Diverse and Thriving

Hard work and smart thinking at Marwell Dairy Farm
By J.F. Pirro

For the past half-century, Robert Gehman has operated Marwell Dairy Farm in Coopersburg, Pa., as a family farm, particularly on Sundays, when he never asked his sons and daughters to do any more work than necessary. It was the barn work - the feeding and watering of the animals - and that was about it.

Left to right: Brent, Bob Jr., Bob Sr., Scott, Addie and Wendell Gehman.
Photos courtesy of Marwell Dairy Farm.

In their Mennonite faith, they observe Sunday as a day of worship and church attendance. In their faithful work and devotion to farming the other six days, Marwell has long been a successful model.

"I always thought that for the other [farmers] who work seven days a week, they ought to be one-seventh further ahead," Gehman says.

Marwell Dairy Farm, a Dairy of Distinction, is run by Gehman, his sons Barry and Bob Jr., and his grandsons, Wendell and Brent. They deal in hay, straw, fertilizer, liquid plant food, crop protection supplies, brown eggs and all-natural beef and pork. Capons are also a big part of the operation.

Gehman says diversification has been his farm's key to not just surviving, but thriving.

The farm's co-operative with Land O'Lakes that was paying $5.62 per 100 pounds in 1959 is now paying about $11 per 100 pounds. Over the years, he's had to increase production to increase profits.

His cows average 25,000 pounds of milk per cow a year. They milk 68 cows, including 18 that produce over 100 pounds a day. One young heifer is already producing 83 pounds a day. The total herd is about 70, mostly Holsteins, though there are a few Jerseys.

They're also fattening 900 hogs a year, raising 600 to 700 capons annually, and keeping 200 laying hens. There are 17 beef cows, including a beef bull. All the calves are fattened and their beef sold. Some is sold locally, but most to JBS Packerland in Franconia, Pa. Some beef calves are sold at auction in New Holland, Pa.

The Gehmans also farm about 1,300 acres, with 600 acres in corn, 200 in soybeans, 100 in alfalfa hay, 180 in grass hay, 100 in wheat, 30 in oats and 30 in rye. They grow 60 acres of ornamental and custom-grown pumpkins and gourds for Dan Schantz, a local grower.

When the local feed mill went out of business, Marwell installed its own scale in 2005, at a cost of about $30,000. It's used for weighing crops to keep track of how much each field is producing. The 1,300 acres are spread between 14 or 15 properties.

There's also a peach orchard. And, they buy grain out of the field from others, dry it, store it and resell it. The farm also sells chemical fertilizer and crop protection supplies.

In his mind and practice, Gehman says diversification has always been the name of the game.

The heifer barn.

In 1978, he built the hog house. It holds about 450 at a time. Recently, as wholesale milk prices plummeted, hog prices soared. Just ahead of Easter, after a quick peak into a busy hog house, he jokes, "At 30 cents a pound, they stink, but at 60 cents a pound [the highest they've ever been], they just smell."

Likewise, corn prices are the highest they've ever been.

"I've just always thought - as my one uncle used to say - 'You can't put all your eggs into one basket,'" Gehman says. "That's the way we started, and it's the way we've continued, and we've been quite successful."

Diversification, Gehman says, serves the same purpose. "Over the years, you see others specialize," he says. "But when one goes down, the others pull you through. Today it's even more important, but you don't see it as much. What you see are farms like where the boys were just the other day near Myerstown; they're milking 250 cows with the use of four robotic milkers."

"Diversification has been a real help," Barry, his oldest son, adds. "It just doesn't seem like everything can be down all at the same time. There are always new ventures that we're looking for, ones we can grow into."

The Gehmans celebrated 50 years of farming in 2009.

Starting from scratch

Gehman didn't grow up on a farm, but in Lanark, a village outside of Allentown, Pa. His three brothers and two sisters went to the city school. He attended then-rural Coopersburg High for its agriculture classes. His father sold and serviced oil burners, but two of his uncles were farmers.

Gehman worked on farms through high school, mostly small farms, then worked at two dairy farms in Bucks County to get experience with dairy farming.

In 1959, Gehman and his wife, Addie, began renting the current farm. By 1967, he bought the then-160-acre farm. In 1980, he formed a partnership with his son Barry, and then with his youngest, Bob Jr., in 1995. In 1998, adjoining acres were purchased. "We were farming it all the years anyway, then it came up for sale," Gehman says. "You usually only get one shot at it: It would have become houses if we didn't buy it."

Of course, he credits Addie, the prototypical farm matriarch, though she praises him: "He's a good manager, and that's so important," she says. "There are many farmers who farm and farm, but never get anywhere."

Addie says that when they were considering purchasing Marwell, the FHA's first question concerned her. They wanted to know if she wanted to farm as well. If not, they were told it probably wasn't going to work.

Addie did. She grew up in Dublin, Pa., in Bucks County on her dad's 52-acre farm. "We had 12 cows, a couple of chickens and a couple of pigs - and seven children," she says. "We all went to work at age 14."

When they moved onto Marwell full time, the Gehmans began with 17 cows, milking into milk cans in the property's original red barn. While they were renting, the landlord said that if Gehman pledged to continue farming, he'd build a new barn, and in 1962 he did. Gehman helped design it. "We cut the logs out of the woods," he recalls.

An overview of Marwell Dairy Farm.

Marwell, the farm name, comes from the previous owners, who combined portions of their first names, Mary and Wellington. The Gehmans kept the name "In respect to him, and we couldn't think of anything better," Gehman says. "He was great to us. He said he would give us a chance, and he was good to his word."

Passing on tradition

The Gehmans have five children. Barry and Bob Jr. are nine years apart. Their sisters milked cows when they were younger before they moved off the farm. Barry's sons, Wendell and Brent, work full time on the farm. Bob Jr.'s son, Scott, works part time. There are also three part-time farmhands who rotate shifts.

"I'm not full time anymore," Gehman jests.

At 79, he spends most of his day working on the books, or working the phones, buying and selling. "Opening the mail and going to the bank," he says.

"He still lives, breathes and eats it," Addie says. "The first thing he does every morning is work on the books. He still can't get past a field without looking to see what's growing. He has never understood how those in the city get along if they don't have fields to look at."

Barry manages the herd. "I guess I just don't know any better," he says about following in his father's footsteps. "I always wanted to be my own boss and work outside. Every day is different and filled with new challenges, not like in a factory or something."

Bob Jr. handles the hogs, oversees the crop work and is handy with machinery maintenance, though in one stroke of sensibility, Gehman says he has usually purchased new equipment rather than used. He trades in equipment for new equipment rather than tying up money in repairs. The most recent purchase, a John Deere 7630 tractor, cost more than the farm did in 1967. This way, machinery doesn't break down in the middle of harvest. "It's just good management," Addie says.

Gehman derives satisfaction in knowing that his sons have stayed with farming. "A lot of sons will go and do anything but farming," Addie says. "A lot of it is in how you treat them. When any of them started milking, they all got checks."

Marwell has also been committed to educating the greater community. The farm has participated in Lehigh County Cooperative Extension Open Gate Farm Tours for decades. Each October, they welcome 600 to 700 visitors, offering them chocolate milk, Leidy meat products and a hayride, all free of charge. Five or six times a year, the farm hosts a school group.

"He's never been afraid to work," Addie says of her husband. "When he started, he was like the lone wolf, but it still came down to hard work. I pitched in where I could, but lost my jobs as the kids got older."

"Hard, smart work never killed anybody," Gehman adds. "That's what Uncle Henry used to say."

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.