Sunday, April 18, 2004

Family saying goodbye to farmland, way of life

By Emily Hagedorn
Enquirer contributor

Old signs for the Valley Orchards Farm are propped against a barn at the Burlington farm, as Tom Bonar of Montana walks by during an auction of equipment. 70 acres of the farm are being sold to Boone County for a park.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/PATRICK REDDY
Charlie Hempfling, 77, owner of Valley Orchards on River Road, stands under pear trees on the farm.
If this were any other year, Charles Hempfling would be spraying his fruit trees and mowing his orchards during these sunny days of April.

At one point in his farm's 90-year history, he would be planting 100 acres of potatoes, he recalled.

Instead, Hempfling is cleaning out the barns and preparing his farm, Valley Orchards, for its next life as a Boone County park.

The 77-year-old patriarch of the well-known Boone County family recently sold about 70 acres of his farm - one of the oldest in the area - to the county to be turned into a sports complex. The property on the north side of River Road runs all the way to the Ohio River.

"Farming is not too profitable anymore. That's part of the problem," he said. "Like I tell everyone, things don't stay the same forever. Things change. I say you can't stop progress. I guess that's what this is."

Hempfling stands in his main barn, where rays of sunlight highlight the dust in the air. The white paint on the rafters and walls flake, and the apple grater against the wall has a grayish tint from the mass of cobwebs in its nooks and between its gears. On Saturday, the equipment from this and two out-buildings was auctioned off.

At one time this barn, on Ky. 8, was the jewel of Hempfling's 300 acres, housing dairy cows, and later a place the family processed fruit.

It was also where many local people came for produce.

"He spent most of his life walking in that barn," said son Harold Hempfling, 50, of his father.

"We're like everyone else - we're evolving."

A Boone County tradition

One of the farm's strongest draws was the annual pick-your-own-pumpkin event every fall.

After reading about a similar event in a farming magazine, the elder Hempfling started offering it in 1978. It was a hit.

They sold 800 pumpkins in one Sunday, said Harold Hempfling.

"We went down there, and (the volunteer who was working the picking) had a line of people and was scared to death," Charles Hempfling said, laughing.

From the early 20th century through the 1970s, Ky. 8 - also known as River Road - was also the place to go for fresh produce, he said.

Harold Hempfling pulls out various newspaper clippings, which boast articles on strawberry and peach pickings, the farm's history and the effects of droughts and freezes.

"Charles Hempfling says he was the second person in Boone County to sell his fruit at the side of the road," said a 1981 clipping. In 1940, Hempfling turned over a bushel basket to use as a seat as he waved down passers-by and sold apples for 50 cents, it goes on to say.

Leilani Mahan, who lives down the road from the Hempflings, worked at the family's produce stand and greenhouse 20 years ago. Some of what is now Giles Conrad Park was her family's farm.

"It was very interesting to see how things would grow," said Mahan, 66. "The time that I spent working on that farm was a good time. I hate to see it go, but I know times are different."

An end to a way of life

While at one time people would load up their cars with apples and potatoes, now most people come and pick a pint of apples or a few pumpkins for the sake of picking them, Harold Hempfling said.

"They were coming for the amusement of it," he said.

Harold Hempfling got out of the family business in 1991. He became a plant health safeguarding specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He said he knew this day was coming.

"Culture changes. Society changes," he said. "It's the end of a way of life for my family."

Boone County will pay about $1,176,000 over seven years for the 70 acres, said Gary Moore, the county judge-executive. The family donated an additional 18.5 acres to the county.

Sparked by a report that Boone County did not have enough parks for its growing population, the land is set aside to become a sports complex, which will have "Valley Orchards" in its name.

Both Hempflings said they were pleased with what their land would become.

Boone County parks are "always first class," Harold Hempfling said.

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