At 77, he's too young to leave farming Bob Harless promises he'll work the land 'at least until I die'

September 12, 1996|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

About 50 years ago, Marion Harless put up six heifers and a few horses as collateral to buy 62 acres in western Howard County. Today, that investment has grown into a 1,300-acre fortune of crops and livestock -- worth more than $500,000.

Having accomplished that, he could now retire. But at 77, Harless -- one of the oldest, if not the oldest, working farmers in Howard County -- has no plans to give up his 200 head of cattle, 100 pigs or 200-plus acres of corn, wheat and barley.

Many of his neighboring farmers and hired hands have passed away. He walks with a limp -- from a broken hip he suffered when a bull smashed him against a truck some 28 years ago.

But as he puts it: "I still run the combine on these here parts. Always have and always will. That is, at least until I die."

Over the years, Harless frequently has testified at county hearings to protect farmland and scenic roads.

Housing developments now crowd around his two farms on Route 144 in West Friendship and Lisbon; drivers honk as they pass his John Deere combine trucking down the road. Last year, he sold about 200 head of dairy cattle when milk prices hit rock bottom.

But he's stuck it out. And other farmers and agricultural officials believe Harless -- whose friends call him Bob -- is the oldest farmer in the county still working his land.

"Truthfully, I don't think I'd still be farming if I was as well off as Bob, but farming is what he loves," says Herbert Streaker, 78, a neighbor in West Friendship who has stopped farming his 62 acres. "A lot of people play golf or gamble all their lives. Not Bob, though.

"His niche is working the land with his head and his hands. Folks just can't fully understand how much farming is a part of our lives," Streaker says. "Guys like me and Bob don't know anything else."

By 7 a.m. each day, Harless is outside feeding his cattle and pigs or tinkering around on his $100,000 bailer -- his most prized possession. August means harvest time for fields of corn and hay.

Plus, there's soybeans, alfalfa, wheat and barley to cut. Rain or shine, Harless helps his crew of three to four men, depending on the season, bail hay, mend fences, milk cows, fill silos with corn or plow fields.

There's enough work on the farm to last until 7 p.m. and then there are breeding lists to organize, money to budget for seed and permits to apply for at night.

That kind of work can kill a man, says Wilbur Zepp, 74, who still farms about 160 acres in West Friendship.

"The sweat and hours guys like me and Bob put in makes you appreciate the land and the food on your table," he said. "Most times we sit down and chat, we reminisce about the old days of working with just a few mules and using your hands to work your land. We were raised to know what hard work is way before this new, fancy machinery."

Harless won't complain about the work other than to note how skinny it has left him -- at a little more than 120 pounds.

"Farming is more than just my livelihood, it's my life," he says, lifting the hood of a tractor. "I don't know much about computers or technology, and I'm certainly not a gentleman farmer.

"I've done hard work all my life and that's really all I know. You've got to be born with farming in your blood to stick with it."

And so when Harless took his second vacation 14 years ago, to France, Germany and Switzerland, most of his time was spent touring farms.

Well-known figure

Harless' straw hat and his red truck with safety lights atop are known throughout West Friendship and Lisbon. When he's not working his farmland, he often can be found at Lee's Market in Lisbon, chatting with fellow farmers about when the next thunderstorm is coming or debating the best mix of feed for cattle.

The Tennessee-born cattleman says he lost his father when he was a year old, dropped out of high school at 15 to support his mother and four siblings, and came to Howard County in 1933 looking for land and work. He provided for his mother and siblings. He didn't marry until he was 50 years old.

At his first job, Harless worked on a farm for 50 cents a day. "God gave you the common sense and that alone is worth more than anything," he says. "It takes hard work, determination and most importantly honesty to keep a farm going."

As a businessman, his motto has been: "Don't put all of your eggs in one basket. You never know when one will break."

So even as the number of farms in Howard dwindles amid subdivisions and the rising cost of land and equipment, Harless has held on over the years by diversifying his farm endeavors -- from a few dairy cows and horses to running one of the biggest dairy farms in the county to operating a farm contracting business with about 15 large pieces of farm equipment.

Switching gears

When wheat prices were low, he turned his fields into rows of corn. When milk prices plummeted, he sold most of his 700 herd and added more beef cattle and hogs to his operation.

"Bob started out with mules and a plow and he built up from there," says county Councilman Charles Feaga, who also still farms. "He hasn't just worked two shifts, he's worked three. And that type of determination of putting your heart and soul into farming is something you don't see much of today in America."

But Harless still worries about losing his spot in Howard's shrinking farm community.

He has put about 60 acres in the county's farmland preservation program and wants to continue farming the rest until he dies. But he doesn't have any children to keep his farm going, and that produces some sleepless nights, he says.

"I've managed to survive the urban blight that just seems to keep coming out to the counties," Harless says, "but it just seems that someday there are not going to be any old farmers like me left."

Pub Date: 9/12/96

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