Sunday, July 6, 2003

Suburbs close in on historic farm

Land has been in Turpin hands since 1785

By Andrea Uhde
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Robert Fischer Jr. cuts sod recently on Turpin farm.
(Gary Landers photo)
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The old blue tractor cuts a slow, straight path through the field of grass.

Robert Turpin Fischer Jr. steadies the wheel, as he has thousands of times before. A pale yellow umbrella shades his head from the afternoon sun, while two men on the back of the tractor catch thick blocks of sod as they shoot out from behind.

The tractor rolls onward, the men intent on their work.

Here at Turpin Farms, less than 10 miles from downtown Cincinnati in Anderson Township, pickup trucks raise clouds of dust on dirt roads, children play barefoot and chickens roam around fresh daisies and herbs.

It's a bit of country in a whole lot of city.

For 218 years, this land has been home to six generations of Turpins.

As near as the state of Ohio can figure, this is the second-oldest family farm in the state. Only the John Smiley place in Adams County is older, established in 1772. And only 11 other farms in Ohio have the distinction of being held in one family for 200 years or more.

As Ohio celebrates its bicentennial this year, the Turpins and other longtime family farmers are being honored. That's important in a state where food and agriculture are top industries, contributing $73 billion to the economy each year. And it's even more noteworthy in a state where the number of farms has been cut nearly in half since 1960.

[IMAGE] Turpin family member Jacob Simmons, 5, watches the comings andgoings at Turpin Farms in Anderson Township last week.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
"They're being told, 'Get big or get out,' and a lot of them can't go big or don't want to go big," says Nancy Raeder, chairwoman of the Ohio Family Farm Coalition, an activist group. "So they do it as long as they can, and they give up."

The 800-acre Turpin Farms has kept up with the times by changing from a crop farm to one that harvests sod. Today, it supplies many of Cincinnati's golf courses, parks, schools and Paul Brown Stadium.

But even this farm may not last much longer. Neighborhoods and a public park have moved in next door, crowding up against the farmland. Flooding is worse, and trespassers come often.

"All I can say is that things change," says Fischer's 78-year-old father, Robert Turpin Fischer Sr., who owns most of this land.

"It used to be great. (Now) population increases, runoff increases. We were never volatile to this extent before."

A rich history

Father and son might contemplate all this, but on this day, there's too much work to be done.

The elder Fischer is guiding a tractor over soil to prepare it for planting. Across the street, the younger Fischer's sister, Pam Turpin Simmons, waters flowers in a shaded greenhouse.

After Phillip Turpin settled it in 1785, Turpin Farms became a valued centerpiece in Anderson Township. Many people moved to the area to be near the farm's flour mill and two whiskey distilleries. The farm's rich bottom soil produced harvests of wheat, corn and soybeans, which supplied the town with food and jobs.

[IMAGE] Turpin family member Randy Simmons works atop a ladder Thursday as he and Andy Garrison erect stone columns for a domed gazebo
The Turpins were well respected in the community and held various public offices. They became a strong presence, owning 11 large brick estates on the fringes of Turpin land. Most of the homes, which have small windows near the ground where Turpins could shoot at Indians, still stand, though Turpins are no longer among the occupants.

But they are still in the fields.

Farming is clearly in the family's blood: The elder Fischer, his children and several in-laws work every day on the farm, usually for 10 hours or more. They hire a handful of other workers to help out.

The elder Fischer avoids the city at all costs. It's too expensive, kids in the city are too loud, and "we don't go there often, that's for dang sure." He's not shy about his preference: "You grow into a way of life. It's something I guess city people can't understand.''

The elder Fischer started farming the land as a child so he could afford a horse. He eventually gained ownership of nearly all the land - his sister, Mary Young, of Anderson Township, and a few cousins own small pieces. In the 1960s, discouraged by the low prices he got for his corn crop, he turned to more lucrative sod production.

The farm, now absent the mill and stills, has adapted to the era. It has 10 greenhouses with annuals, herbs, perennials and water plants for sale. The greenhouses are open to the public daily in the summer. The business, at 3295Turpin Lane also installs ponds for $5,000 and up.

Five hundred acres are used to grow sod, and 300 acres yield soybeans.

"We try to change and progress with the times," says the younger Fischer, 35, who is known by most as "Turpin." "The grain farming end we still do, but that's more of a cover crop anymore. It's a way to hang on to the history."

Last October, the family capitalized on Halloween. Children and parents flocked to the farm to take advantage of a corn maze, hayrides and a pumpkin patch. They'll do it again this year, with a maze shaped like a barn and a boat.

"If you don't (keep up with the times), you don't survive," the younger Fischer says.

Suburban sprawl

Still, survival isn't guaranteed.

Nearby development is causing problems. Roads are being paved. Entire neighborhoods are being built. A lack of retention basins caused a flood in May that gutted the greenhouses and formed an eight-inch pond in the office, the younger Fischer says. The flood left a layer of mud and rows of drooping, dead plants.

"That's when you find out who's your family andwho really cares," the younger Fischer says.

Several generations of Turpins spent the following week cleaning up the plants and trash. Now, it's hard to tell it ever happened, though they are dealing with $20,000 to $30,000 in losses.

It wasn't the worst flood that's hit the farm; in 1997, a flood from the Ohio River caused $750,000 in damages. The greenhouses, set to open for the first time that month, drowned in the water.

Flooding is "the biggest thing we fight down here," says the younger Fischer. Though the farm is in a flood plain, building is exacerbating the problem, he says.

"When you put that much stuff in concrete and you've got that much runoff, it's hard to control," he says. "We can get an inch of rain and we're flooded."

The president of the board of trustees in Anderson Township, Russell Jackson, acknowledges that better engineering might have lessened water problems.

"Over the last 25 years, before storm water regulations came into effect, there was a lot of building going on without consideration that water has to go somewhere," Jackson says.

The younger Fischer wants something done. He's approached township administrators for help, but nothing has changed, he says. "You're just a stupid farmer down here."

Jackson says the township is building a retention pond behind the Anderson Towne Center that will ease water problems.

But there are other threats to Turpin Farms.

As Anderson Township has become home to 44,000 residents, the farm has attracted unwanted visitors.

A park is adjacent to several acres of sod. Some parkgoers ignore the signs and spread out on the private property. "There are people having picnics in a field that's been sprayed," the younger Fischer says. "They knock glass out of the gauges (on tractors), they put dirt in your fuel tanks."

Once, two people were jogging through his land while he was hunting for ducks. That could have ended in a catastrophe because he didn't see the people. "The people popped out as we were shooting the ducks," he says.

"You open a park to the public across from a farm, and you've got a nightmare all its own."

In the early 1990s, his sister found a dead man in a running car in a sod field. Today, the younger Fischer finds and tears down marijuana plants growing on his land. People often illegally use the land to grow drugs, he says. "It'll be up and growing by now."

But the city growth hasn't been totally negative.

"In some ways, it's been very good," the elder Fischer says. "It's where our product goes through, to the city people."

Running into money problems

The Turpins want to do all they can to hold onto their land.

It will be expensive.

When Robert Sr. dies, the inheritance tax for the land will be upward of $1 million, his son says. "It's a little hard for a farmer to come up with one million bucks."

The family already has lost some land. Recently, a family member died and left his land to his children, who live in the Northeast and weren't interested in keeping it. The township offered them an average of $6,269 for each of the 102 acres, a price that the Turpins couldn't match, the younger Fischer says. Now, the patch of land, owned by the township's parks department, is Clear Creek Park.

"We don't have any outside source of income, so once they bid it beyond our reach, it's gone," the elder Fischer says.

After the land was sold, the family created a "war chest" with savings they can use in case the others who still own land want to sell their share.

The land has been sought for reasons including converting it into a lake or building homes on it. The Turpins, who haven't even considered such offers, hope their savings will keep this from happening.

"The history to me is more important than the money," the younger Fischer says.

The next generation

Holding onto that history will take "good fortune," the family realizes.

And harvesting sod may not be very profitable in years to come.

The sister, Pam Turpin Simmons, 38, says she's looking into using some land to host weddings and luncheons. It's just an idea at this point.

She's only left the land once, when she went away to school at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. She studied agriculture, of course.

"I can't imagine not having that kind of history," she says of the family farm. "It would be weird - it would be like, where does it matter where you live?"

The township doesn't want to see it go, either. "We feel very strongly they're an important part of our community," Jackson says.

"We'll do everything we can do to keep them as an entity."

The children who laugh and play by the greenhouses each day will have the choice to continue the family tradition. The younger Fischer has three children, ages 7, 14 and 17. Simmons has a 5-year-old child.

So far, the 17-year-old, Ken, hasn't shown any interest in owning the farm, the younger Fischer says. He's not sure if any of the children will.

Ken is considering joining the military or going to college to study computer science. "I don't know if I could actually be a farmer," Ken says. "I'm more of a business person, so I would probably be better for that part."

The 14-year-old, Alisha, said she hasn't really thought about taking over, but she is interested in a job that involves nature.

"Let's put it this way: They could sell it and never have to worry about money in their lives," the younger Fischer says. "It's getting harder and harder, and it's getting less and less fun."


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