Tell Us Your Story: Farming Susquehanna River Islands
Jun 06, 2016 03:02PM
By Melanie Heisinger
White's Island, by Gordon Wenzel
By J.F. Pirro
Jim Inch’s story began in Snyder County before his father Robert rented a house, then owned by the power company, on White Island.
In 1944, Robert swapped five mules—his farming power source—for a down payment on an International Harvester F-12. He planted 65 acres of feed corn, cultivated it three times, hired men to hand-husk it, then paid them with corn, leaving plenty for his corncrib.
Later that season, he learned that his down payment covered the tractor, and he even received a $200 rebate on it. The next year, he planted 36 more acres of corn on White’s Island.
“Dad said right then that he should have quit farming while he was ahead,” says Jim, 81. “You can be rich one day and poor the next in this business.”
Jim, though retired, still works seven days a week. He lives on another farm owned by Roy Adams & Son, Inc., which now has the unique farming rights to White’s and three other islands in the Susquehanna.
Tammy Wolfe, Roy Adams’ daughter and office manager in Sunbury, PA, says most don’t realize how hard farmers work, where food comes from or how technology-based today’s farming is. “We’re proud of that work and proud to be a part of it,” she says.
Not an Easy Life
Farming White's, Big Hoover’s, Little (or Mason’s) Hoover and Schlegel’s islands three miles south of Herndon in Dalmatia has been tough territory to hoe. The Pennsylvania Game Commission owns the first three islands: Adams owns Schlegel’s. It’s a unique public-private partnership. Weather and other variables are a challenge. The river dictates how you farm; high spring water means a late start. Harvesting can come early, before autumn rains make the river impassable. In 2011, the operation lost 700 acres of corn to high waters. “If the water gets into the ears, you can’t use it,” Jim explains.
On the bright side, the island soil is like gold—“black gold in the middle of that river,” Tammy says.
The Big Picture
Overall, Roy Adams & Son farms 1,800 acres of feed corn, 800 acres of soybean, 350 acres of wheat, 200 acres of barley and oats, and fall cover crops, in Northumberland and Snyder counties. There are two grain operations and storage facilities. It owns or rents 73 farms.
In 1968, Adams bought the main farm, a 120-acre property. Once called Roy Adams Farms, he incorporated in 1988. Roy, 71, is president. His son Tony is the secretary-treasurer, and Tony’s son Jerid is the company’s first third-generation employee.
There are 170 tillable acres on White's Island, which Adams owned between 1974 and 1989. There are 210 tillable acres on Big Hoover's Island and 50 fertile acres on Little Hoover's Island. Schlegel’s Island has 45 usable acres. “We don't just let that land lay,” Jim says. “We farm it."
The PA Game Commission requires Adams to plant feed corn so there’s post-harvest fodder for waterfowl. Fifty percent of the company’s production, and 30 full-time employees, depends on the agricultural production on those four islands.
Jim—“Butch” or “Big Daddy,” as he’s called—has worked for Adams for 35 years. The property he tends, the Harris Farm, has a herd of 125 beef cattle and Holsteins.
On White’s Island
On White’s Island—once Native American Indian territory—the only signs of former human habitation are the shell of Jim’s house and two picnic pavilions. The barn has collapsed.
The railroad once crossed the Susquehanna here, carrying coal from Shamokin to the canal boats at Port Trevorton. Shadows of the stone piers of the long-gone bridge remain in grassy mounds. Inland, the unplanted railroad bed splits the two corn fields.
“It’s like you’re in a world of your own,” says a nostalgic Jim. “As one of six siblings raised on the island, we felt like little [American] Indian children.”
The island survived floods in 1936, 1972 and 2011. In ’36, the water rose to the first-floor windowsills of Jim’s house, and in ’72 went halfway up. Sometimes the water table was so low the family’s Maxwell or Hudson car crossed the river.
“If I ever won the lottery I would have bought this island and restored that home,” Jim says. “When I heard we were leaving, I lay in the grass and bawled and kicked.”
The depth of the river varies on location and rainfall. Teams enter below the fire company in Herndon to cross and plant corn, working from high to low ground as the spring soil dries. With modern equipment, Tony’s planted White’s in a day; Brian’s planted Mason Hoover’s in a day. “If my father saw one of these tractors cross one of those fields,” Jim surmises, “it’d take him a week and six mules to do what now takes a day.”
Each season, whether or not the effort is rewarded depends on the weather: “Sometimes yes and sometimes no,” Jim says. “You can have a great crop and you’re counting your money, then it dries up or gets flooded.”