin out of split rails. There are baby chicks to hold.

“I wouldn’t go back to the way we used to live,” Joel says. “There is a lot to do here. We don’t get bored.”

The Horsts are proud they did not borrow money to pursue their dream. The county did not charge them rent for two years while they rehabilitated the property. They now pay a small rent, and Mr. Horst has eased into full-time farming.

“We’re getting by,” Mr. Horst says. “Everything we’ve been making to this point has gone back into the farm. We did not borrow money, so it has been difficult, but it has forced us to look at things in an innovative way.”

In early 2004, the Horsts thought hard about whether they should continue to farm. Mr. Horst’s former business, making custom cabinetry, had produced much more income, he says.

They asked the children what they thought, and the unanimous vote from them was to continue the farm. They all prayed, and Mrs. Horst says God directed them to keep farming.

The family then expanded the chicken operation in hopes of increasing profits. They hope to raise 1,800 meat chickens and 150 turkeys this year.

“We couldn’t be doing this if God hadn’t provided,” Mrs. Horst says.

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