MERCER, Pa. – Digging fence post holes is often one of the least favorite jobs on the farm.
But brothers John and David McCullough gladly do it – and they dig a lot of them – just so they can farm.
The McCulloughs started their own fencing company 18 years ago when they were only 21 and 24. Today, they travel within an hour’s radius of Mercer County to install more than 150,000 feet of fencing each year.
The off-farm diversification gave them the steady cash flow they needed to develop their true love: Angus cattle.
“We started building fence so we could farm,” said John McCullough, now 42.
Getting started. The brothers raised steers through 4-H and got an early taste of farm life, helping with the family’s small herd of polled Herefords while their father, Harold, maintained a full-time job off the farm. But they were just teens when Harold died and they knew it would take a lot of hard work if they wanted to farm.
John attended the Pittsburgh Floral Academy, then worked in a greenhouse for five years and a Case IH dealership for another five years. David earned a two-year ag business degree before joining a fencing company, gaining the foundation for the brothers’ first venture.
All along, one thing was certain: “We always wanted to farm,” John said.
Diversification. Two airy, domed Superstructures are part of a new feedlot built last year. The McCulloughs have been building these Superstructures, too, for the last nine years, another enterprise that fits the pair’s skills. The buildings are a marriage of partial side walls, steel trusses and a durable shelter fabric covering.
But these two barns are their own, and David McCullough looks like a kid on Christmas morning as he surveys one barn’s three cattle pens and adjacent fenced-in paddock.
It’s a dream come true, he says.
The brothers now own about 425 acres, the bulk of it in hay or pasture and about 50 acres in corn. This year they had 130 Angus calves hit the ground and hope to reach 185 next spring.
They sell about a dozen registered Angus breeding bulls each year, and sold some groups of bred heifers. They also grouped feeder calves and shipped them out West to be finished.
The goal with the new Superstructure feedlot, though, is to transition to more direct marketing of their beef, finishing out their own cattle and processing it locally at McKean Packing for onfarm sales.
“We hate to take what you get when you take them to the auction,” David said.
Selling direct to the consumer seems like a natural fit for them, he added.
“We like dealing with people, we always have.”
Going public. Slowly, the McCullough brothers have been adding ground to their holdings.
Ten years ago, they bought the one-room school their dad attended, Oak Hill No. 4, which the locals all call the Stokely School. It sits on U.S. Route 62 east of Mercer with lots of consumer drive-by potential.
There, they’ve created Coolspring Farm Market and sell a variety of seasonal craft consignments, primitives and antiques, along with farm products.
But when the brothers bought another 40-acre parcel adjacent to the schoolhouse four years ago, their farm creativity cranked up a notch.
They created a corn maze.
Get lost! This is Year Three for the 10-acre Coolspring Corn Maze. Friend Joe Paxton planted corn in both directions, on a 30-inch square, and John McCullough drew the design and plotted it on graph paper.
Then, they began the tedious task of marking the field according to the gridded design and David drew the short straw to weedwhack the trails in mid-June when the corn was about 6 inches tall. The finished maze opened in mid-September and will be open through Halloween.
There’s not much for people to do around here on the weekends, the McCullough brothers say, which may be why the corn maze has been such a hit. On one recent Saturday, nearly 1,000 people went through the railroad engine-shaped labyrinth.
They have a deejay and dancing in a Superstructure pavilion, and also offer hayrides, which is a huge draw for families.
“We’ve grown up in farming and you don’t realize that to ride in a hayride is a big thing,” John said.
This year, they also grouped a bunch of large round and square bales into a mini-maze, and by evidence of the broken bales and hay piles inside, maze visitors have as much fun climbing and jumping in the hay as they do winding through the tall field corn.
Earlier this year, the McCulloughs bought 80 feet of railroad tracks and an old caboose and created a unique boarding area for the hayrides. It’s now a permanent part of the maze and farm market complex.
And when the people are gone from the maze trails, the corn will be harvested as feed for the cattle – the ultimate double crop, David laughed.
But it’s not surprising that the McCulloughs are always thinking of value-added opportunities for their operation. It’s just part of the plan for the enterprising pair – a plan that lets them farm.
(Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 800-837-3419 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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