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Published: Tue, July 10, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By NANCY TULLIS

VINDICATOR SALEM BUREAU

HANOVERTON -- Paul Zehentbauer likes to say he never went far in life.

The son of German immigrants reared five children on the same land where he was born. The house he and his late wife Betty built in the 1950s is within shouting distance of the one in which he was born.

Joseph and Maria Zehentbauer started the farm on McKaig Road in 1929 and made a go of it during the Depression. Paul and sons, Neil and Richard, have grown Hanover Farms to a 1,100-acre dairy farm with about 800 acres in alfalfa, corn and soybeans.

Of a total herd size of more than 300 Holsteins, they milk about 160 twice daily.

Farming has changed significantly since his parents emigrated from Germany, Zehentbauer said. Farmers have had to adapt farm practices to cope with the disparity between commodity prices and expenses.

He worries about his sons and has not yet retired from farming for that reason. He still works 10- to 12-hour days.

"My boys work hard," he said, "maybe too hard."

Zehentbauer said farmers are "going out of business like crazy because of the prices. It's tough now because you have to turn out a lot of product.

"We still have our grain stored from last year because of the low prices," he said. "We'll wait about another month and then we'll have to take what we can get because we'll have this year's crop coming off."

Changing prices: Zehentbauer said in good years he has received an average of $3 per bushel for corn, and now gets about $1.78 a bushel for that crop that costs about $2 a bushel to produce.

Soybeans average about $6 a bushel and as much as $8 in a good year. Now the price is about $4.50 a bushel for the beans, which cost about $4 to produce.

Increased costs force farmers to produce more to succeed, Zehentbauer explained. In 1960, for example, a corn yield of 100 bushels per acre was significant. Now farmers consistently produce yields of 140 to 200 bushels per acre, he said.

Milk production has improved, however, he said. Hanover Farms cows produce an average of 70 pounds per day, when 40 years ago the average was 40 to 50, he said.

After milk prices have nose-dived the past few years, Zehentbauer said they are actually climbing once again. In June, the prices were up 2 percent from the previous year, but the market remains volatile, he added.

Richard Zehentbauer said the United States depends too heavily on imported food, which lowers prices to U.S. farmers. Fresh vegetables in the winter, for example, now come from Chile and Mexico as well as California.

"We don't want to give people the wrong idea," Paul Zehentbauer said. "There was money to be made here, and we have made some in the past 40 years. We put most of it back into growing the farm."

Richard Zehentbauer said the farm has survived because the family has been able to keep its debt under control.

Paying back: "If you have to borrow, then you cut out some other things while you're paying back the loan," he said. "You pay it back as soon as possible."

Although farming is a difficult life, it is also a satisfying one, Paul said.

"You are your own man, and when you produce a good crop and you have a healthy herd, there is great satisfaction in that."

His sons agree. They also said, however, that neither will try to force their children to stay in agriculture.

"We don't know how farming will be when they grow up, but we know it won't be quite this way," Richard said. His wife, Jennifer, does the farm bookkeeping and is a registered nurse.

The couple has three children, Elaina, 5; Vincent, 4, and Zebediah, 3.

Neil and his wife, LouAnn, have four children, Joshua, 15; Caleb, 13; Jill, 11 and Abram, 7.

Neil and LouAnn spend a lot of time working with young people who will be the next generation of farmers.

"It's a challenge to know what to say," Neil said. "It's easy to bellyache, but it's not all bad."

tullis@vindy.com




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