John Leech makes farmers of housewives, firemen, clerks

John Leech has a special spot in his heart for people with Noah's Ark farms - two horses, two cows, two sheep, two of this and two of that.

He understands the yearning to live off the land - to grow one's own fruit and vegetables and raise cattle and poultry. He knows the desire to escape to the pastoral life; to listen to wind in dry cornstalks instead of sirens in urban streets; to look at stars at night instead of smoggy skies. It's a romanticism which runs deep in many Americans. It's the stuff dreams are made of.

''Dream your hearts out,'' John Leech tells these Noah's Ark farmers, ''but do it realistically.''

Leech teaches courses he devised especially for ''young and beginning farmers'' in Genesee and Oakland Counties in southeastern Michigan, where he is a Michigan State University extension agricultural agent.

His primary task is to help those with big farms (250 to 1,000 acres) get the best returns on their crops and livestock. But he also exhibits a genuine concern for the family with 5, 10, or 40 acres and a yen for the bucolic life. He coaches them to make the most economical use of their land, but warns:

''It's a great way of life but don't expect to make your entire living at it.''

The more than 340 persons who have taken his classes in the past few years hold other jobs, with small farming used simply as a life style or to supplement their incomes. They include a firefighter, sheriff's deputy, factory workers, homemakers, a chemist, a purchasing agent, an engineer, teachers, and several clerks. ''The small farmer must learn to be a good manager,'' Mr. Leech says, ''and put as much effort into thinking, planning, and using a pencil as into plowing a field or milking cows. There isn't room, for instance, to raise enough of certain crops to make a profit - you need a big farm for that. But some things can be done successfully, and those are the things we focus on.''

Ray and Marlene Gavin are one of his shining examples. Ray works for Michigan Bell and Marlene for Oakland Community College.

''The Gavins started out with a few chickens, a few turkeys, a few sheep, a few cows,'' Mr. Leech says, ''but now they are specializing and have a breeding flock of about 35 Suffolk and Romney sheep. This is one of the types of farming which works well on small acreage.''

Another is the roadside market or the ''pick your own'' orchard or berry patch. And some newer kinds of farming work well, too.

''Gerry and Bonnie Todd are raising a nice herd of beefalo,'' Mr. Leech says. (A beefalo is an animal developed by crossing American buffalo with beef cattle.)

The Todds - he is a construction worker and she runs a day-care center - started in John Leech's class six years ago. At that time they had 80 acres of land and wondered what to do with it.

''They have expanded to the point where they now raise 250 acres of crops and their herd,'' Mr. Leech says. ''They do a lot of their own marketing and are doing very well.''

In his courses, John Leech warns those who would buy a small farm to amass sufficient capital first. Property in the metropolitan area around Detroit and Flint is expensive - $1,500 to $2,000 an acre - plus the house and barns. And there may be costly improvements that don't show up at first.

''The small farmer seldom experiences a 'romantic' beginning,'' Mr. Leech says. ''I've lived in enough old houses and owned enough farms while I was getting my agricultural college degrees (AB and MA) from Michigan State University, that I can understand what they go through.''

But his most urgent advice is that family members work together closely. ''It isn't a case of crop failure sometimes so much as a failure to share the same goals which causes a rift in some relationships,'' he says.

He has seen cases where a man wants to raise cattle, but when they break out of their pasture, he is at work and his wife must round them up and face angry neighbors. A woman owns a horse ranch but her husband is constantly awakened at night to help with emergencies. The children get a pony but soon there are vet fees and the need for a van to go to horse shows.

''I counsel many troubled couples who become disillusioned,'' John Leech says. ''Farming isn't for everyone.''

But it's just the right thing for Gloria Bellairs, who is raising a flock of 93 sheep - Romneys and Romney Crosses - on her 22-acre Hilltop Farm near Clarkston.

About 12 years ago, Mrs. Bellairs fled the suburban life to fulfill her dream of farming. She wanted an all-absorbing interest to fill the long days and nights when her husband, George, traveled in his work as an electronics engineer. And she wanted a more rewarding life for the youngest two of their five children who were still living at home.

Her first step was to enroll in one of John Leech's classes.

''It gave all of us in the class a good basic understanding of what we were going into,'' Mrs. Bellairs recalls, ''and the rest was up to us. So far as I know, all those in the class stuck to their farming and have really become proficient.''

Raising sheep is a strenuous business, Mrs. Bellairs admits. She sleeps in the barn during lambing, waking every two hours to tend the flock. And she always keeps her bib overalls handy for quick trips to the hilly fields.

Her hard work has paid off. In the Michigan State Fair last fall, her flock took 10 of 11 blue ribbons, including champion, and she was named premiere breeder.

She is vice-president of the National Romney Breeders Association; president of the Eastern Romney Breeders Association; was the first president of the Tri-County Sheepbreeders Association in Michigan and promotion chairwoman for the Michigan Sheepbreeders Association. She also belongs to the Farm Bureau.

Three years ago she gave up her 22-year business grooming dogs to devote herself full time to the farm and the development of The Sheep Shed, an allied business at the farm which offers spinning lessons and wool products - raw wool, mittens, hats, quilt bats. ''We use everything on and in the sheep except the baa,'' Mrs. Bellairs says.

She is often invited to bring lambs and give spinning demonstrations to churches, camps, Scout meetings, and community gatherings. ''I try to oblige,'' she says. ''It's important that people understand about wool.''

When Mr. Bellairs retires next year, the farm will become his full-time job. ''My husband didn't realize he would like farming as much as he does,'' Mrs. Bellairs says, ''but now he's really into it and has become as proficient as I am.''

She expresses the zeal of the small farmer this way:

''It's a rewarding way to spend the rest of our lives. We feel productive. And it's fun. How much more can you ask for? It's a beautiful way to live.''

John Leech says this is the kind of enthusiasm which propels him on his farm-hopping journeys through the countryside, offering advice and ideas to make small farms prosper.

He enjoys the success of his students and brags about them.

And he does the kind of work which combines his love of teaching (he was once a schoolteacher and superintendent) and love of the land.

It's ironic that for the first time in his life, he does not live on a farm, but in a condominium in Fenton.

''I get my satisfaction vicariously now from the farmers I serve,'' he says. ''I can help them; I can teach; and I can still keep my hand in agriculture. I like that.''

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