Sit down with Tony and Debi Heppe in their cozy Atwater, Ohio farmhouse, and the simple joy they have from farming becomes readily apparent. It was present early on.

A little background

Debi and Tony met at Waterloo High School through overlapping extracurricular activities — he was in FFA and Debi a committed 4-H’er. “I’ll always remember our first date was to the Wayne County Fair,” Debi says. They both showed at the Portage County Fair — he showed beef cattle and pigs and she beef cattle. Tony started farming independent of his father in 1970, at age 16. “I scrounged around to find a tract of land here and there that I could farm. I must have really wanted to do it!” Tony says. He then sold the grain to Deerfield Ag Services and others.

College followed high school for Tony, a member of the first graduating class of ATI in 1974. “I lived in Wooster during those years and drove home after classes on Friday to be a weekend farmer,” Tony states.

The Deerfield connection

In the spring of 1973, Tony received a Deerfield internship. After finishing ATI, he came and went from Deerfield several times. “It was an experience working for Boyd Wallbrown,” Tony states. “He pretty well ran the place. He was a very good boss, and sure knew farming.”

But Boyd must have seen something in the young man he had hired, for in May, 1973, he had purchased a brand-spanking new Case 2470 tractor and an eight bottom plow. He directed Tony to it and said, ““Tony, you’re doing the plowing this spring on this,” and I did”, Tony recalls. “I remember thinking, “Wow, this guy is trusting me with this thing,” which is exactly what he was doing. Boyd kept you in line and let you know your responsibilities, but he was a pleasure to work for.”

As Boyd saw something in Tony, Tony was impressed by Boyd’s abilities. “Boyd was one of the most intuitive people I’ve ever met. He could read your personality. I’ve never seen someone who could size an employee up and just know what that person was capable of. It must have run in the family — his sisters Sue and Janice had the same kind of presence as Boyd. But they were friendly, inclusive of everyone. They were a pleasure to be around.” Sue Kline — Boyd’s sister — agrees. “It was always a pleasure working with Tony. It was not easy for a young farmer with a family, but he and Debi raised three wonderful boys. Tony loves the land. He was born a farmer and will continue to be a farmer.”

In fact, the bond between the Heppe and Wallbrown family extends to Debi’s, as her father Clyde Chandler and Boyd both sat on the 4-H Beef Committee of the Portage County Fair.

On the farm

“We plant corn and soybeans every year, but wheat and hay are optional,” Tony states. In 2017 they planted 60 percent soybeans and 40 percent corn on 500 acres in 14 non-contiguous parcels, all in Atwater, Randolph and Rootstown townships in Portage County. And always in rotation. Deerfield buys nearly all of their grain.

Today, they are assisted on the farm by their three adult sons — Stephen, 34, has a degree in agriculture education; Adam, 31, holds an associate degree in swine management; and Matthew, 29, has a degree in communications and theater. Stephen now works for OSU Extension in Wayne County as a Program Assistant, Adam works for Summit County Engineers and owns Heppe Show Pigs, and Matthew works for OSU Extension in Stark County as an Information Associate.

“It gets busy, but we operate pretty well as a team,” Tony states. “Yeah,” Stephen interjects, “Dad taught us all to disc, plant and combine.” Adam is in quick agreement. “The boys will always take off work to help. Springtime, especially I’d rather be out here than at work anyway.” Stephen, Adam and Tony are all certified in crop spraying.

In December, Tony orders seed for the following year, and in the spring through summer gets almost all of his chemicals and fertilizer from Deerfield. Any repairs on grain dryer equipment also come from Deerfield. 

Obstacles to overcome

Near-disaster can come at you from any number of directions in farming. The Heppe family is no exception to that rule. In 1996 their eldest son Stephen, then age 12, proudly took their 1965 Oliver tractor out for his first time — he’d been working up to this — onto the road with the drill in tow. The rest of the family piled into cars behind him and headed down the road. Stephen didn’t see the bump in the road, which he hit square on, and flipped the tractor, his horrified family watching the whole thing take place. The roll bar saved his life. “I stuck with it as it rolled and went down with it, it all happened so fast,” Stephen said. “I had to crawl over it to get free.” His terrified family ran to the tractor, fearing the worst. His list of injuries? A scraped ankle.

Disaster was averted when a grain bin fire in 1992 destroyed a quarter of the crop in the bin before the fire department and neighbors came to the rescue.

Surprise, surprise. Tony inside the bin leveling grain, looking up at the hatch upon hearing three-year-old Adam shout, “Hi, daddy!”

But their hardest trial, shared with farms throughout the Midwest, was the double-whammy that the 1988 Midwest drought and accompanying 1989 deluge served up. Tony’s crop losses on the 500 acres he works were staggering. “Crop prices shot upwards, but we just were not able to produce enough to make up for it,” Tony states. The following year’s deluge forced them to plant late, adding to the financial woes from the previous year, but Tony was determined to push forward. “That was a tough period for all farmers and us, but I knew we were going to make it through,” Tony said.

The result? Tony was forced, yet grateful to take an off-farm job at East Manufacturing Company, makers of semi-trailers, to supplement the family income. “I didn’t want to work off of the farm, I love farming. But a great upside occurred — my job taught me a fabricator’s point-of-view to fix things. It taught me how to make parts and actually fix my own farm equipment, which 20 years later, I still do.”

The Heppes’ Deerfield connection extends beyond the farm. The family is quite grateful to Deerfield for their ongoing support of the Portage County Fair youth livestock auctions. “It is so important that we support the next generation of farmers.” Debi states. “And they’ve been great. Any time we need something for ag education, Deerfield has been there for us.”