By LOU WILIN
For the 50th straight year, Hancock County farmer Steve Oman is behind the wheel of a combine, harvesting crops and roiling the country air with dust.
“I love running (the combine),”
Oman, 68, said recently. “As long as I can run it, I want to run it.”
Oman does not have his hands on the wheel most of the time. The complex combine generally runs itself as it travels at 4 mph, mowing a 40-foot-wide swath through soybean plants.
Oman occasionally presses buttons and checks monitors that post images and numbers.
It’s a sunny, 80-plus-degree weekday afternoon, and Oman is wearing sunglasses. Inside the combine, it’s cool with air conditioning. And it’s clean. The dust clouds are on the other side of the windshield. 1950s music plays softly on Sirius. If it was a Saturday afternoon, the Buckeyes game would be on. A couple of small coolers are on the floor. It’s comfortable.
Oman’s son, Jason, now manages the family farm.
“I’m going to hate the day, probably, that he says, ‘Dad, time to hang it up,'” Steve Oman said. “But it’ll come someday.”
It has been a fun 50-year trip.
“I’m fortunate enough I got to live my dream, and this is what I wanted to do, and I did it,” he said.
Oman and his son farm at a level that few do anymore in Hancock County. The livelihood of their two families is entirely dependent upon their raising corn and soybeans on nearly 2,700 acres in Hancock County. They own 1,700 of those acres, spread among over 20 farms in Eagle, Liberty, Marion, Van Buren, Blanchard and Union townships.
Some farmers work at a job in the city to supplement their income, or have a spouse who works at a city job for the health insurance benefit. But not Oman and his son.
The Omans store their harvested crops in a cluster of huge silver grain silos that glisten and tower over the landscape off Hancock County 9 in Eagle Township. The silos save the Omans money that would have to be paid to a middleman for storing crops.
The Omans also have a grain dryer “which is really bigger than some country (grain) elevators used to be,” Oman said.
“It helps us when we’re shelling corn. It goes into the bins, we don’t have to go to the elevator. We can transfer corn all night,” he said.
The silos enable the Omans to hold grain until it can be sold at a higher price.
“Last year — now this doesn’t happen all the time — but last year, in 60 days, those bins generated $60,000 additional money because we could keep the corn off the market” until prices rose, he said.
Oman and his wife, Wanda, spend two months each winter in Maui, Hawaii.
The payoff for successful farmers comes later in life, said Gary Wilson, a Hancock County farmer, former County Farm Bureau president and former Ohio State University Extension educator for agriculture and natural resources.
The early days of a farmer’s career involve huge debt for huge expenses, Wilson said.
“It’s just a very stressful, leveraged move,” Wilson said of buying farmland and farm equipment. “You’ve got to make some critical decisions. Somehow all the loans that you take, you have got to somehow pay them off and still make a living.”
“Some people would just rather not deal with the stress,” Wilson said.
Oman said he thrives on stress.
“If it ain’t stressful, it ain’t fun,” he said.
Oman always wanted to be a farmer.
He cut his teeth on his father’s 80-acre farm, which was deeded in 1834 to Moses Oman. The Oman family has the deed, signed by Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president.
The fifth generation on the farm, Steve does not refer to his father as a farmer. Enos Oman was a meat cutter, he said. He was more laid-back than his second son, Steve. Steve and his older brother, Jim, helped on the farm from their elementary school days. Jim also became a farmer.
After graduating from Cory-Rawson High School, Steve became a farmer in his own right, raising crops on other people’s properties as well as the Oman farm.
He bought his first farm at an auction in 1971. He was 21. Two older farmers, one just down the road from Oman, told him he would never make it, that he would lose the farm.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘You know, you may be right, but I’ve got the rest of my life to do what I don’t want to do,'” Oman recalled telling him.
He bought “two or three” more farms within four years.
“And I just kept going,” Oman said.
“He just really jumped out on the plank and was buying a lot of land,” Wilson said. “He was very aggressive.”
The 1970s were a boom time for farming. Exports rose as several international crops failed, making U.S. grain more valuable. Farm income reached record highs, making credit easier to get. Land prices rose.
But the 1980s brought a slump, and it was the downfall of many farmers who did not react in time.
“When things are going good, you kind of expect them to keep going good,” Wilson said.
But Oman exhibited an ability to make the right decision at the right time, Wilson said.
After what Oman describes as “probably” his best year ever as a farmer — 1980 — when the boom was starting to go bust, farmland across the road from Oman went up for sale.
Everyone, including the auctioneer, expected him to jump on it.
But Oman didn’t.
While Oman sat quietly at the auction, his neighbors speculated that he had someone else bidding for him.
Oman had already decided it would be a bad investment.
“When I got up that morning, I told my wife, ‘This doesn’t make sense,’ because if I would have bought the farm, the interest on that farm would have been like $60,000 before I ever took crop off of it,'” Oman said.
He calls it his best decision ever.
Interest rates were reaching historical highs. Land and crop prices, exports and farm income were all falling.
Many farmers went bankrupt in the 1980s.
“Steve had that ability. It’s an inherent, instinctive kind of ability,” Wilson said. “You can look at scores and scores of data … but guess what, you’re the one that’s going to have to push the button and make the decision.”
“And it’s totally dependent on the future,” Wilson said. “And nobody knows the future.”
Things got tough for Oman, too.
“There was one time, right before we came out of the ’80s. I mean, I always made all of my payments … I knew that my balance sheet was basically zero. What I owned and what I borrowed was right even,” he said. “That was when I started pulling back out.”
And he survived to tell about it.
“He was always making good decisions,” Wilson said. “Farming is a risky business. It is the ability to take risks and make it pay.”
In his early 20s, Oman was invited to the office of the leader of his local lending institution. He got no explanation of what the meeting was about. When Oman showed up, the banker told him he had been following Oman’s financial track record and he just wanted to meet him.
“We sat there and chatted a while, then he said, ‘I’m going to give you one piece of advice: If there comes a point you can’t sleep at night because of the business, just get out,'” Oman recalled him saying. “‘Just walk away from it.'”
Oman never lost sleep over his farming business.
“I tell my wife and son, ‘If the preacher buries me, make sure you tell him to say, ‘There’s a kid who lived his dream,'” Oman said. “Because I have.”
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