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Michael Bupp, The Sentinel 

Max Basehore works at the family farm in Hampden Township.

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Tough row to hoe: Farmers weigh in on drawing youths to agriculture

Had he not been born into farming, the future would have been very different for Max Basehore.

“This was always home. It was what I was accustomed to,” the 25-year-old Hampden Township man said. “This is where I grew up.”

For generations, the Basehore family has made a living off a farm along Creekview Road near the present-day Route 581 bypass.

Their legacy is one where each father prepares a son to manage an enterprise that has changed over the decades from a general farm to a dairy operation to a niche produce market selling fruits and vegetables grown on location or purchased wholesale at auction.

“To all of my friends, this was the only farm,” Max Basehore said. He added there are children in the adjoining housing developments that have never seen a working farm up close.

That’s not the way it was for his great-grandfather Mark Basehore who worked the land as a tenant farmer back when the property was owned by the McCormick family.

Well-known and influential, the McCormick family once controlled the Home Farm outside Hogestown in Silver Spring Township that is now held in a private land trust.

The future of the Home Farm is the subject of a recent debate between advocates for historic preservation and the Cumberland Valley School District, which is looking to acquire the land by eminent domain.

Back in the day, the McCormick family employed a farm manager who went around to each property and specified what crops and livestock the tenant farmer should raise that year. In 1944, the McCormicks sold the Hampden Township farm to Mark Basehore, launching a family legacy that continues to this day.

Generation Next

Donald Basehore learned the ropes of farming from his father Mark, who retired in 1968. Tom Basehore took over the operation from Donald, who retired in 1996. Now Max Basehore is learning the ways and means of running a farm from his father Tom.

But with every generation, it is getting harder to find youths ready and willing to take on the challenge of a career in agriculture. The population is not what it used to be. Today, less than 2 percent of Americans are employed in farming and the average farmer is in his 50s.

There was a time in history when farm families were very large, but economic pressures have reduced the number of children born into those families. So each generation means there are fewer chances those farms will continue. Part of the problem is lack of interest brought on by cultural and societal changes.

Kent Strock is familiar with the obstacles involved in reversing the trend and bringing youths into farming. “You are asking the million dollar question,” he said.

Strock is president of the Cumberland County Farm Bureau and owns 20 acres of his family farm along the Williams Grove Road on the border between Upper Allen and Monroe townships. His family has been farming that ground since 1913.

Kent’s father, Clyde Strock, bought the farm from his grandfather G. Weir Strock in 1949. For almost 80 years, the family raised turkeys for direct marketing to local residents during the holiday season. That business ended in 2016 after Kent Strock converted an old bank barn into an event venue to support his catering enterprise.

Kent Strock has three children. “None of them have showed any interest in agriculture,” he said. He believes part of the reason is they know it is difficult life and hard to make money.

Preference and pressures

There has been a push on recent generations to head off to college and to shy away from career paths that some view as unattractive, such as farming and the trades.

“Yet we still need plumbers, masons, carpenters and technicians,” Strock said. “Sometimes they are pretty hard to find. College doesn’t prepare you for that kind of work.”

As a farmer, Strock knows that his career is not the most glamorous. “You are working with things that smell,” he said. “You are working with factors you can’t control.”

Preferences aside, it can be difficult for a young person interested in farming to break into the business if he or she does not have a direct connection to a farm family.

“If you’re not born into it, you’re really not going to be able to make it,” Max Basehore said. “Unless you are renting land and making more money than you are spending, you are never going to be able to turn and go upwards.”

One reason it is so difficult for young people is the high upfront costs involved with starting up a farm. It takes an enormous amount of capital not only to acquire land, but livestock and equipment.

Fact is, 86 percent of Pennsylvania farmers rely on some form of off-farm income to survive, Strock said. This could be a full-time or part-time job or a side business not necessarily tied to agriculture.

As farm bureau president, he noticed there are very few young men among the 500 farmers who are members of the county bureau. Many of those men have wives who are employed in full-time jobs that provide health care benefits, Strock said.

Stephanie Williams, administrator of the Cumberland County Farmland Preservation Program, can think of only case where a farmer hired on an employee who learned the ropes enough to take over a farm operation.

She said there are incentive programs at the state level that pair younger people with seasoned farmers in an arrangement similar to a master-apprenticeship.

Allowing creativity

One way to solve the aging out problem may be to relax local zoning regulations so that young farmers have more options to creatively use family farmland, Strock said. Creativity is important because niche marketing has emerged as one strategy farmers use to survive in the current economic climate.

In recent years, the Basehore family has built a maze inside their barn as a way to entertain children. They have also allowed families to interact with goats and sheep on the property.

Max Basehore sees a future where the family farm could operate as an agritainment venue, but there are restrictions in current zoning that limit their options.

“I don’t want to lose the roots of a seasonal farmers market,” Max Basehore said. “We have a good reputation with the people in this area so I feel it will get stronger as we break into these different avenues of development.”

Just as running a farm can be difficult, transitioning a farm when the older relative dies can be a great challenge, especially if there are one or more children who are not interested in farming.

This often results in farms being divided up and sold in portions to pay off those family members unwilling or unable to take on agriculture, Williams said.

There is no value in just giving a farm to a child, Tom Basehore said. “It was not handed to me. It’s not going to be handed to Max. That’s not how we work.”

Tough row to hoe: Small farms survive by finding niches

The future began with a bunch of pumpkins, an empty can and a lot of faith in the honor system.

The Basehore farm in Hampden Township used to be a dairy operation until the Route 581 bypass came in and forever changed the landscape.

The family lost ground to eminent domain and the fields they used to rent on adjoining farms were sold off for residential development and taken out of agriculture.

“We could not make enough forage to support the dairy herd,” Tom Basehore said. “To keep the farm, we had to figure out something else to do.”

The farm was still producing milk in 1995 when he sowed a pumpkin patch on land now taken over by homes. The harvest was successful and the pumpkins were put on sale along the road.

Busy with a side job, he could not man the display, so he asked for donations. Sometimes the pumpkins were stolen, sometimes the can, but it was clear to Basehore there was a demand for the product. It got him thinking.

In the years that followed, the enterprise expanded to include the sale of corn stalks and straw bales, ideal fall decorations. As time became available, Basehore opened a produce market that started with a folding table, a pop-up tent and whatever fruits and vegetables he could harvest from the farm or buy wholesale at auction. Now the market is a building on the farm.

The dairy farm gave way to a market niche that flourished within its location. As one of the last working farms in the township, the Basehore property is surrounded by housing developments that form the core of its customer base. In recent years, the family trucked in Christmas trees for resale and launched a side venture to grow and market chrysanthemums.

Today, Basehore is working with his son Max to chart a new course that could develop the family farm into an agritainment destination while maintaining the tradition of the produce market.

“You can’t stay stagnant or you’ll be left behind,” Tom Basehore said. “I’ve opened my mind to what is possible,” his son said.

Farms like the Basehore property are part of a trend in agriculture that started in the 1970s, gathered steam in the 1990s and early 2000s and is now more the rule than the exception, said Kent Strock, a farmer in Upper Allen Township and president of the Cumberland County Farm Bureau.

There are two kinds of farming operations that are flourishing in Pennsylvania — large farms with lots of land and livestock operating with cost efficiencies and small farms that focus on customer service and provide a specialty niche within the market, Strock said.

“If you are caught in the middle ground, you are going out of business right now,” he said. “They will die a slow painful death. Some of them will be forced to sell the ground when they quit because they have no other source of income.” The origins of this trend go back to market realities that have always impacted agriculture.

“There’s an old saying that farmers are price-takers, not price-makers,” Strock said. “Farming is one of the few businesses when you buy retail and sell wholesale. There’s a lot of truth to that.”

This is the reverse of most every other product-driven business where the seller buys product wholesale to sell at retail for a profit. To survive, more farmers are expanding their operations to buy their input in bulk at wholesale price to turn around and sell their output at a better price for a greater return, Strock said.

As a result, the large farms are putting pressure on small farms to either sell off land or, more often than not, agree to rent land to the larger farmer, Strock said. He said it is not unusual for large farm operations to cross not only county lines, but state borders in pursuit of rental holdings to farm.

While renting land gives the small operation a guaranteed source of income, often the rent per acre is barely enough to cover the property tax, Strock said. Meanwhile, the renter is reaping all the benefits from the land when it comes to harvest, but they are also putting in all the upfront costs and taking all the risk.

As for small operations, the key to survival is to either invent or expand upon a niche. “It’s so difficult to add on to the land base in this part of the country,” Strock said. “It means you have to be creative in the way you use your land.”

The Strock family has a history of niche marketing dating back decades to its turkey operation that focused on raising, processing and selling birds to local residents over the holiday season.

“We were a small scale operation,” Strock recalled. “We survived because I owned everything. I was my own marketer, my own salesperson, my own feed maker. I controlled my market and what I was getting for my turkeys.”

But the turkey operation ended in 2016 and was replaced by a new niche — renting out a converted bank barn for wedding receptions, banquets, reunions and anniversary parties. That enterprise makes up the bulk of the profits earned by the Kent Strock farm.

The barn operation has its origins in a catering business Strock started in 1981 after returning to Cumberland County. Prior to that, Strock had earned a master’s degree in agricultural science and was teaching the subject at a junior college in the southern tier of Iowa from 1978 to 1981.

He was an adviser to the agriculture club, which hosted the annual fall picnic. It was tradition for club members to roast a pig, a skill that came in handy for Strock. “When I moved back here, I built a pig roaster and hired myself out on weekends. That was the beginning of my catering business.”

Seeing the success, Strock expanded the business to include 15 different roasters, each suited for a specific purpose or cut of meat. “We got to the point where we were doing everything off-site,” he said. “We were traveling every weekend to five or six different locations.”

Some of that fell off with the Great Recession of 2008 but, in 2012, the bank barn became available for use after his brother-in-law stopped storing hay in the 1845 structure.

Strock re-tasked the barn into an event venue by investing money to convert it over. “We put on new siding and new windows and did a lot of work inside,” he said. “We took out the old dividers among the bays. Almost everything here is original lumber, though it may have moved around a little bit.”

Strock also wanted to convert another old building into either apartments or rental storage units, but was prohibited by Upper Allen Township zoning regulations.

As he sees it, relaxing some of the zoning restrictions would make it easier for farmers to find creative ways to use their land to maximize the return and keep the operation viable.

“Zoning puts blinders on creativity,” Strock said. “If you want to preserve farms, preserve the farmer.”

Michael Bupp, The Sentinel 

Max Basehore collects eggs at the family farm in Hampden Township.

5 Questions
5 Questions: Carlisle native at home as Milton Hershey houseparent

Keeping up with teens isn’t always easy.

Multiply that times 12 to get an image of what life is like for Clare Ogle.

The Carlisle native and Big Spring High School graduate serves as a houseparent at Milton Hershey School, along with her husband, Will. On a daily basis, the couple helps the boys in the household with homework, supports them as they make decisions about their futures and create a familylike atmosphere, all while raising their own two sons.

Milton Hershey School is a cost-free, private, co-educational school in Hershey for children from families of lower income in pre-K through 12th grade.

Q. What led you to becoming a houseparent at Milton Hershey?

A. I was teaching at Reading High School and my husband, Will, was a youth pastor. We loved our jobs and were totally content. Then, we had an “unplanned adoption.” We had someone pretty much contact us out of the blue and, long story short, wanted to give us their baby. We started thinking and praying if there was something else we should be doing since we were going to become parents. We knew a little about Milton Hershey School since I had grown up going to Big Spring High School. My brothers used to wrestle at MHS for big events.

When we looked at the job description, we saw a lot of things that really fit us: working with youth, driving a van, working with kids from poverty, etc. We figured the only way to know for sure was to go for it. So about seven years ago, we applied.

Q. What does a typical day look like for a houseparent?

A. First of all, even a “typical” day is hardly ever typical. When working with teenagers, every day is unique. Overall, a weekday morning includes breakfast, some chores, and getting our 12 high school boys off to school while trying to make sure they are dressed correctly. We are off-duty during the day, and at 2 p.m., we come back on duty, check emails, and get ready for the guys to come home. They arrive in shifts depending on their activities. As they come home, we do what most parents would do: ask about their day, have a snack ready for them, encourage them to start homework, or do some physical activity.

Then, it’s dinner time. This is a pretty big part of our night. We gather around multiple tables pushed together and enjoy a meal together. After dinner, it’s clean-up, showers, homework and laundry until bedtime. During that time, we’re checking in with them, talking with their parents/sponsors, and keeping track of our own two little ones. The weekends are typically a lot of running around and driving the guys to various events like movie night and Hersheypark. Our days are like most parents’ days—just times 12, or in our case, 14.

Q. How has being a houseparent enriched your own family?

A. Our sons, James (almost 7) and Titus (almost 3), are adopted and nonwhite. It’s very important to us to raise them in an environment where diversity is present, important and celebrated. We also want our sons to see what it means to live for a greater cause. Missional living is important to us, and our boys get to see us work hard for something much greater than ourselves.

They also get to have 12 older brothers and then some, since we have alumni who still come back and visit after graduation. Being a houseparent also means we’re together as a family pretty much all the time. When we’re working, our sons are here with us. They have also gotten to do some pretty cool things. We’ve been able to go on vacations with the students in our home and other vacations with just the four of us. We are very fortunate.

Q. What is the greatest challenge of being a houseparent?

A. I would say a big challenge for us and a lot of houseparents is balancing your personal kids with the students in your home. Like I said, there are many great things about raising kids while being houseparents, but just like any working parent, you sometimes feel the tug on both ends: family and work.

Q. What is the biggest myth you’ve encountered about Milton Hershey or being a houseparent, and what is your response?

A. I think there is a misconception that the school is for juvenile delinquents, and that’s simply not the case. There are many students here who have just had a tough break in life, such as losing one or both of their parents. These aren’t “bad” kids, in fact, it’s often very much the opposite. Parents/sponsors often have the kid’s best interest at heart when they make the difficult decision to send them to MHS. I think it works best when we all assume that everyone is just doing the best they can.