Late father leaves daunting legacy with Windy Heights Farm
The sons of Greg Forejt Sr. have some big shoes to fill, and they say they're going to do it — with a little help from their friends.
“He cared for the land and people with a great intensity, so we're going to do the same,” said Garrett Forejt, 26, of Carnegie, Allegheny County.
Windy Heights Farm has become a landmark on Route 31 in East Huntingdon since Forejt bought it from Lyman Stoner in 1993. His reputation for land stewardship grew even as the size of the farm grew — from 160 acres to more than 3,000 acres — partly through leasing other plots of land.
“We will continue to farm them and maintain our relationships with the landowners in the same way that our father would have wanted,” Garrett Forejt said.
Forejt Sr., 57, of Ruffsdale died Sept. 29 in an ATV accident at a hunting camp in Randolph County, W.Va. Hundreds of people, many of them fellow farmers from East and South Huntingdon, attended his visitation and funeral Oct. 4 and 5.
Among them were Tom and Marlene Hrach, whose Smithton farm Forejt Sr. had begun using to grow soybeans earlier in the summer.
“When you talked to him, you felt like you'd known him for years,” Marlene Hrach said.
She expects Forejt's other son, Greg Forejt Jr., 25, of Ruffsdale, to harvest the soybeans soon.
“If there's anything my husband can do to help, I know he will,” she said.
Like his father, Forejt Jr. studied agriculture at West Virginia University and works on the grain farm full-time. Garrett Forejt, who is more involved with the business side of the farm, said the immediate priority is to finish the harvest with their employees.
“We've typically done it with four or five guys. ... We're going to have to work a little harder,” he said.
Garrett Forejt said his father's absence is being felt in everything from technical know-how to institutional knowledge of the farm.
“We've had a lot of people reach out and lend us equipment. We've had a lot of mechanics come out and help us know how something works. ... They're just doing it out of the goodness of their hearts,” he said. “On (Oct. 6), we had a malfunction with the grain pit, and before you know it, we had 10 guys out there brainstorming how to fix it.”
The pit is like a conveyor that transfers grain to the storage area and driers, he explained.
Nancy Stoner, who still lives on the property that her father, Lyman Stoner, sold to Forejt, said she has no doubt the close-knit farming community will rally in support of the Forejt brothers. She described the turnout at the funeral as “amazing.”
“Other farmers that were there were offering to help. Some are limited in what they can do ... but there's still a lot of manpower that's needed, and they've been fortunate to have that offered,” Stoner said. “The spring will be the real challenge.”
Westmoreland Fair Board President Craig Lash said he knows of farmers who have spontaneously gone out to Windy Heights to see what needs to be done. Forejt Sr. served on the fair board from 1989 to 1996.
“When a farmer gets in trouble, the other farmers are there,” Lash said. “They find some way to get their work done and help the other farmer out.”
Tom Derr of Sewickley Township worked at Windy Heights as an operator for several years and has been in touch with the family since Forejt's death. He said Forejt Sr. was generous with his time and his produce, so it's no surprise that some would return the favor.
“As busy as he was, he always had time for family and friends that needed something,” Derr said. “During sweet corn season, if I would stop by there to pick up some sweet corn, he'd never take any money.”
Forejt Sr. made a name for himself not just as a farmer but as a conservation farmer. Named a Mid-Atlantic “Master Farmer” in 2004, he employed contour strips, no-till farming, rotational grazing and other soil conservation methods.
“He was one of the top-notch conservation farmers in the county,” said Tom Sierzega, district conservationist for the National Resources Conservation Service. “He was very interested in preserving the soil and water resources on his farm.”
Forejt Sr. grew corn, soybeans, pumpkins, fruits and vegetables, some of which are sold at the popular Windy Heights Farm Market across the road.
Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding visited Windy Heights Farm in 2016 to tout the state's farmland preservation program. Windy Heights was the first preserved farm in Westmoreland County, meaning the land can be used only for agricultural purposes.
“He had an effect on the entire agricultural community (in Westmoreland County),” Sierzega said. “He knew an awful lot of people in the agricultural community, and a lot of people looked up to him.”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @shuba_trib.