By Doug Wolfgang and Stephanie Zimmerman
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXVIII, Number 2 - Spring 2012
The Miller Farm, Kutztown, Berks County, settled in 1741, was designated a Pennsylvania Bicentennial Farm in 1977, one year after the program was launched. Photo by stephanie zimmerman
Penn's Woods possesses a rich agrarian heritage and its inhabitants have long borne an abiding stewardship for the land, a time-honored conviction that remains deeply embedded in the more than sixty-three thousand farming families that call Pennsylvania home. From the fertile landscape sprouts a $57 billion economic endeavor that supports one in seven jobs, making agriculture the Commonwealth's leading industry.
The Keystone State claims some of the most fecund non-irrigated soils found anywhere in the country. It is located within a day's drive of urban populations which will forever rely on the family farm. Preserving farms guarantees future food supply and contributes to a vibrant economy. Conserving farmland also assures this way of life will transcend generations - a belief that drives the Century and Bicentennial Farms programs administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. As rich as the limestone soil that blankets the valleys of central Pennsylvania is the history of the Pennsylvania farmer. More than two thousand farms are designated as Century or Bicentennial Farms. The program showcases the strength and durability of the family farm by recognizing properties that have been in the same family for one hundred and two hundred years, or more.
The promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness attracted German and Scotch-Irish immigrants to founder William Penn's beloved colony in the eighteenth century. They cleared forests for farming, settled villages, forged traditions, and planted roots. The sovereignty of a new nation relied on the ability to feed its citizens. For more than a century, Pennsylvania led in production of food through critical periods such as the Revolutionary War. The Commonwealth remains a leader in agriculture, providing food to national and international markets. Pennsylvania farmers reflect in many ways their ancestors: steeped in traditional values, love of family, and an undeniable connection to the land.
It is no coincidence that Pennsylvania is a national standard-bearer in the protection and preservation of farms. The Department of Agriculture's Pennsylvania Farmland Preservation Program purchases permanent agricultural conservation easements on prime farmlands. More than 4,200 farms, totaling 460,000 acres, have been protected, many of which have been formally recognized as Century or Bicentennial Farms. The program is successful for many reasons but none more so than the farmers' commitment to ensuring that future generations can produce the food, fiber, and fuel needed to survive. This connection to the land is a primary motivator in committing to preserve farms in perpetuity. The vast majority of Pennsylvanians support farmland preservation, evidenced by the polls whenever major bond referendums are approved by voters.
Of the hundreds of heirloom farms recognized by the Department of Agriculture, a small sampling offers insight to the families which still own and farm them. They represent a cross-section of a dynamic agrarian and cultural heritage. Their stories follow.
A lifetime on the farm
H. Raymond Shutt and Sons Dairy Farm
Perry County, 1911
Pearl, age 88, and Bud Shutt, age 93, live on the farm that his father, Harry A. Shutt, purchased for twenty dollars an acre in 1911. photo by jason hockenberry
H. Raymond "Bud" and Pearl Shutt share a lifetime of memories made on their farm. The couple, aged 93 and 88, respectively, along with sons Ronald and Larry, own H. Raymond Shutt and Sons Dairy Farm in Newport, Perry County. The farm was purchased in September 1911 for twenty dollars an acre by Harry Adam Shutt, Raymond's father. The Shutts still farm exclusively on the original 138-acre tract.
The log farmhouse in which Bud and Pearl live was built in 1773. The barn was built before 1911 and still houses dairy cows. Although originally a crop farm, a dairy herd was added in the early 1920s. Bud and Pearl bought their first cows in the late 1940s after they were married, including Holsteins and a few Jerseys. The milk was stored in cans, which were set in water pumped by hand to keep them cool. Electricity arrived in 1948.
The Shutts purchased their first tractor in 1940, when gasoline cost nine cents a gallon, but they did not sell their three teams of mules until 1950. One team pulled a one-furrow plow.
In addition to their dairy operation, the Shutts also operated a threshing machine and sawmill. The family owned steam engines and traveled throughout the area with them. In that era equipment was shared by and among neighbors, who all - regardless of age - worked together to help each other. The Shutts acquired most of the timber for the mill from woods on the farm and cut it into finished boards. Bud's father undertook many custom milling jobs for neighbors. The sawmill ceased operation in 1996.
Today the dairy is a tie-stall barn featuring a milk pipeline. The cows, out in the pasture as much as possible, are milked twice daily. Pearl milked the cows through 1973 when the milk pipeline was installed from the ceiling.
The farm has served as a homestead for the Shutts. Bud and Pearl have been married for sixty-six years. Bud's mother, Minnie, lived to be 104 years old. All of Bud and Pearl's children were born and raised on the farm, and when son Ronald and Jan were married in 1975, they built a home on the farm.
A lifetime on the farm brings many fond memories and much laughter. For example, when Bud and his brother Larry were young they wanted to slick their hair back for the school picture. Their mother did not have the expensive hair gel everyone was using at that time, so she softened lard and put it in the boys' hair; it looked just like commercial hair gel. The winter morning air was chilly and during the boys' walk across two pastures and over a fence on their way to school, the lard had hardened and turned pure white. The boys sat through classes with frosted hair, much to everyone's amusement.
The hazards of the farming occupation caught up with Bud, injured in a serious tractor accident around 1950. His tractor flipped over, pinning him so tightly with its steering wheel that he had to be dug out from beneath the tractor. His son, who was with him at the time, was not injured and ran for help. With his broken leg pinned together, Bud was unable to work on the farm. During his recovery, neighbors pitched in with the farm work, a common gesture that continues in the farming community today. Neighbors also visited and played cards with Bud to pass the time.
"Bud was a wonderful teacher to his boys," remembers daughter-in-law Jan Shutt. "His son Ronald has passed this same knowledge on to his sons. They have a lot of respect for one another."
Standing the test of time
Charles and Janice Graver
Northampton County, 1804
In 1914, the Farm Journal published a photograph of the farm, described as "The Model Farm of Thomas A. Graver." FROM THE FARM JOURNAL (1914)
Charles and Janice Graver, along with daughters Chris and Megan and grandsons Derek and Conner, are proud owners of a 148-acre beef operation in Bath, one of two Bicentennial Farms in Northampton County. The Graver Farm was established in 1804 when the original 66 acres were purchased for $20 per acre. Today, the farm contains 148 acres, 140 of them tillable land. A small residence was erected before 1838 and a larger, main two-story stone farm house was built about 1900.
Reminders of traditional farming methods and farm life abound. A combination smokehouse and cold cellar stands adjacent to the main house. A trough in the cellar of the main house cooled milk cans using water pumped from a hand-dug well. The dwelling's slate roof was put on more than a century ago. Fireplaces throughout the house have also survived. In 1948, a line was dug from the barn to supply water to the house, but the first indoor bathroom was not installed until 1960.
The original barn was constructed prior to 1912 and retains vintage details such as a horse-powered hay claw hanging from the roof, ready to once again be hitched to a team of draft horses to unload wagons full of loose, longstemmed hay. The Gravers built an addition to the barn that housed horses, allowing them room to walk in a circle, using a method known as "sweep power" to drive equipment via a geared system in the days before gasoline (and later electricity) became common in rural areas.
In the 1940s the Gravers raised dairy cattle, hogs, field crops, hay, and fruit trees. By the 1970s they had sold the dairy cows and raised only crops - corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, and hay. In 1990 they began a beef cow/calf operation and continued growing corn, forage crops, and pastures. Today the Gravers have a waiting list for their grass-fed beef, hogs, laying hens, and vegetable crops.
Albert Graver purchased the first tractor used on the farm in 1942. He was a block man for the J. I. Case Company and travelled throughout the region selling the company's agricultural equipment to area dealers. The Gravers continued using horses into the 1950s. In 1970 they averaged between sixty and seventy bushels of corn per acre for which they received a lucrative $1.50 per bushel. In the post-Great Depression era, the Gravers saw corn prices pushing a high of three dollars per bushel. Today's corn prices average near eight dollars a bushel.
In past eras, farmers considered fences to be community railings and enclosures; families, including children, took turns repairing them. Between 1947 and 1957, fences separating the land were removed, opening a large continuous tract of farmland and paving the way for the progressive and conservation-oriented rotational grazing system used for cattle today.
The farm's next generation is following in the Graver family's farming tradition; grandson Derek Thomas raises pigs and is a member of 4-H.
In addition to its bicentennial status, the farm was preserved through the Northampton County Farmland Preservation Program in 2007. The state Farmland Preservation Board held a celebration on the Graver farm in 2007 to mark the 400,000th acre preserved through its program.
The key to holding the family farm together for so many years, Charles Graver contends, is teamwork. "Everyone works together," he says.
Diversity for prosperity
Jersey Acres Farm
Schuylkill County, 1904
Jersey Acres Century Farm, Pine Grove, Schuylkill County, also operates a farm stand offering fruit and produce, as well as wine made from grapes grown in a vineyard planted in 1999. photo by stephanie zimmerman
Ralph and Annie Heffner and sons Kent and Karl own Jersey Acres Farm, a dairy operation, orchard, and vineyard in Pine Grove, Schuylkill County. The original farm consisted of 133 acres and 11 perches and has since been expanded to more than 500 acres. The original 133-acre tract was preserved through the Commonwealth's Farmland Preservation Program in 1993, five years after the program began. The farm was purchased on July 8, 1910, for four thousand dollars by Ralph's grandparents, Harry and Sallie Heffner. Ralph was born in the farmhouse, built prior to the Heffners' purchase, and has lived his entire life on the farm. The original barn burned after a lightning strike in 1939 and its replacement was rebuilt the same year.
The dairy operation began with nine cows. By 1950 the Heffners expanded to twenty-five cows and in 1965 milked ninety cows in a tie-stall barn facility. They now milk 160 Jersey cows in a milking parlor built in 2003. They raise their replacement heifers, selling all bull calves, and raise crops such as corn, soybeans, and hay.
Diversification has kept the farm successful. The original four-acre apple and peach orchard, planted before the Heffners acquired the property, has grown to twenty acres of apple, peach, plum, nectarine, and cherry trees.
As Ralph approached retirement he considered small projects that would keep him busy. The vineyard, planted in 1999 on five acres, was his retirement project. The family's Stone Mountain Wine Cellars averages four to five tons of grapes per acre and produces approximately 140 gallons of wine for each ton of grapes harvested. The Heffners produce their own varieties of wine - several of which garnered awards at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in 2010, 2011, and 2012 - but also trade and sell grapes with other vineyards. It takes approximately one year from grape harvest until the wine is ready to bottle. Several varieties can take up to two years to be ready for sale. To celebrate one hundred years of ownership of the farm, the family marketed two semi-sweet wines, Century Red and Century White, in 2011. Jersey Acres Farm also produces ten acres of vegetable crops, including potatoes, strawberries, sweet corn, and raspberries, which are sold in a roadside market.
The apple ground cellar, still in use today, was in place when the Heffner family acquired the farm. It was expanded in 1955 to allow for more storage of apples and peaches. The large cooler in the roadside market store was built in the late 1960s and can hold more than three thousand bushels of apples.
Ralph remembers the first tractor being purchased in 1942, although the Heffners kept their team of mules until the late 1940s.
The importance of education has always been stressed in the Heffner household - all children are graduates of the Pennsylvania State University. "Diversifying our farming operation and changing with the times has allowed us to be prosperous over the years," says Ralph.
A living history
John R. and Patricia A. Sargent
Washington County, 1811
The 155-acre Sargent Bicentennial Farm, Scenery Hill, Washington County. photo by john R. sargent
John R. Sargent's great-great grandfather, John H. Sargent, purchased the original 317.8-acre farm in 1811 for $5.26 per acre (the equivalent of $67.92 in today's currency). This Bicentennial Farm now comprises 155 acres.
Building materials can't be more locally-sourced than those used in the construction of the Sargents' 1840 farmhouse. The dwelling was constructed primarily of bricks made from clay dug in the field west of the barn. To this day the field is called "the brickyard field" because broken red bricks still surface when the land is plowed.
The barn is similarly unusual in its construction. After the original barn burned in 1926, the present-day structure was constructed not long after on the old foundations. It is one of the few barns in the area that features tongue and groove siding and a standing seam tin roof.
The placement of the house and barn took advantage of the abundant water supply from springs and streams on the farm, aptly named Silver Springs Farm. A springhouse was built over the main spring next to the house that contained a water trough used to cool the five-gallon cans of milk.
Bituminous (or soft) coal mining during the 1940s caused many of the springs to run dry. After subsidence caused by mining operations in the region ended, the main spring returned but at a lower elevation, leaving the springhouse nonfunctional. Nevertheless, the spring is still the main water supply for the farm.
Because of the rolling terrain, sheep and small grains were the farm's primary products in the nineteenth century, although the emphasis changed in the twentieth century. In 1944, the Sargents introduced a dairy herd. The farm was connected to electricity the following year. In 1959 they expanded the barn and added a milk house to accommodate the growing herd. They sold the dairy herd in 1980 and turned to beef cattle and hay as their main products.
John and Patricia married in 1963 and have lived on the farm since. They are certified beef producers through the Pennsylvania Beef Quality Assurance Program, and in 2006 were given the Pennsylvania Commercial Beef Producer of the Year award by the Pennsylvania Cattlemen's Association. Love of the land and stewardship go hand in hand for the Sargents. In 2008 they were awarded the Conservation Farmer of the Year award by the Washington County Soil Conservation District.
"For a span of more than two hundred years the farm has been our family's livelihood," says John. "I am the first one in my family to work off the farm but keeping the operation running smoothly is still important. I am committed to the farm's future."
As farms passed through generations, tractors replaced horses, production increased, and markets expanded. Although increasing in size and scope far beyond those traditional operations, the family farm has remained steadfast and true to its roots. Pennsylvania's family farmers know their mission - to feed the world.
Century and Bicentennial Farms families epitomize the American spirit. Resilience has enabled these families to continue farming throughout trying times in United States history - the American Revolution, Civil War, two world wars, the Great Depression, the grain embargo of the 1980s, and the difficult challenges of the current economic recession. Nevertheless, each generation demonstrates a respect for, and a love of, the land.
Each new generation appreciates the satisfaction working the same soil as their forebears, no matter the difficulties posed by weather, finances, or the uncertain availability of a seasonal workforce. New crops of family farmers will continue planting seeds and caring for livestock. They will nurture not only the food and fiber that Pennsylvanians need, but they will dedicate themselves to the land they love, working with their hands, and watching plants and trees grow from weeks, months, even years of hard work.
Century Farm Program
The preserved Oswald Farm in Lehigh County. photo by Jeff Zehr
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture recognizes families who have owned farmland for one hundred and two hundred years through the Century and Bicentennial Farms programs. The same family must own the farm for at least one hundred or two hundred years consecutively and a family member must reside on the property. The farm must consist of at least ten acres or gross more than one thousand dollars yearly from the sale of farm products.
The concept of a Century Farm program, aimed at emphasizing the importance of the economic benefits of agriculture and rural heritage, was initiated in 1937 by the New York Agricultural Society. Farms in the same family for one hundred years or more were honored as members of the Order of Century Farms at Albany. In 1948, the Bradford County Historical Society, Towanda, Pennsylvania, launched its own program, similar to New York's. The state Department of Agriculture launched its statewide designation program in 1976 and expanded it in 2004 to recognize Bicentennial Farms.
Approved applications, accompanied by supporting documentation, are contained in Record Group 1, Records of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Press Office, at the Pennsylvania State Archives, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Nomination forms can be downloaded at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture website.
For Further Reading
Fegley, H. Winslow. Farming, Always Farming: A Photographic History of Rural Pennsylvania Land and Life. Kutztown, Pa.: Pennsylvania German Society, 1987.
Helzel, Cynthia Bombach. A Farm Heritage Album: Fifty Years of Westmoreland County Farming History Told Through the Photographs and Stories of Those Who Live Them. Greensburg, Pa.: Purlin PR, 2000.
McMurry, Sally, and Nancy Van Dolsen, eds. Architecture and Landscape of the Pennsylvania Germans, 1720–1920. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
Doug Wolfgang was raised on a family farm in Schuylkill County. He obtained a B.S. degree in geo-environmental studies from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania in 1994. He has been employed by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture since 1998, serving as director of the nation's leading farmland preservation program for the past five years.
Stephanie Zimmerman moved to Pennsylvania at the age of five and grew up in Berks County. She received a B.S. degree in animal science, with a minor in business administration, from Delaware Valley College, Doylestown, Bucks County, in 1990. She has been employed by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture since 2007, administering the Century and Bicentennial Farms programs, Farm and Ranchlands Protection program, and the Agricultural Security Area program.