BEATING THE ODDS 2016
A monthly supplement to The Delmarva Farmer
Board members find support in each other, farm community after losing fathers
There’s a unique camaraderie among some of the younger farmers now serving or who have recently served on the Delaware Soybean Board.
It’s not bad luck, just an odd twist of fate that at least four of these young men lost their fathers at an early age and had responsibility for the family farm thrust upon them.
One of those is Kevin Evans of Bridgeville, whose father, Joseph Evans, was a veteran firefighter. Joseph died at age 61 at the scene of a fire alarm. On his Memorial Wall a friend posted, “He was more than willing to take you under his wing and show you the ropes.”
That’s how it has been with the more experienced farmers on the board.
Evans said another Bridgeville farmer, Jeff Allen, got him into the soybean board, where he found good allies.
“There’s always someone to bounce a question off of,” Evans said. “Everyone I served with has been very willing to give their input, to share things they’ve done in their time farming. I was very proud to serve for six years. It was a very good experience for me.”
Evans said the success that he, Jay Baxter, Dale Blessing, and Travis Hastings have had is due to the strength one gets growing up in a farming family.
“It shows that all the fathers taught us good values and instilled good character in us that has allowed us to endure. I am grateful that my parents put that in me.
“Nothing is a given in agriculture. Every year is different. You’ve got to be able to go through the low times to enjoy the good times. In my career, I’ve seen lots of ups and downs in farming, just in 10 years.”
A circumstance like losing a father can, for a lot of people, put an operation out of business or change it, Evans continued. “It has been neat to see my three colleagues doing well, really neat to see them carry the torch. I think their fathers would be extremely proud to see where they’re at today.”
Dale Blessing of Harrington was 21 when his father, Ronnie Blessing, died unexpectedly in 2006. Although he had worked with his dad since he was old enough to drive a tractor, Dale said he wasn’t really prepared to take over the farm.
“I had to wing it,” he said. He knew what had to be done in the fields, he said, but he had a lot to learn about the business aspect of agriculture.
Fortunately, there were a lot of people around him, older farmers he could go to for advice and neighbors and friends who help a lot.
“We had just started harvest, and the first priority was just to get through it. By the end of it, there wasn’t much else I could see myself doing. I like the challenge of it,” Blessing said.
His mother, Melissa, left the decision to keep the farm going up to him, and today they are partners. “She does the records; I manage the farm,” he said.
Travis Hastings was in the American Soybean Association’s DuPont Young Leader program when his father, John Hastings, died unexpectedly, leaving responsibility for Lakeside Farms in his and his mother, Pat’s hands.
“It happened in the spring of 2007, between the two trips,” he recalled. He joined the Delaware Soybean Board later, and has served for four years.
“When Kevin’s dad passed away, we were just getting to know each other. My dad knew Kevin better than I. When his dad died, my dad helped him get through picking cucumbers and other crops. We got closer then. Then when my dad passed away, Kevin was there every minute.”
Hastings, the fourth generation in his family to farm, had already taken over the watermelon growing side of the operation and had worked full-time with his father after graduation from college.
His father, Johnny Hastings, was only 59 years old when he died. Watermelon plants were due in the next week and the greenhouses used to protect them until planting weren’t ready. The night he died, a group of family and friends covered the greenhouses, saving the plants and that year’s crop.
The help from the farm community continued through the year. While Hastings had lost his mentor, he wasn’t alone.
“The older men, the farmers, are always available. I had several men help, especially the first few years. They don’t want to offend or step on toes, so they don’t tell you how to do it, but if you ask, they are more than willing to answer questions. They answer out of respect for our fathers. I still have to learn quite a few things on my own.”
Hastings has three children, 12, 7 and 2 years old. “I’m hoping some of them will follow in our footsteps. They have a long ways to go. You never know what will happen or what their interests will be. I didn’t know until I was 18 or 19, or maybe later.”
Only the oldest, Hayden, knew his grandfather. Now 12, for the last two summers he has been on the farm every day helping with cantaloupes.
“I started about the same age,” Hastings said. “Work with cantaloupes is the first step for an kid on our farm.”
Jay Baxter of Georgetown, said the situation — young men involved in family operations losing their fathers — is more common than people think. Because there are fewer farmers than years ago, that narrows things down a bit, he said.
“In my specific situation, I was a senior in college, age 21. My father died suddenly from a heart attack. Three years later, I was home, working on the farm. I had just gotten married. My father’s brother, who had been like a second father to me, died after fighting a brain tumor for little more than a year.
“The three of us — my father, uncle and I — had worked together with my grandfather.”
Jim Baxter Jr. and his family tended some 2,000 acres of crops in addition to raising chickens.
When his father died, Baxter said he had a choice to get up, dust himself off and do what needed to be done, or not.
“The way we (he and others in his situation at Delaware Soybean Board) carried on the farm on behalf of our parents is a testament to the way we were raised,” he said.
His father had also had instilled in him the “sheer love of farming.” Not everyone loves to farm the same way. Coupled with the love of farming is an inability, or unwillingness to be held back.
“There’s something about the spirit of a farmer that he isn’t afraid to fail. If and when we do fail, we get back up and go again.”
Baxter sees camaraderie not just on the soybean board but in agriculture as a whole. “When a windstorm destroys a building with the equipment in it, people come out of the woodwork to help. It was the same when my father passed away. We had to turn people down because we didn’t have anything for them to do.
“Farmers always have a competitive spirit. We try to outdo our neighbors, but if a neighbor needs something, we’re always there for them in one form or another, like when Burt Messick got hurt. It’s neat to watch neighbors come around. It always did impress me after Dad’s death that the community in general came alongside of us.”
When something like this happens, Baxter continued, you may not have all the answers, but you go to the person who is hurting and stand next to them, so they’ll understand you have been where they are. “It was healing to me to be next to someone who was hurting the way I was at one time.”
Baxter said his faith helped a lot. “I can’t put into words the comfort my faith brought me. I was in the hospital emergency room after my father was taken by ambulance. I found a quiet spot and said, ‘God, you know what I want, but your will be done.’ From that moment, I was at peace with it. Three hours after he was taken to Christiana he was pronounced dead.”
Baxter said there is an unspoken bond between the four young men. “We can all relate to one another.”
Being men, they don’t always readily show emotion, but in private times, Baxter said, “we can let our guard down. We don’t have to be so tough.”
“All of us respect our elders. We go to them for wisdom,” Baxter said. “It’s easier to go to a peer than to a family member. So many times, you think you’re smarter than your parents or grandparents, but others will tell you the same thing and you believe them. That’s one of the best things about being on the soybean board. Members are from all over the state, all farmers. They’re willing to share their mistakes, to pass hints on.
“There’s a special bond in agriculture that you don’t see in other realms of business.”