This week we're meeting the Gauker's, Lee, Jodi and their little gal Callie! The Gauker's hail from Berks County, right outside of Fleetwood.
To get to know the family, I asked them to respond to a number of questions about themselves, farming and life. Sit back and enjoy getting to know a little more about the folks that bring beef to the Downingtown Farmers Market. Honestly, I'm exhausted just reading everything they do to live the farming dream.
Question 1: Is farming all you do or do you have another job off of the farm? Is so why? At Gauker Farms, we pretty much all have other jobs. Lee works full-time as a mechanic and welder at a truck shop in Fleetwood. I work for the Chester County Economic Development Council as their agriculture project manager, which is a glorified title for professional networker that helps farmers grow their business however they can. Lee's dad works at the same truck shop where Lee works, Lee's sister is a crop consultant, and Lee's mom dyes and sells wool for quilts and crafts.
Having an off-farm job is actually very common - about 50% of farmers have off-farm income. Having one family make their living off a farm is hard enough, but Lee and his sister now have families of their own to support. Take a farm that once only supported one family and make it support three. Ready, go! The economics just don't always work. We're working toward that, but we're not there yet.
Question 2. How much time does it take to care for all of your animals and how do you fit it into your schedule?
Lee feeds the steers every morning before work. Sometimes he only has to get up at 5:45 or 6:00, and sometimes he gets up at 4:00 because he has to get to work to get a job done for someone who needs their truck early. It takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to feed. When Lee and his dad get home from work, they feed and check on the steers again, and then do any work that needs to be done like field work, equipment maintenance, barn maintenance, mixing feed, moving equipment, things like that. I try to make sure Lee is in the house by 8:30 so we can eat a quick dinner before getting Callie ready for bed. On Saturdays, we come to market, get home, and try to do all of the other stuff that needs to be done on the farm and in the house, and on Sundays, well, we try to make that our rest day, so the steers get fed and checked in the morning and evening, and that's about it for the work.
Question 3. Tell us a little about your livestock, the breed, how many, etc
We have about 40 head of Holstein steers. Holsteins are the black and white cows that are common on Pennsylvania dairy farms. Only the female cows make milk, so the males are kept for beef. About 50% of PA's beef supply comes from dairy cows and steers. We buy our male calves from our dairy farming neighbors. All of our calves come from farms within 2 miles of our farm. We get them when they are a few days old, and they live in calf hutches until they are big enough to go to "calf day care" and can be mixed with other steer calves. They stay with that group until they grow up to be big steers, about 1,500 pounds. Then, we butcher the steers and eat them.
Question 4. What made you want to become a farmer
Lee is the 9th generation of his family to farm. He's always wanted to be a farmer. When he was little, he would play with his tractor toys in the flower beds, and even put a bigger seat on his pedal tractor when he grew out of his, before he could drive the big tractors. I said I never wanted to be a farmer because I saw how hard they work and how they really don't get to go on vacations, and I used to love to travel. Well, that didn't work out so well for me, but I still try to travel when I can.
Question 5. What are the other activities on the farm that you need to do?
We make all of our own feed, so in the winter and early spring, we clean out the bed pack of straw and manure from the barn and spread it on our fields as fertilizer. Then in the spring, we plant the crops. We have about 260 acres of crops including corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay. Around the 4th of July, the wheat dries down, so we combine it for the wheat grain that goes to a flour mill in Fleetwood, and then we bale the straw to use as bedding and sell that to nurseries and landscapers. Then we plant more soybeans in the wheat field. We harvest corn in September or October, and soybeans usually after corn. Then we plant a cover crop so the soil doesn't erode away and to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil. All of this planting and harvesting requires equipment, so we have to fix and/or maintain all of the equipment. Our barn was built in 1841, and the house was built in 1843. As you may imagine, it takes a lot of upkeep to keep the buildings in shape to hold our animals - and us. So there's always lots of fixing going on.
In the winter, when a lot of people enjoy the snowfall and cold temperatures, well, we typically don't like that. Cold temperatures mean frozen pipes, and frozen pipes mean our steers can't get water. And each steer drinks a half to a full bath tub of water every day. We need to keep those pipes not frozen. We also need to make sure that we can get equipment around, and that our steers aren't stuck in deep snow, so we have to do a lot of snow plowing to keep everything open.
Lee also works for another farmer, so when he's done planting and harvesting our crops, he helps him. Or, he helps that farmer with his hauling business by fixing or driving trucks.
Question 6. Where do you keep your cows?
Our calves live in calf hutches - stalls where they can eat, sleep, and play until they get big enough to move into small group pens in our barn. The steers stay in those groups until they leave the farm. During the late spring, summer, and fall months, we have 2 groups of steers that move out to pasture. We keep the biggest steers in the barn so that they are easy to load out and not stressed when they get on the trailer to leave the farm.
Question 7. If you weren’t a farmer you’d be……..
Lee would tell you he would never be anything but a farmer, so he can't answer that question. If I weren't a farmer, I'd probably want to do something equally time consuming that has to do with food. Neither of us can sit still very long.
Question 8. What is your favorite part about farming?
In farming, you can see the results of your hard work in the products you raise whether it's crops, livestock, or kids. It's very rewarding. We also enjoy the network of friends that become your family through the agriculture community.
Question 9. What is your favorite recipe to make with your beef?
I think we really like our 3 major food groups: burgers, grilled steaks, and cheesesteak pizza. Those are staples on our dinner table, and leftover in our lunches.
10. Do you invite visitors to your farm?
We do! We have a "Fun on the Farm Day" every year in August. We also welcome our customers to visit the farm by appointment. Because we work full time jobs, we just want to make sure someone is home when you visit so we can offer you the grand tour!
11. Do you have any big plans for your farm?
We never stop dreaming around here. Lee really likes growing row crops, and doesn't want me to take his farmland to grow wine grapes. If you saw my garden, you'd probably fully support his decision. Some day, when we can afford it, we'd like to add grain storage so we can store more of our own crops, add gates to make it easier to move steers around from the barn to pasture, add more water to the pastures so we can rotationally graze, purchase our own combine and grow crops for distilling in addition to our steer feed, and raise pigs (I raised them in 4-H growing up). I'd also like to make our own jerky and snack sticks in a commercial kitchen on the farm. We also want to build a pole barn museum for all of the old farm and blacksmith equipment from the 1800s and early 1900s that is still here on the farm. All in time!
Have a question for the Gauker's - email me and we'll get you the answer! Thanks Jodi and Lee for a peak inside your farming life!