PA Veteran Farm Trail spotlights operations of those who serve
Rising early, working hard and coming back for more the next day. That could be a description of life in a military unit, but it also applies to the routine of Ralph Frye and his son, Todd, on their Unity dairy farm.
“Any aspect of farming is hard, but milking cows is a ball and chain,” Ralph said about one of the main chores at the family's Pleasant Lane Farms near Pleasant Unity. “Twice a day, you've got to be here. With beef cows, you can feed them a couple hours early or a couple hours late.”
The Fryes know how the responsibilities and discipline of farm life compare with those of military service as they've experienced both worlds. Their 184-acre spread is one of nine agricultural sites run by veterans that the public can explore Nov. 4 on the PA Veteran Farm Trail.
Todd, who has amassed 22 years of military service, is an Air Force veteran and a sergeant first class in the Army National Guard. He works from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. most days, focusing on the Guard's officer candidate school. When he gets back to the farm, there are additional tasks waiting for him.
“I come back and help whenever I can,” he said. “I don't mind doing any field work, between baling hay and planting all spring. I'll take the crops off all fall and do everything in between.
“I don't mind milking, but I don't want to milk forever.”
That last chore often falls to Ralph, a third-generation farmer, and his sole hired hand.
“I grew up on a farm, went into the service to get away from it and now I'm right back at it,” Ralph said.
He served in the Marine Corps from 1969 to 1972, completing a tour of duty as a radio operator in Vietnam. Various manufacturing jobs, including work as a machine operator at Kennametal, ended when he was laid off in the mid-'70s — prompting his return to farming, at Pleasant Lane.
“I'm not going to get laid off here,” Ralph said.
He said the family's 90 cows mark Pleasant Lane as a small dairy operation when ranked nationally. But it's an average-size herd for Pennsylvania, according to the Center For Dairy Excellence, a Harrisburg-based nonprofit.
Mimi Thomas-Brooker, coordinator of the PA Veteran Farming Project, has identified 26 farms in the state that are run by military veterans. She noted others may surface when results are available from this year's federal Census of Agriculture survey, which for the first time included a question on veteran status.
“Coming from a farm is probably what's helped me last in the military so long,” Todd said. “It's the work ethic.”
In addition to acquainting the public with warriors who now march to the step of Mother Nature instead of Uncle Sam, the PA Veteran Farm Trail will provide an opportunity for service members who are considering a post-military career in agriculture to see how others have made the transition.
Ralph advises those looking to milk cows to first seek advice through the Center for Dairy Excellence.
“You can't make too many mistakes in this business or you're done,” he observed.
Thomas-Brooker also coordinates a Troops to Tractors program that matches veterans interested in entering agriculture with farm apprenticeships in the region and other resources.
Diversification is a must to make a dairy farm viable in today's uncertain market, Ralph said.
To that end, Todd, working with his Virginia-based brother, Jason, has taken up beekeeping and started to raise beef cattle and hogs. There were plenty of takers this year for the produce of their pumpkin patch, but, Todd said, “We didn't have very many people bite on our sweet corn.”
A third son, Chad of Latrobe, also may be involved when it comes time for the next generation to take over the farm operation.
“I thought I worked them hard enough that they'd never want to come back,” Ralph said of his sons. “It seems they want their kids to experience what they experienced. I really think it rounds them out.”