Highland farm family raises animals, crops and each other

News-DemocratJune 15, 2014 

The rough and tumble Schoen boys want to do everything Dad does.

Lift the heavy red metal gate that leads into the cow pasture.

Carry feed and water to the chickens and turkeys.

Gather eggs.

Spread straw for the goats inside the 116-year-old barn. The goats are Rhett's. The 5-year-old proudly carries a pocket knife to cut twine holding small bales together.

The turkeys belong to Luke, 7. He got them for his March birthday.

"It was cool." he said.

They share the chickens and the pigs.

Luke drives the John Deere Gator, a utility vehicle that seats six and gets them around the 140-acre Highland farm.

What's the record number of passengers? Nine and a dog.

Can Luke finesse it into the shed?

"Luke is a good driver," said mom Kiersten, holding 2 1/2-year-old Reni.

Dad John, 33, gives the boys the lead, then backs them up.

"The children are very hands-on with the farm and my husband is their biggest advocate," said Kiersten. "We raise cattle, pigs, goats, turkeys, chickens and each other."

Farming may not be John's full-time job -- he is a seed developer (doing seed research) at Syngenta, an agribusiness a mile away.

He also does a lot of charity auctions.

"Mom passed away from cancer," he said. "I think that's a good thing to do."

But farming is where his heart is.

"(Growing up,) I was always with Grandpa Lenny Plocher, always out here doing something," said John. "When I got out of school, I wanted to farm. I had learned how. I got back to farming. It's hard to explain (what I like about it). It's just what I have always done."

Something he got back to gradually after an accident Nov. 4, 2011.

"It was his very last day of harvest," said Kiersten. "We left to go to our niece's birthday party. It happened on the way."

The family was in a minivan collided head-on with a tow truck.

"What was one of the first things I told the ambulance driver?" said John. "Call Steve and tell him to shell my corn."

Neighbors came by the next day to do just that. "At the scene of the accident, I didn't think he was going to make it," said Kiersten. "The boys were in the car. I was 20 weeks pregnant."

John was airlifted to St. Louis University Hospital where he underwent several major surgeries.

"I broke my neck, all my ribs, my face. It knocked my front teeth out and tore my left arm pretty much off."

"I wasn't hurt at all," said Rhett.

"He could see his dad," said Kiersten. "Luke remembers it. He had glass in his face. You almost didn't have a dad. You are lucky. Your dad is tough."

"What do I tell you boys?" said John.

"If it's something like this," Rhett said, pointing to a scratch, "you don't need a Band-Aid, and be tough."

John lifts his left sleeve to show a nasty scar.

"There's a plate where the scar is. And spine fusion isn't exactly a cake walk."

He underwent 14 months of physical therapy. "Luke, and Rhett," said Kiersten, "whenever daddy was hurt, you guys did a lot around the farm."

"Every once in a while, Dad told me to walk on his back," said Luke.

"I have pain in my neck or arm at night, but I'm lucky to be alive, to be a dad," said John.

"I can't do a lot of things."

But he does an amazing amount.

Climb into the Gator with him and his family for a survey of the farm. First stop, a thick grassy field where cows are having dinner.

"This is one of our favorite jobs to do together," said John. "These boys help me put up fence. When did we put up the back fence?"

"This morning," they said in unison.

"Listen to all those cows eating," he said.

The movable electrical fence allows the cows to have a movable feast.

"We give them a little extra pasture every few days," said John. "It keeps us from having to hand-feed so much hay. It keeps cows healthy and happy. It's called strip grazing."

The cows rotate from field to field, allowing grass to grow in one pasture when they're eating in another.

"Boys, where do our cows go when we butcher them?" said John.

"To hamburger heaven," they said.

"All of our animals live a good life on this farm," said John.

"Except for they have one bad day," said Luke.

The boys have chores.

"Every day they have got to do something," said Kiersten.

"Except when we are asleep," said Rhett.

"John is very good at teaching them what he's doing and why he is doing it," said Kiersten. He's very good at making sure they understand even if it's a subject way above their heads."

"They know what the bull is for and the billy goat and the rooster," said John. "Where's the bull?"

At a neighbor's house.

"Because all of our cows are bred to have babies in September."

Leni, 2 1/2, rides on the tractor with Dad when he feeds pigs and cows.

"If I am still at work (at Highland Supply)," said Kiersten, "and John is out with the kids, he has to get it done."

"That's how I got lucky to get a tractor with a cab," said John, "so they can ride in there with me."

"I get to drive it on short rides when we're going slow," said Luke, "but we can't tell Mom that."

John stopped the Gator alongside long cylinders of plastic-wrapped hay. Each was about 5 feet tall.

"What makes the round bales so nice," said John, "is that they're wrapped and you can store them right here (outside) and pick them up with a tractor."

They're also fun to play on.

"It's something they do when I am busy," said John, lifting Rhett onto one. "When I think of farm kids, that is the kind of stuff I used to do."

"You jumped on hay bales?" said Rhett.

"Oh, yeah," said John.

The boys raced from end to end, on top of the world.

Does Kiersten worry?

"I am always worried. If I don't let them do things, they will miss out."

The Schoens grow

"I don't have the ability to go out after work and plant," said John. "I have a neighbor to plant our crops, but they are still our crops, aren't they, buddy?"

What's in this field here?

"Beans," said Luke.

"What would we look at the field for?"

"Weeds," said Rhett.

For Fathers Day, Kiersten and the kids may take Dad uptown to Schweizerfest for a gyro and lemon shake-up.

Or make him his favorite omelet with eggs from the farm.

"What's in it, boys?" said Kiersten.

"Ham, peppers ..."

"Onions, spinach ..."

"Everything you can dream of," said John.

calves who have names such as

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