By Matt Reese
When I was a young boy, my parents decided to start planting Christmas trees on their farm, a labor-intensive endeavor that takes eight to 10 years to derive any income. The years that followed were filled with long hours of spring planting, summer mowing and shearing and winter harvests.
Whether we are planting 3,000 seedlings by hand under the warming spring sun or battling long days of soggy socks while harvesting trees for customers on a 35-degree rainy day during the sales season, my family depends upon each other to do what is needed to make it through. Sometimes it is easy, and sometimes it is not so easy, but we almost always find a way to have fun working together on the farm. These kinds of family relationships do not develop over night, but over years of working together with the common goal of producing something useful from the land.
Families that battle the challenges of weather, life and death, rain and shine, hot and cold, good times and bad on a farm are almost inevitably tightly knit. They have a common calling to labor on the land together and share the highs and lows that accompany a business involved in agriculture.
Every family farm in Ohio is unique, but there is also a common thread of that vital family camaraderie running through so much of agriculture. So often, the idea of a family farm is associated with small operations like ours, but that really is not the case. In fact, 96% to 98% of the 2.2 million U.S. farms, both large and small, are family owned and operated.
One of the largest hog operations in Ohio is large because it had to keep up with the growing family.
“When people throw out terms like ‘factory farms,’ ‘big ag’ and things like that, my farm is very large and would be considered all of those terms. But in reality, our farm has grown larger because we have multiple families living and working on that farm,” said Rachel Heimerl, who works with her husband and his family in Licking County. “I farm alongside my mother and father-in-law, there is my husband and I and he has two brothers who are involved in raising their families on the farm. So we have four farm families working together on the farm. If our farm hadn’t grown, it would not be big enough to sustain those families.”
The Heimerls are best known for their hog production, but they also raise cattle and grow 2,500 acres of crops to supply feed for their animals. The farm has definitely grown in size through the years, but the changes were necessary to keep up with the growing Heimerl family and to continue to make improvements in the quality and safety of the food they produce.
“We’re still raising the same animals and producing the same products that were produced 50 years ago, we’re just doing it on a larger scale,” Heimerl said. “Farmers often focus on a couple of commodities now, rather than everyone having one cow, two pigs and some chickens. When you focus on one species you can better provide the care they need. With our hogs, we are able to work with nutritionists and veterinarians who specialize in those species. Not only are we specializing, we are getting information from experts. When you go to the doctor, you want to see the expert. We can do the same thing for our animals because we are more specialized.”
Heimerl is one of the Ohio representatives in the national CommonGround program that is comprised of a group of farm women volunteering their time to answer questions about food and agriculture and also to put a face with farming.
CommonGround includes women, many who are mothers, from farms around the country. They have dedicated their lives to feed your family, and theirs, all while making many memories along the way through working hard together in ways that can only be found on family farms.