Farming on the heels of disaster: Rebuilding, success eight years later

KINGSVILLE, Ohio – A devastating fire in 1994 forced an Ashtabula County family to come face-to-face with some difficult decisions, including whether farming was really meant for them and whether they wanted to rebuild their farm and continue the challenging career.

But, inevitably, they realized, as true farmers always do, that farming was in their genes – an undeniable part of them they could never ignore, despite the enticing appeal of a job with “normal” hours.

“[Farming] is in our blood,” Myron Eldred said. “We’d need a complete blood transfusion to change that.”

A day in the life. The dish settings are already in place at the breakfast nook when brothers, Rick and Myron, walk into their mom’s house, the farm house, for their daily breakfast break.

They flip over their bowls and pour some cereal while the smell of home-cooked fried eggs wafts through the kitchen. Their mom, Gladys, is cooking up something good.

The brothers milk 85 grade Holsteins in a double-five parallel parlor and rent approximately 155 acres in addition to the 338 acres they own in Ashtabula County. Their crops include oats, corn, wheat and beans and alfalfa for the first time this year.

As kids. Gladys Eldred said her sons were dedicated and worked hard even as youngsters on the farm. She even called Myron off from school on senior skip day so he could spend it planting in the field.

She looks at her boys and laughs, “You sure didn’t earn those muscles playing baseball.”

Myron’s first chore was feeding the calves and he recalls that at the time he liked it a lot. Then he smiled, as if this was the first time he realized it: “I’m still doing it today.”

Rick also started his farm career young, before they had pipelines for the milk.

He had the tedious job of taking a wagon full of pails of milk from where the cows were milked up to his grandpa. His grandpa then poured the milk into a tank. He said it was hard taking the wagon around the corners of the barn because the milk splashed out.

“At first I thought it was a one-day thing. Then I realized we had to do it every day,” he laughed.

In 1976, after Rick said he’d leave unless they finally invested in a pipeline, his father agreed and a pipeline system was installed.

“Doing away with the pail milkers was paradise,” Myron said.

Myron now does all the milking and also handles the veterinary side of the operation. Rick feeds the calves and maintains the machinery.

Background. Myron and Rick’s parents, Gladys and Richard, bought the farm in 1958 and raised their seven children there. Richard’s father was also a farmer, and Gladys’ father helped out on the Eldred farm when he was needed.

Despite Gladys not being a farm girl when she met Richard, she said she quickly adapted to the farming lifestyle.

Although Richard died in 1998, Gladys has stayed on the farm.

“I know I could leave, but I have no desire to,” she said. “I’ve always liked farming.”

Although two of her sons continued the family’s farming tradition, she said she never really thought whether she wanted her kids to take it over someday. Although she is happy they continued farming, she said it is a hard life and she would never push a child into the lifestyle.

Today, Gladys does the book work, helps clean outside, takes care of her grandchildren, fixes her sons’ meals and is usually still out in the barn twice a day. She can do it all, she said, but draws the line at milking.

And her motto: “Don’t count on the price of milk until you see the milk check.”

Problems. Myron said he “cherishes the moments when the herd is completely well.”

Although their barn’s freestall design allows for better ventilation and cow comfort than their previous stanchion barn, Myron said the cow turnover is still higher than he would like.

Future. The Eldred brothers aren’t into the idea of expansion.

“We want to keep things as simple as possible,” Myron said. “Our philosophy is that we’re conservative, but we try to progress little by little to prevent the downfall other farms run into.”

With more animals and more land comes the need for employees, which is something Rick wants to avoid. The biggest thing he hears other farmers complain about is unreliable help and he does not want those headaches.

“We’re small enough not to need to hire help, but in a pinch we have people to help out,” Myron said.

One of Rick and Myron’s brothers and a neighbor are both familiar with farming and are usually able to help when needed.

Rick likes the way things are now, just him and his brother. However, he admits the future will bring expansion on the Eldred farm so that they can continue to make money.

Although both brothers aren’t sure about expansion, they say their farm was rebuilt after the fire with future expansion in mind – just in case.

Sprawl dangers. While many farmers are facing urban sprawl’s threat, the Eldreds feel lucky that it’s not much of a problem. They are located on a low-traffic road about 10 miles from any nearby city.

Myron said he has seen an increase in land prices, which results from more people moving to the area, but local land prices are still cheaper than in more populated areas.

Both brothers say their family is extremely important to them and that they are especially grateful for their wives: Myron’s wife, Rosemarie, and Rick’s wife, Janice.

Rick’s son, Justin, is 9 years old, and his daughter, Cassie, is 14. Myron’s daughter, Raeanne, is 3, and his other daughter, Katie, is 1.

Humble. What are these two farmers who run the entire operation themselves most proud of in all their years farming?

Silence.

“They sure aren’t braggers,” Gladys said proudly after many moments of silence from her sons.

“I’ve raised a family to be proud of and they’ve all stayed close,” she said. “All but two children live in the county, and anyone who knows my kids, respects them.”

The fire. Breakfast has long since been over, and they finally bring up one of the most serious, emotional topics in their lives: the fire. Through tears, Gladys said she remembers the night after the barn burned.

“The boys stood out there and kept saying, ‘We played in that barn. We worked and played there together.'”

The fire, believed to be caused by electrical wire friction, was their worst nightmare, Myron said.

Rick and his mother were the only ones home at the time, and Rick rushed to get the cows out of the barn while the fire consumed the hay upstairs. Luckily, he got all 50 cows out in time.

There was only one cow that didn’t want to cooperate, Rick said. Despite the pushing, pulling, yelling and smoke, she would not budge. Rick ran outside and awhile later, when he looked over his shoulder, he saw the stubborn cow down by their pond getting a drink. She had just wanted to come out on her own.

Perseverance. Despite the fire that left them in shock, the Eldreds were out 10 days later, on Halloween, baling hay. This was the latest they had ever baled, but it was the only hay left.

The fire brought out the best in lots of people, the family says. People they didn’t even know came out of the woodwork to help and give support, Myron said.

“It was inspiring and helped keep us going,” he said.

Rick said one stranger came to the farm and spent an entire day helping clean up and then left at the end of the day without even giving his name.

Although the family spent several months carefully deciding whether to rebuild their destroyed barns, the decision wasn’t easy.

Before the fire, their barns had been paid off, and the farm was debt free. After the fire they had to go back to the bank, where they were told that in order for it to be worth it to rebuild, they would have to keep at it for 20 more years.

This would be a lifetime commitment, and they weren’t sure if they wanted to take that jump, Myron said.

But of course they did. Like Myron said: It’s in their blood.

(You can contact Kristy Alger at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at kalger@farmanddairy.com.)

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