Naomi Shepler was at a loss. She and her husband, Jake, had been running themselves ragged getting their farm operation off the ground between several different properties.
“Pigs were over there. Chickens over here. We just drove all over the place,” she said. “It was how we had to start.”
That was OK at first, until they had their first child together. A couple years later, they had another baby. Driving around that much became an untenable chore.
She had an idea. There are a lot of older farming couples around the area. Surely, they wanted their land to stay in agricultural use. Maybe they would be willing to transition the farm to a young couple with a solid foundation and some big ideas. Naomi looked through the county property records online.
“I’d write down people’s addresses and send them a letter in the mail,” she said. “And most of the time, they wouldn’t get back to me.”
The letter writing campaign didn’t work, but eventually they found their forever farm. Just like a lot of their farming experience until that point, it took a wing, a prayer and a lot of work.
Finding an opportunity
The Sheplers started their farm in 2014, shortly after they got married. They were both active in 4-H growing up. Jake raised pigs. Naomi raised goats. But, otherwise, they didn’t have experience in production agriculture.
The newlyweds rented a house near Naomi’s parents, in Ohioville, Pennsylvania, and kept some of their animals there and some at Jake’s family farm. Someone else they knew had a vacant field, though it didn’t have running water.
“He let us use it in exchange for eggs and chicken,” she said. They raised laying hens, meat chickens, Thanksgiving turkeys and pigs. Everything is out on pasture.
Farm and Dairy ran a story on the couple in February 2018 titled, “Farming without a farm.” It detailed how the couple got started and how they longed to buy their own farm without burying themselves in debt.
They sold their goods at a farmers market and a local health food store. While Jake, 29, worked during the day at a sanitary sewer authority in a neighboring township, Naomi, 30, handled marketing, web design, daytime animal management and raising their two sons. They were still figuring things out, but they had a good system going.
“We are just trying to get through this season of life,” Naomi said, in the February 2018 story. At the time, their youngest son was only 3 months.
It wasn’t too long after Farm and Dairy story ran that an opportunity popped up. Just like Naomi had suspected, there was an older couple with a homestead looking for someone to take it over and work the land.
They connected with the Sheplers through a family member. The older couple heard about Naomi and Jake, read the story in Farm and Dairy and thought they might be a good fit for their land.
“They cared about the land and wanted to find a ‘good Christian couple to be good stewards of the land,’” Jake said.
The first time the Sheplers saw the house was in March 2018. It needed a lot of work. There was an old barn that was falling over. Fence line was overgrown and falling down. But it had just over 21 acres tucked back into the woods on a back road, off another back road.
“They had to have the right buyer,” Naomi said. “They were willing to sell at a low price to get it sold, and that was what we could afford.”
Building it up
They bought the house in the fall of 2018. Even that wasn’t an easy process. They initially expected to be able to get a farm credit loan for beginning farmers, but that required 20% down. The Sheplers didn’t have that.
“We almost gave up on it a couple times,” Jake said. “The land was worth more than the house. We couldn’t get funding.”
Eventually, they were able to get a renovation loan through the USDA to be able to buy the property and fix the house so they could safely live in it. They knew a contractor from their church who could do the work and allowed them to help, to lower the costs.
“My dad, father-in-law and I are really handy,” Jake said.
They spent the winter fixing it up and finally moved in May 2019.
Now, they’re building everything back up again.
Their first year at the new place, they just raised laying hens and Thanksgiving turkeys. Last year, they finished about 800 meat chickens — the most they’ve ever done — in addition to pigs, turkeys and their laying hens. They usually keep about 100-150 hens at a time.
“We’re so happy to have our own place to do what we want and put down some roots, and not be asking people permission,” she said.
The falling down barn is gone. They’re building a new one this year. Another thing on the list is to put up new fence, so they can stop relying on temporary fencing. Their children now are 5 and 3. They boys can help collect eggs, with supervision. They also carry feed out to the chickens.
“We don’t want to grow really big,” Naomi said. “We’re happy staying the size we are and just trying to make things better.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or email@example.com.)
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