Finding a balance between farm work and family

2/15/2014 7:00 AM

Nicole Herman


EPHRATA, Pa. — When family and farming come together, there are plenty of perks such as quality time together and never being far from home.

Unfortunately, there are also difficult decisions to make. Milk the cows or hang out with friends? Go to your daughter’s graduation or wrap up planting soybeans? Save up to buy the family farm or go to college?

Sacrifice, it seems, is the risk worth taking for two dairy farming families in Pennsylvania.

The Bollinger family

The Bollingers, of Manheim, Pa., farm 210 acres of mostly corn and alfalfa as well as wheat; milk about 130-140 Holsteins, two Jerseys, and four Milking Shorthorns; and house 150 Holstein replacement heifers. Jim and Judy Bollinger and their daughter, Kelsey, are quite busy year round, especially from April when they start planting until September when they finish harvesting.

Luckily for Kelsey Bollinger, a graduate of Bloomsburg University, her parents never missed her graduations, which she said “made them all the more special.” However, her parents were never able to make it to her volleyball games while she was in school because the games coincided with their milking schedule. They’ve only ever watched them on video tape.

Just this past September, Kelsey Bollinger ended up missing her cousin’s wedding because no extra help could be found to do the milking and Bollinger didn’t want her parents to stay behind.

“Since both sides of my family are from farming backgrounds,” Bollinger said, “They are very understanding about us missing events.” Their understanding came to light one Easter dinner when their milking system went out ... and out too went the Bollingers when the repair man couldn’t find the needed part. When they finally came back inside, plates of food had been saved for them.

“Sometimes I get disappointed when I can’t make an event that I had wanted to go to or miss out on normal’ young adult things,” she said. “But it goes away pretty fast when I think about why I had to miss it. It’s hard to explain why people love farming other than saying it is in your blood.”

The Theobald family

Another farming family, one from Waymart, Pa., knows a thing or two about sacrificing their time and resources for their love of farming.

The Theobald family, made up of Amy and Chuck Theobald with their children Stacey, Becky and Andy, are fourth- and fifth-generation farmers on their 198-acre dairy operation. They harvest corn for silage as well as hay and their herd consists of 200 registered Holsteins and Jerseys.

While Amy Theobald had a rough upbringing on the farm as a child, she now credits her childhood with preparing her with the patience and understanding of responsibility that she needs to take care of her own family.

“I have well-rounded children — I can credit that to the farm — and it’s a solid foundation,” Amy Theobald said. “I look at raising a kid like building a house and you only finish with the roof after college.”

Theobald starts her day at 5:30-6 a.m. — “We don’t get paid that much to get up early,” she laughed — with checking on buildings, performing treatments while her husband of 28 years goes around with Stacey Theobald to feed, milk and clean. Afterward, they “join forces” to get whatever else needs done.

In addition to farming full time, because their farm is in an area where the closest town is 15 miles away, the Theobalds have become quite skilled at planning ahead. When considering the kids’ off-the-farm activities, Amy Theobald always tries to be three days ahead in her planning. When Stacey Theobald played volleyball throughout the state, or when Becky Theobald heads to color guard practice, or even when Andy Theobald goes to marching band, Amy Theobald has her master calendar to guide her. In advance, she decides whether to and how to change the milking schedule. But there are still some sacrifices that must be made.

“We can’t make it to everything,” Amy Theobald said. “If it’s not on (the calendar), it’s not happening.”

Taking a break

A break from the farm has also proved a challenge for the families. “We’ve only ever took one family vacation, Amy Theobald said. “We went to the National Jersey Convention in Tennessee. We just could never all leave. It’s just the fact of not having full confidence in who will take care of things while we’re gone. Guilt too plays a part.”

The Theobalds instead make it work by going on “staycations” such as going on an extra fishing trip or by having the kids go on vacation while the parents stay home and vice versa.

Kelsey Bollinger’s family also made sure to get away from work for a while, even if just for a few hours.

“Growing up, both my parents made sure to do things with me outside of the farm,” Bollinger said. “With my dad, we rode our horses around the farm and went to the weekly cattle auctions at New Holland Sales Stable. With my mom, I went on mini vacations to the beach or to visit my grandma who lived near us.” She adds that they made it a point to take family vacations at least once a year, thanks to having full-time help when they’re not around.

Having individual hobbies and interests also helps separate family time, farm time and time for the self. Kelsey Bollinger enjoys riding horse and showing her cows while her father enjoys hunting in Montana and at their cabin in Potter County. Her mother prefers going to the beach and reading when she can.

And inevitably, constantly being with your family can quickly turn sour. “I know that with me and my dad, we have our differences of opinion sometimes at the farm, but when we get home we put that aside,” Bollinger said. “Farming is like any family owned business. It is very hard to keep the work aspect of our lives separate from the personal side of life.” Balance, she added, is key.

Looking ahead, with family in mind

As Amy Theobald said, planning for the future is essential. And so is working together and making a business out of farming. Equally essential for members of a farming family is to take time for themselves in between chores and to take a break from family every now and then by taking interest in hobbies, clubs or other off-farm activities. Making sacrifices for the sake of others can also be of great benefit.

Mike Duffy, Iowa State Extension economist, in a 2013 article called “Getting Started in Farming: On the Home Farm” discusses how farm families can work together to better their farm’s prosperity while still remaining on good terms with one another. Here are a few of his tips for success:

Communicate. Discuss decisions to be made and things that are bothering you openly, honestly, and regularly. Remember that communication involves both talking and listening by both parties.

Keep the farm business and family matters separated. Have specific living facilities for the different families.

Recognize that because future events cannot be seen with certainty, wrong decisions will be made by even the best managers. The words “I told you so” should never be used by either party in a family agreement when decisions turn out to be wrong.

Set up a regular schedule for discussing problems, reviewing business progress and making decisions. This does not mean you shouldn’t discuss things at other times, but it does force you to regularly stop long enough to communicate. This should be done even during the busiest times of the year.

Genuine concern for each other will certainly go a long way to ensure success.

Kelsey Bollinger, while continuing her search for off-farm employment, plans to train her mare and continue to work on the farm, not only improving her show herd but the whole farm in general.

The Theobalds are looking forward to a year of expansion. They are getting into the ice cream business under the name Creamworks Creamery and are also planning to increase their bottled milk market. Not only will they be adding to their farm, but they are also excited about adding a new member to their family.

A spring wedding is in the works for Amy Theobald’s daughter, Stacey, which is planned for May 3. And that event is most definitely on the family calendar.<\c>


Photo courtesy of Kelsey Bollinger

Kelsey Bollinger with some of her Holsteins.


Photo courtesy of Kelsey Bollinger

Kelsey Bollinger at the Elizabethtown Fair after she won junior champion and reserve grand champion Milking Shorthorn with her heifer, Hidden Brook Nitro Scarlet.


Photo courtesy of Kelsey Bollinger

Joker, Trip and Scarlet, three heifers of the Bollinger family, in pasture on their farm.


Photo courtesy of Kelsey Bollinger

Kelsey Bollinger holds her Jersey named Petals and her Milking Shorthorn named Scarlet outside their barn recently. Petals is due to calve in the beginning of March.


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