News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 8, 2012

Legacies & Longevity: Families passionate about carrying on farming tradition

Susan Hayhurst
Special to the Tribune-Star

WABASH VALLEY — The word “homesteading” conjures up visions of people similar to Laura Ingalls and her family in “Little House on the Prairie.” They often rode in wagons for weeks across the country in difficult weather all to arrive at a pre-determined clearing and build a house, a barn and start farming.

That same tenacity and passion is what has fueled four area farm families to keep their operations thriving, and who were recently recognized with the “Hoosier Homestead” award by the Indiana State Department of Agriculture. Given in honor of preserving Indiana’s rich agricultural heritage, the award celebrates families with farms that have been owned by the same family for 100 consecutive years or more. The farm must also consist of 20 acres or more, or produce at least $1,000 worth of agricultural products per year. The Centennial Award is for 100 years of ownership, the Sesquicentennial Award is for 150 years, and the Bicentennial Award lauds 200 years.

More than 5,000 Indiana farms have received the honor since the program’s inception in 1976. Vigo and contiguous counties lay claim to 181 Hoosier Homestead citations: Clay 42; Parke 61; Sullivan 30; Vermillion 19; and Vigo 29. Two award ceremonies are conducted annually: one at the Statehouse in February and the other during the Indiana State Fair in August.

“It is always a privilege to present these awards and meet such dedicated members of our agricultural community,” said Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman. “These Hoosier families work tirelessly to help feed, clothe and shelter the world, and we champion their commitment to such an important part of our state’s heritage and future.”

The February award winners represent a variety of historical backgrounds and farming operations. Clay County’s Scherb farm is a Sesquicentennial award winner, having been founded in 1845. Parke County’s Gerrish farm, Sullivan County’s Flesher farm, and Vigo County’s Burnett farm are all Centennial recipients, having been founded in 1904, 1910 and 1911, respectively.

THE SCHERB FARM

Ron Scherb, a grain and Holstein farmer near Brazil, received his award notification as a surprise from his daughter Jennifer Swearingen on Christmas morning 2011.

“We had talked about applying for the award but what a sweet idea that Jennifer did all the paperwork and research and I didn’t even know about it,” said Scherb. “To hear about our award on Christmas was wonderful.”

Scherb and his wife, Kathy, raised their daughters, Jennifer and Caroline, on the dairy farm he grew up on. While they retired from operating a dairy in 2008, they’ve continued to farm, including baling straw and selling it to the neighboring Amish.

The award application involves much paperwork but Scherb says Jennifer jumped into the research and lineage tracking.

“She enjoyed reading the abstracts and the history of the farm and family,” he said. “The research also confirmed my grandfather, Henry Scherb, didn’t get married until he was 60 years old. My grandmother, Caroline Burkheimer of Illinois, was only 35 years old when she married Henry after corresponding with him via letters. Their only child, Henry Valentine Scherb, was my father and from whom I absorbed the farm in Clay County. It’s just a tremendous feeling to be recognized as a Hoosier Homestead farm.”

THE GERRISH FARM

Steve Gerrish is passionate about maintaining the legacy of his family’s land but he is also actively developing the farm’s leadership future. A maize geneticist, commercial plant breeder, and former director of business development at Purdue University, Gerrish takes his love of the land and his drive for new venture startups and strategizes how the two can mesh.

“It takes a lot of tenacity in anyone to have their business hit 100 years,” said Gerrish. “To get the Hoosier Homestead, you have to have the land. But it’s also important to have other business strategies to keep you going and branch out.”

Gerrish is the fourth generation to preserve the land. His great-grandfather, James Clarence Gerrish, came from Illinois and settled in Parke County. The family’s original entrepreneur, James, kept the farm going while also working as a horse trader and livestock producer. Steve’s dad, Dale, brought mechanization to the farm, trading horse power for machines and herbicides.

“There have been huge changes in plant genetics and species over the years,” Gerrish said. “But as the farm’s fourth generation looking ahead for the fifth and sixth generations, I see new issues to embrace. While my great-grandfather started with 240 acres and I now own 373, my three adult kids and my six grandchildren must look at new possibilities for the land like returning more to organic sustainability, recreational land use, and for personal community consumption. The public wants healthy, quality and identity-sourced food.”

Gerrish’s decision to apply reflected three purposes: to honor his grandfather and father’s hard work and heritage; to trace the farm’s history which included working with crop genetics as far back as the 1600’s; and establishing the application process as discussion basis for his family’s estate planning.

“It’s really cool that our family was part of this area’s settlement 400 years ago and that we’ve been here with this farm for 100 of it,” Gerrish said. “Somebody stepped up to the plate, got the money and started the farm. We are here to preserve it while moving forward into new ventures.”

THE FLESHER FARM

Ben Poehlein hopes the stories behind his family’s farm receiving the Hoosier Homestead designation will inspire his own children to carry on its legacy. Poehlein and his wife, Monica, and their young children, Luke and Veronica, live on the site where his maternal grandfather, Fred Flesher was born and later built a house and farmed.

“All of the time spent researching abstracts and completing the application was worth it for my mom, Connie, and to inspire my children,” said Poehlein, a Sullivan veterinarian.” “My great-grandparents Emma and Milo Flesher married when he was 17 and she was 15 and started the farm with 25 acres in 1910. He sold it to my grandpa Fred in the 1960s. Grandpa sold it to me in 2007 and we now have 53 acres which is farmed by my cousins. I’ve seen the handwritten bill of sale to Milo in 1910. The cost of ground then is nothing compared to today’s prices.”

Fred, a World War II veteran, also received one of the first Allis Chalmers tractors that were offered to veterans when they returned home from the war.

“I’m glad I went through the award process because it was great to see some families at the Statehouse with three and four generations attending,” Poehlein said. “The award also speaks to the fact that food in Indiana has mostly been produced by the same families for generations. You can have confidence in the food you eat because we eat it too. We are not a factory farm, and I am thankful for what I have. Hopefully I’ll be alive when my kids apply for the 150 year award!”

THE BURNETT FARM

A dedicated work ethic, a desire to keep the farm a priority, and appreciation for his grandparents living through thick and thin led Vigo County farmer Larry Burnett to tackle the Hoosier Homestead application process.

“Even though from a young age I knew I wanted to farm the last day of high school my dad, Harold ‘Jigs’ Burnett, died of a heart attack,” Burnett said. “I know hard work so I returned home to milking 60 cows a day, took care of the hogs, and working the crop operation. My grandfather, Jess, bought the original 55 acres in 1911. Grandma sold the place to Dad in 1959. I bought the farm in 1997 and own 1,100 acres and farm 2,700.”

Burnett farms with his son, Chad, and his full-time help Taylor Anders.

“My grandparents had to work during the Depression to keep the farm going and to pay the taxes,” Burnett said. “I really appreciate what my family did and I enjoy it too.”

For information on the Hoosier Homestead Award program, contact Libby Fritz at efritz@isda.gov or visit the website at www.in.gov/isda.