SISTERSVILLE, W.Va. — Bill Ingram remembers a time when he was one of about 60 dairy farmers in Tyler County, West Virginia. He used to milk anywhere from 30 to 40 Holstein cattle at Ingram Farms, in Sistersville. He and other farmers grew crops on fields around their farms and even on islands in the Ohio River.
A lot has changed since then. It’s gotten harder to be a dairy farmer. He doesn’t know of any left in Tyler County. Farms are bigger, and many of them use tools like robotic milkers. He’s been retired from farming for a while, and got out of the dairy business even before that.
But at 90, he still looks back on those years of dairy farming with pride. He did just about everything himself, without an off-farm job to support the farm. His favorite part of farming was always milking the cows.
“I loved being around them,” he said. “Some people said I had the hardest job in the world, and it was hard. But it’s not as hard if you enjoy it.”
Now, he and his family’s farm are a permanent part of West Virginia’s farming history, as one of the 2022 inductees into the West Virginia Agriculture and Forestry Hall of Fame.
The farm has been in the Ingrams’ family since 1892. Bill Ingram’s grandpa sold the then 184-acre farm to Bill’s parents in 1941. His grandparents and parents milked Guernsey and Jersey cattle.
Bill eventually took over the farm from his parents and milked Holstein cows until 1977, growing the farm to almost 500 acres over the years. He had a herd of about 100 cattle, and was milking between 30 and 40 at any given time.
The best thing he ever did as a farmer, Bill Ingram said, was join the Dairy Herd Improvement Association testing program. He wasn’t able to join in Tyler County, because they were already full. But he was able to join through Monroe County, Ohio. That program helped him improve his herd from averaging between 7,000 and 8,000 pounds in his first year, to between 17,000 and 18,000 pounds per year by 1977.
He sold off the dairy herd in 1977. Dairy farming was getting harder, and there just wasn’t enough money in it anymore, he said. But he stayed in agriculture by raising Hereford cattle and hauling sawdust to other farms, particularly horse farms, in the area. That was around the same time that a lot of other dairy farmers made similar decisions.
“It was a learning experience,” he said. Eventually, he was hauling sawdust to 42 people from Marietta, Ohio, to Parkersburg, West Virginia.
A long list of plaques and awards hang on the wall in the kitchen of the farmhouse. Over the years, Bill Ingram has been recognized for service by groups including the West Virginia Farm Bureau and the West Virginia Association of Fairs and Festivals, for conservation as the 1975 Outstanding Soil Conservation Farmer by the West Virginia Association of Conservation Districts, and now as one of the 2022 inductees for the West Virginia Agriculture and Forestry Hall of Fame.
The hall of fame nod is one of his proudest achievements. He’s especially proud of all that he was able to accomplish without getting an off-farm job to support his farming.
“I’ve been able to survive by working on my own,” he said. “I didn’t have any work to keep my farming interests going.”
The longest he spent working off of the farm was as a bus driver for a little less than a year. He also worked in a chemical plant for about six months when he was young.
“I hated every minute of it,” he said. There were times when farming got hard, and he did think about getting another job. But then he would think about working at the plant, and “it cured me.”
Even while dairy farming, Bill Ingram also made time to go to tractor pulls and shows at local fairs and events.
“He would go to tractor pulls and not come home until two, three o’clock in the morning,” said Sara Ingram-Soles, one of his four children. “And then he would just go straight to the barn and start milking.”
“I knew if I went to the house and drank a cup of coffee, I’d be there at six o’clock,” Bill Ingram explained.
He still has quite a few tractors on the farm. One of his favorites to take to shows is a 1948 Allis Chalmers Model G tractor. It’s not a common model to see at shows, and he’s never seen one set up with a bucket the same way as his.
“I take it to Jackson’s Mill, and Ohio … and nobody’s ever seen one,” he said.
Bill Ingram’s dedication to agriculture extended to helping young people get involved in it. Everything he knew about farming when he started came from his father, or from his FFA chapter. He continued to support the Sistersville FFA as an adult.
“I always went to anything the FFA had for the public,” he said. He also was a founding member of the Tyler County 4-H Foundation, which supports the county’s 4-H program.
On the farm, some of Bill Ingram’s conservation practices included rotational grazing, and using contour strips where he grew hay on some of the hills around the farm.
Right now, another local farmer uses some of the Ingrams’ farmland to graze his cattle. But one of the main things Ingram hopes his children have learned from him is to keep taking care of the soil, and to keep the land in agriculture, not development.
Ingram-Soles wasn’t planning on coming back to the farm — she is a nurse, and lived away from it for 18 years — but decided to move back to the area as her parents got older and as she started having her own children.
As a nurse, she’s involved with the FARMacy WV program, which helps people with chronic diseases get access to produce. She also stepped up to replace her father on the county farm bureau’s board of directors when he stepped down recently after serving on it for 19 years.
She’s learning more as she goes, and while she doesn’t think of herself as a farmer, she wants to keep the land in agriculture in some way, and honor the farm’s history as a century farm.
She has thought about using it for agritourism, and working with other family and friends to create a co-op and a space where the farm can welcome guests to learn about agriculture and the farm’s history.
“As far as farming, I’m tiptoeing into that very lightly,” she said. “I’ve got to think outside the box and decide what I’m going to do with this century farm.”
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