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It's not a career. It's a lifestyle.

April 23, 2006|By Kristin Wilson

Brooks Long and his wife, Katie, are fully aware that choosing to be farmers in the 21st century means a lifetime of endless work, little time off and constant financial worries.

Yet they consider themselves lucky to claim farming as a profession and a way of life.

Couples like the Longs are a rarity in Washington County - where the number of farms in operation continues to erode and few young people make the decision to continue the traditional lifestyle.

Jeremiah Weddle and his wife, Janelle, never questioned their desire to continue the Weddle family's farming tradition. They want more than anything to spend their life farming, raising crops, cows and, one day, children on the land that the Weddle family owns. But as economic and growth pressures continue to increase around the family's land, Jeremiah Weddle says his future as a farmer is unknown.

Brooks Long also fears that one day he'll turn around and realize his family's seven-generation farming tradition is ending with him.

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"Just about anyone in agriculture that you ask would say, 'The future doesn't look too good,'" says Jeremiah Weddle, 23. "You just have to step out in faith and say, 'This is what I want to do.'"

The Longs and the Weddles know few other couples who have decided to go into farming. They say the career is more common among young Mennonite couples.

Isaac Witmer, a school teacher at the Mennonite School west of Hagerstown, estimates about half of the young Mennonites in Washington County continue farming. Some are moving out west to start farms, he says, where land is less expensive.

Brooks Long, 23, says he enjoys farming so much, he doesn't consider the hard work, long hours and unsure future to be drawbacks.

"I don't look at (farming) as my occupation," he says. "I look at it as my lifestyle - the way I choose to live. It's a whole other part of life that most of the people in our community don't know anything about."

Being a farmer is about knowing the land, being vulnerable to nature's quirks and being in tune with the cycle of life, say Brooks and Katie Long.

"Farmers - we're an accountant, we're a doctor, a repairman, a weatherman - we have so many jobs that we have to do," Brooks Long says.

The Longs work the Long family's dairy farm, Long DeLite, a 162-acre farm near Williamsport that milks about 60 cows. Brooks Long works primarily with his father, Galen.

Galen Long, 54, says he's happy his youngest son decided to continue working on the farm. But, he's fully aware that farming conditions are tough for a young couple just starting out.

Milk and crop prices have not increased on a level to keep pace with inflation, Galen Long explains. That means that today's farmers face higher bills, while their income remains stagnant.

"We have had to become more efficient in our operations. That has kind of helped to make up some of the difference," Galen Long says.

Katie Long, 23, formerly Katie Herbst, grew up on Misty Meadow Farm, her family's dairy farm near Ringgold. She always knew she wanted to stay involved with farming and hoped to raise children in a farm setting.

"I just look at how much fun I had running around on the farm," Katie Long says. "We were never in the house. We were always outside. I'm so grateful that my kids are going to be able to grow up living the same lifestyle I had."

Jeremiah and Janelle Weddle are part of the family-operated Creek Bound Farms, south of Hagerstown.

Along with Jeremiah's parents, James and Bonnie Weddle, and his sister, Jamie, they raise heifers and do custom crop work for other farmers.

But unlike Katie Long, who grew up farming, Janelle Weddle, 22, never pictured herself as a farmer's wife.

"Before I met Jer, I never thought I'd live on a farm and help out on a farm," says the Boonsboro native. But now, "I see that I want to raise my kids here. It makes Jer happy and I like living on a farm and taking care of it."

With all of their responsibilities, the Weddles and the Longs realize they don't have much in common with other twenty-somethings. Both couples chose to get married early - in 2004 when they were 21- and 22-years-old. The Longs' first child, a son, was born on Feb. 26; the Weddles look forward to starting a family soon.

With the costs of farming, especially equipment and supplies, both couples are already strapped with the kind of debt that most people only face when taking on a large home mortgage.

"We're 23 going on 40," Jeremiah Weddle says. "But the funny thing is we like that."

These young farmers will likely face major challenges as economic and social factors make successful farming difficult. Both Janelle Weddle and Katie Long are working separate jobs away from the farm, to help make ends meet.

"We take as little as possible for living expenses from the farm," Jeremiah Weddle explains.

"I would love to be able to continue farming here, but I don't know what's going to happen," he adds. "Within the next five years there's going to be houses all around our farm. Especially in this county, there are a lot of outside forces that are making it harder for us."

In many areas of the county, land is being bought and sold at a premium for development. For farmers who own land in areas prime for development, "it's like having a bull's-eye on you," Brooks Long says. "The more houses that go up, the further you have to look for ground to farm," he says.

In the meantime, the Weddles and the Longs say they wouldn't change anything about the choices they've made.

"This may sound odd," Brooks Long says. "But what I really like about (farming) is the freedom. It's a different kind of freedom. It's the freedom to do a job that so few people get to do."

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