Legacy on the Land
Two local families honored with Hoosier Homestead Farm Awards
Saturday, August 23, 2014 5:00 AM
Two Jefferson County families were recognized this year with the Hoosier Homestead Farm award.
A newborn miniature donkey stands with its mother on the Heath family farm.(Staff photos by Ken Ritchieemail@example.com)
The Hoosier Homestead Farm program recognizes families who have owned and operated the same farm for 100 years or more.
The two honorees are Jeff Heath, whose family farm is located in Brooksburg, and Don Phillips, who owns a farm in Madison.
The Heath family has owned its property since 1863, while Phillips' family plot dates back to 1879.
Don Phillips used to farm 300 acres and operate a dairy before becoming a securities broker for Hilliard-Lyons in 1996.
Phillips' farm was purchased in 1879 by his great-grandfather, Charles George. It was passed down to his wife and four children, Phillips said.
"My grandfather bought out the rest of them in 1920, and then my father farmed it from 1953 until he passed away in 1975, and then I farmed it from '75 until '96."
Phillips doesn't farm the land anymore, but the family still owns and manages the property.
He said at one point he considered selling the farm. A subdivision was going up at the time, and he was thinking about it until he learned the history of the farm.
"It makes you want to hang onto it," he said.
He kept the farm, and now, his mother lives in the house on the property. It's the same house she was born in 93 years ago.
"I don't think there's too many people that are 93 years old that live in the house they were born in," Phillips said.
Heath remembers attending a ceremony with his parents when his family was first recognized in 1989 as a centennial family farm.
This time around, he's the family patriarch. Behind him and his wife, Yonna, much of his family made the trip to the Indiana State Fair to accept the honor from Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann.
Heath, now 55, has never strayed far from home.
Or really at all. He was born in 1958 when his family's home had no indoor plumbing - they wouldn't have indoor plumbing until 1962. He lived in a house 100 yards from his childhood home before he built a new house where the old farmhouse once stood.
"I never left the farm, I guess you could say," Heath said.
The Heath's Brooksburg property, on State Road 56, includes areas north and south of the highway and extends to the Ohio River.
Heath took over the main 50-acre plot in 2006, but other family members still own surrounding tracks of land. Heath works at King's Daughters' Hospital as a respiratory therapist and registered sleep technician and tends to the farm in his free time.
Aerial photos of the property show the transition from the 1960s to 2009.
Heath's grandfather ran a sawmill on the property and actually pulled an old house to the plot by steam engine. Later, his father raised hogs and cattle but the family took down the livestock fences some time ago.
Heath, one of five children, now raises corn and tobacco but also has alpacas, donkeys and a mull. But he calls those his "novelty animals."
"I kind of call it a petting zoo," he joked.
Heath plans to build a new fence and then begin raising cattle like his father. His three children already have discussed ways to utilize the homestead one day.
"We started out with no fence, and I'm just now getting stuff in. It just seems like it doesn't turn around as fast as I want it to," Heath said.
As a child, Heath never thought he would stay on the farm. Over the years, he's seen his children go through a similar transition to where they want to play a part in the future of the homestead.
"When I was a kid you know, you kind of thinks there are bigger and better things," he said.
The 100-year homestead sign now is posted next to Heath's driveway but has faded over the years. Heath plans to restore the sign and repost it with the new 150-year Homestead recognition.
Heath's not strictly a home-body. He loves to travel and enjoys seeing new places with his family. But none of those places come close to the feeling he gets when he sees the homestead.
"Seems like wherever I go or visit, when I come down to Madison and hit that riverbottom, I know I'm home," he said.