Carolyn N. Moyer
Northern Pa. Correspondent
<.000>LIBERTY, Pa. — James (Jim) and Helen Luckenbill, of Covered Bridge Farm, believe that the outward appearance of a farm helps sell the product. As they recently revived a Lycoming County farm that hadn’t been operating since 1999, the couple applied for and won the Dairy of Distinction award -— for the fourth time.
However, the story begins with both Jim and Helen Luckenbill being raised on farms. Jim’s was a working dairy farm and although Helen’s parents only raised beef, her grandparents milked cows.
In March of 1975, Jim Luckenbill purchased a 78-acre farm close to his parent’s dairy farm near Elimsport, Lycoming County. He also worked at Dewart Livestock Market and as heifers came through the sale, he purchased several. In addition to farming, Jim Luckenbill also ran his own excavating business.
In 1976, the Luckenbills were married.
Helen Luckenbill continued her off-farm job at Bucknell University and they continued to purchase heifers.
“We purchased 16 head,” said Jim Luckenbill.
“We were only going to raise them, breed them and sell them,” said Helen. “The next thing you know, the market wasn’t there and so we were milking cows.”
So in the fall of 1977, the couple joined Dairylea Cooperative and began shipping milk. Soon they were milking around 40 cows, all Holstein, at their Ridge View Farm.
In 1988, the couple applied for the Dairy of Distinction award and was honored to receive it.
Then, in 1991, the Luckenbills followed the trail of opportunity that led them to a larger farm near Canton, Pa.
“We wanted to get bigger,” said Helen Luckenbill. At this farm, “we had close to 250 acres and we purchased a neighbor’s herd of cows, right around 100 head of registered Holsteins.”
They milked between 60 and 70 head of cattle.
“We won Dairy of Distinction there at that farm in 1993,” said Helen Luckenbill.
But this would not be the last move for the couple.
“We left our first farm to get bigger; more ground, more cows. Then, after you’re there 15 years you get older and then you decide it’s a lot of work,” said Helen Luckenbill.
In December of 2003, they made a move again, this time to Tioga County, near Mansfield.
The move not only allowed them to milk fewer cows, but it made Helen’s commute to her off-farm job easier.
At the farm on Pickle Hill, they again applied for the Dairy of Distinction award and won it in 2004.
They moved to their present farm in December 2011 and, this spring, were honored once again with the award.
“This is a little farmette,” said Helen Luckenbill. “It’s just 10 acres.”
At the time of purchase, the Luckenbills were planning on raising heifers.
“Well, the next thing you know, he’s into milking a herd of cows. We have 30 Jerseys,” said Helen Luckenbill.
The Luckenbills also pay close attention to milk quality and have been honored to receive many quality awards from their cooperative. Their butterfat test runs a consistent 4.7 percent and their protein is at 3.8 percent with a somatic cell count under 250,000.
The farm is mostly pasture and they make hay on both their fields and neighbor’s fields. They supplement with a custom mix from Rockwell’s Feed in Canton.
“It’s kind of like we’ve come full circle,” said Helen Luckenbill. “We started out in Lycoming County, then to Bradford, Tioga and now we’re back in Lycoming again.”
Their breeding program has evolved from using all purchased semen to a unique arrangement of raising and drawing their own bulls.
“We have an outfit out of Lancaster come up and pull semen and we do our own breeding,” said Helen Luckenbill.
They began following this method when they started having difficulty getting cows bred.
“Years and years ago we couldn’t get anything bred,” said Jim Luckenbill. “So after we bellyached and moaned and groaned, we finally decided to go this route.”
Helen Luckenbill has her own reasons for raising the bulls and artificially collecting the semen before they get too old.
“We raised a Jersey bull and used it for breeding and everything was getting bred and he started to seem to have an attitude,” she said.
One day he wouldn’t come in the barn, so Helen Luckenbill reached down to get a hold of his chain.
“When I reached down, he nailed me in the arm,” said Helen Luckenbill. “I jumped back and screamed and was scared to death.”
After a while, she wondered where Jim had gone, so she went out to the pasture.
“I peeked around the corner and there Jim was straddling the rail fence with a hold on the bull by his ring,” she said.
Helen Luckenbill quickly got a lead with a snap on it to tie him up. It was then that Jim Luckenbill said that the bull had hit him in the ribs.
“He moved him from the other side of the fence and we got him in the stanchion and we called to have him sent to the sale. That was the last we ever used him,” said Helen Luckenbill.
Using the semen service eliminated their problem with getting cows bred. Right now they are raising a polled bull that traces back to Normandell breeding, the farm where they purchased the beginning of their Jersey herd.
Although this was going to be a retirement venture for the Luckenbills, the pull of the farm brought them back to milking cows. Helen Luckenbill, now retired from her off-farm job, is even considering re-opening her produce stand that she had operated in Mansfield, if she can secure the products.
“I thought retiring was a three-bedroom ranch,” Helen Luckenbill said, “He said, I can’t give it up, if I do, I’ll be six-feet under.’ I guess you’ve got to have something to do and if it’s in your blood, you’re going to do it. You can’t just sit on a porch swing all day long.”
Farming is also a little different here because of downsizing and selling their Pickle Hill farm to an investor, they don’t have to worry about a mortgage.
“We’re farming more now for something to do,” said Helen Luckenbill.
They are glad that they went through the process again and already have their sign posted on display.
“This is kind of an award for what we went through to bring a farm back to life and continue on with the dairy business,” said Helen Luckenbill. “There are enough farms fading away now without losing another one. Even though it may only be for a few years, it’s a good way to sell the product.”
Jim Luckenbill said, “It takes a lot of work to keep a farm nice. It’s not a once a month or once a week job. You’ve got to do it every day if you’re going to keep it looking nice.”
Neighbors are taking notice that the once vacant buildings are now being used.
“We’ve had a lot of people stop and tell us that it is so nice to see our cows in the pasture and to see this being made into a farm again. That part is rewarding,” said Helen Luckenbill.