HAMMONDSVILLE, Ohio — Herman Howell leans off the gas pedal and lets the shadow of his F-250 creep across the ridge, barely moving along the wire fenceline.
The setting sun casts its last rays onto the yellow-orange and bright red maples and oaks, letting their blackened outlines hide the herd of black Angus cows grazing along the woodlot.
Howell, cupping his hand toward the sunshine, watches as the cows hear the truck’s engine and come running toward the ridge line.
“This is all my lifelong work, a lifelong dream,” he says, surveying the horizon before focusing his eyes back on the cows.
“And I can’t say it didn’t come true.”
Howell says he’s always been a farmer at heart.
That goes for his early childhood, spent on a cattle farm not far from here, where Herman worked alongside his father — who also worked off the farm — to keep the place going.
“Back then, it was all manual and hard to make it,” he reflected. That farm sold when Herman was 14, forcing the family to move to nearby Cream City.
Herman, though, never lost the interest his childhood farm chores had instilled, and took every chance he could to work alongside lifelong friend Tom Rawlings on his family’s homestead.
“Me and a buddy, we’d to go pick him up on a Saturday night and he’d still be working, so we took off our shirts and helped him,” Herman reminisced.
Those days of helping out for the fun of it paid off in the early 1980s when Herman, an engineer with 25 years in at Crucible Steel in Midland, Pa., watched the plant shut down. Only 45, he wasn’t ready to retire.
The small herd of Herefords he had at home, on the farm he and wife Kathleen had purchased from her father, wasn’t enough to keep him busy full-time. The farm was still growing, but he wasn’t ready to do that around the clock, either.
Rawlings, then CEO of Citizens Banking Company in Salineville, appointed his hard-working friend vice president, director of facilities and transportation.
“I planned banks and did drawings. My, did we build lots of ’em,” Howell recalled, noting when he first started in the role, the bank had only seven or eight branches and, when he was finished, it had expanded to nearly 200.
While at the bank, Howell met Fred Johnson, owner of the famed Summitcrest Angus herd. Johnson extolled the virtues of his beloved Angus, prompting Howell to buy 10 heifers and partner with Tom Rawlings to purchase a bull.
In the mid-1980s, Herman Howell took his first steps into the purebred Angus business.
Those relationships he’d built with Rawlings and Johnson paid off again and again over the years.
“We were wheeler-dealers,” Howell said of he and Rawlings. “He’d buy one piece of machinery, I’d buy another, and we partnered like that until we could both afford our own. We put our cows together sometimes, too. We learned a lot and had a lot of fun at it, too.”
“And Fred and I were great friends, too. I learned a lot about the Angus business from him,” he said.
Today, Herman and Kathleen Howell’s Ridge View Angus farm is close to 1,000 acres, thanks to good planning and friendly relationships that allowed them to buy neighbors’ parcels when they were available.
The property is more than just a farm, though. To the Howells — both of whom grew up on farms around here, and whose parents were farm kids, too — their farmstead is a piece of living history, one whose stories are worth telling over and over, even if they don’t involve cattle.
“A lot of people thought this farm was left to me by my parents, but it wasn’t,” Herman says proudly. “I attribute my success to friends and family and good advice and truly loving family traditions,” he said.
Howell’s cow herd, too, is a source of pride. Today numbering about 75 head, the herd boasts several that are classified in the upper 10 percent of the breed nationally.
“Years ago, we got serious about genetics,” said Howell, who also maintains a number of commercial purebred cows to use as recipients of high-quality embryos.
“Our goal is to breed the herd with top studs from everywhere they’re available, whether it’s from large artificial insemination companies to smaller cow-service people,” Howell said.
He also pays special attention to the genetics going out of his herd, offering several high-quality bulls for sale each year. He watches expected progeny differences, or EPDs; DNA tests cows to find peak tenderness and efficiency; and works with a nutritionist to balance rations with protein and minerals.
“The best thing we can do is put out the healthiest beef we can provide for people,” he said.
But Howell isn’t quick to take the credit for any of his work; he’s more obliged to credit his embryo transfer technician, or friend and adviser Henry Bergfeld, or the ATI student who helped on the farm this summer. Any one of them has put a fingerprint on Howell’s successful herd nearly as much as he has, he says, or taught him something new with their outlook.
“They’ve all been an education for me, too.”
Howell drives his pickup into the middle of one grassy paddock perched atop the ridge. From here, he says, he can see the entire farm: the barns and machinery shop that stand along the road and the paddocks stair-stepped across the Jefferson County hills, each dotted with the black cattle that bring him so much pride.
If he looks further, he can see the tops of the stacks at the Stratton power plant and, on a clear fall or winter day, he challenges himself to see all the way to the skyscrapers of downtown Pittsburgh.
But there’s no reason to look quite that far, Howell says. His dream come true is right here.