‘Last man standing’

Tom Turner, of Wheelersburg, stands in the valleys of Lick Run Lyra Road in Wheelersburg, valleys that were once cropped twice a year with produce standing as far as the eye could see. Decline in the market, however, have left these fields barren.

Tom Turner, 60, of Wheelersburg, has seen a rise and fall of the farming industry in his lifetime.

“I’m the fourth generation farming this particular farm on Lick Run in Wheelersburg,” he explained.

His great-grandfather started farming the 350-acre farm in the middle of the 1800s. The farm was later taken over by his grandfather Russell Howard before going to his father and then to him.

“We’ve been out here 100 plus year,” Turner stated. “It’s been a bit of an evolution.”

The farm started out as a small grain farm with just a little produce. Turner’s grandfather was instrumental in expanding the produce operation, which would eventually lead the farm’s production.

“During the depression, my grandfather started peddling produce in Portsmouth at the farmer’s market on Market Street and then some of the local grocery stores.”

Turner’s father graduated in 1947 and wanted to come back and work the farm, again increasing produce production. That same year, he started delivering to the wholesale produce market in Huntington. When his grandfather passed away in 1974, Turner’s father still had children in the house and children going to college. The family needed to make more money, expanding to seven commercial accounts on the Huntington produce market.

This time of growth and expansion seemed to be occurring all around the farm. Scioto County was home of eight commercial produce farms at the time.

“That was the volume of produce that came out of Scioto County,” Turner confirmed.

Turner married his wife in 1979, and it became time for him to leave his mark on the family business. He started delivering produce to Columbus in 1981.

“Over the year, it just kind of grew,” Turner stated. “At the peak of our production, we were selling the equivalent of three-40 foot semi trucks of produce a week in the summertime.”

Over the years, the farm as ran a commercial egg production service, commercial hog operation and 50 to 100 head of cattle.

Times would change for the farm, however. Turner has watched as his once booming business and turned to vacant fields and thinner pockets.

“It seems like the beginning of our turnover kind of started with NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement signed in 1994),” Turner commented. “That kind of opened the floodgates to ‘where can we get it cheaper?’ Many of the large corporate farms, the sponsor farms in Mexico, Central American and Brazil.”

Through is work with markets in Columbus and Huntington, Turner has seen the switch away from local products.

“My buyers in Columbus have semis in Mexico twice a week currently,” he stated. “They have team drivers that can be in Mexico and back in four days. Not only that, but they will fly stuff in from foreign countries. The produce terminal in Columbus is right across the street from the airport. I’ve seen fresh produce in the Kroger in Columbus from China.”

As federal regulations increase, Turner said it has become harder to farm in the U.S. In order to continue commercial produce sells, he would have to rebuild most of his facility – a $150,000-$200,000 investment. The markets, however, are getting smaller. There are no longer small mom and pop groceries. Even markets in Huntington and Columbus are shrinking. Importing uninspected, unregulated food from outside the U.S. is a cheaper approach than paying increased cost for local goods.

“Cheaper is better in a lot of places,” Tuner commented.

As production costs continue to increase, profits have decreased. Turner explained that the year he married his wife, the price of shelled corn was at $4 a bushel and the price of soybeans was at $10 a bushel. Now, corn is between $3.60 and $3.70, and soybeans are between $9.80 and $9.95. Meanwhile, the cost of seed corn has gone from $40 a bag to between $250 and $300 a bag, and the cost of a new combine has gone from $100,000 to half a million dollars. These increases do not include wage increases for help on the farm.

“The profit margin is so thin, but the cost of production has gone up as much as 400 percent,” Turner commented.

Turner added that finding help is a major challenge.

“It sounds like I’m speaking ill, but I’m not. The influx of the Amish has had a huge effect. I’m not anti-Amish. I admire their work ethic/work ability. They’re good, honest, hardworking people. I just can’t compete with people that don’t have to pay their help.”

Turner has found that so few people want to work for minimum wage. He explained that so many people in this area live off a form of government subsidy.

“Why would you get off the couch and come to work for me for minimum wage. I get it. I understand that, but that’s my dilemma,” he stated. “Society has made work a four-letter word. The only people that sweat anymore are athletes, and if you’re an athlete of any consequence, you’re pretty much doing something 12 months out of the year with travel leagues.”

Turner explained that people are having less children, making it hard to even find high school and college kids that would be interested in a summer job.

With decreased profits, much of Turner’s brothers and family have had to seek other employment, leaving them little time to help on the farm, and his own children do not have an interest in taking over. He currently has so little help that he cannot continue supplying markets he has worked with for decades.

“I just can’t find enough qualified help to make it justified for me to drive to Columbus and back,” he explained.

It has reached a point where Turner has to make a decision for the future of the farm.

“When you own a farm, you either have to run it, rent it or sell it,” he explained.

Still able to do the work, he plans to hold on as long as he can but is sure he will be the last of his family to farm the fields.

“Our root run deep in this valley,” he said.

Like the roots of the crops once grown there, those roots are drying up.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Tuner expressed. “I may be the fourth generation, but I’m the last man standing.”

Turner has gone from raising 50,000 cabbage plants to 200 and cut 50 acres of sweet corn down to three.

“It’s basically a big garden as opposed to a commercial operation,” he said.

Turner and his wife still raise cattle and grain and put out a daily produce wagon in Wheelersburg that carries sweet corn, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, green beans, cantaloupes, cucumbers and pickles. They also supply produce to Deemers in Wheelersburg and Blackburns in New Boston when they have excess supply.

Despite fresher and potentially safer food from local suppliers, Turner says he does not expect the commercial produce industry to return. Many local farms are already gone. Turner explained that Andrew J Bihl and Sons Farm was once the biggest employer in Wheelersburg, employing 100 people and delivering to four states. Like many others, even that large of a local farm could not find a way to survive in the market.

Turner stressed that local is better even though it is on the decline. The produce his wife take on the retail wagon is picked fresh daily, and he knows it is safe. It is not sprayed with unregulated or unlicensed chemicals.

“We eat everything we grow,” Turner stated before questioning, “Is it important for you to know where your food comes from?”

Reach Nikki Blankenship at 740-353-3101 ext. 1930.