The Schramm family in Penn Township, which has been farming in Western Pennsylvania for four generations, will not be plowing fields or planting crops this spring for the first time since the nation was torn apart by the Civil War in 1864.
While their 300-some acres of land is not up for sale, most of the equipment brothers Hilary, John and Ralph use to operate their farm — including seven tractors, plows, corn planters, hay balers, vegetable-planting equipment plus greenhouses and irrigation equipment — are scheduled to be sold in a two-day auction planned for 9 a.m. April 2 and 9 at the Schramm Farms & Ochards along Blank School Road in Harrison City.
After a lifetime of farming, Hilary Schramm said the brothers are ready to retire and the family has not decided what it will do with the property. For now, they will continue to take care of the land with equipment that will not be sold, he said.
“It’s 24/7. You work 80 hours a week,” said Hilary Schramm, who wants to hunt, fish and spend time with his 10 grandchildren in his newfound spare time.
And the three brothers and their sister, Kathleen Young, have been working in the family business since they were youngsters.
The Schramms set the stage for selling their farm equipment when, at the end of 2021, they closed their popular Schramm Farms & Orchards market, known for 40 years for selling fresh fruit and vegetables. Grandma’s Country Oven Bake Shoppe, operated by Young and her family, remains open in a section of the building that housed the market. The bakery has operated for 31 years.
The family had been farming in Penn Township since 1981, when their father, Eugene H. Schramm Sr., relocated the farming operation from the McKnight Road area of Ross Township, where the Schramms farmed for 120 years, Hilary Schramm said.
While they have had “really good people” working on the farm over the past four decades, Hilary Schramm talked about the same problem other businesses are facing. It is so difficult to get people to work, he said.
Government regulations also “have made it really tough” on farmers, Hilary Schramm said.
Having seen the all-consuming work required to maintain a farm, the younger generation of the family does not want to make a career of it, he said.
It is a familiar refrain for long-term farming families as the Baby Boomer generation looks to retire after a lifetime of labor.
“It’s a life you can’t walk away from. It doesn’t end at 5 o’clock in the afternoon,” said Dustin Heater, livestock educator at the Penn State Cooperative Extension for Westmoreland County.
Those who want to start operating a farm face steep challenges, Heater said.
Although Heater believes there are “a lot of people who would like to get involved” in farming, “the startup cost for land and equipment is pretty astronomical.”
“The most successful (young farmers) ones are those who have it in their family,” said Heater, who operates a cattle and sheep farm near Saltsburg, Indiana County.
The rewards, Heater said, can’t be measured in simple terms of dividing the amount of revenue generated from farming by the number of hours devoted to the work.
“It is very rewarding, for those who want to do it,” Heater said, adding those rewards can happen on a daily basis, such as raising a breed of animal or crops.
Pennsylvania has experienced a loss of farms over the past 15 years. The Keystone state had 63,163 farms in 2007, but that number dropped to 53,517 in 2017, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture. In terms of acreage devoted to farming, there were 7.2 million acres of farmland in 2017, a loss of 600,000 acres since 2007.
In Westmoreland County, the same census counted 1,099 farms covering about 144,200 acres in 2017, a loss of 216 farms and about 23,290 acres of farmland since 2007. The average size of a Pennsylvania farm is 137 acres, so most are small family farms, said Shannon Powers, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
“If it was a path to a reasonable living, more folks would want to do it,” said Michael Kovach, who raises livestock on his 107-acre farm in Sharpsville, Mercer County. He is president of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union.
The decline of people involved in farming is concerning, Kovach said, because only 2% of the nation’s population is involved in the agriculture industry, “feeding 98% of the population.”
The interest in converting farmland to development — residential or commercial — is a constant. Hilary Schramm said that the family has had inquiries about selling the land to developers.
“It’s really important to keeping farms as farms and not turning them into residential areas,” Powers said.
The state has invested in purchasing conservation easements that will pay farmers to keep their land for agricultural purposes.
“We’re working hard to raise the next generation who will do that (farm),” Powers said.