Indiana man's resolve keeps him farming at 81

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COLUMBUS, Ind. (AP) -- An icy blizzard dumped 7 1⁄2 inches of snow on Columbus on Feb. 25, 1961, causing widespread power outages and forcing 2,000 people to spend the night in restaurants, the high school gym and strangers' homes.

The Evening Republican called it the "most paralyzing sleet and snow blizzard in (Columbus) history."

At Columbus High School Memorial Gymnasium, on 25th Street, Irvin Finke and his wife, Joy, watched the Columbus High School Bulldogs win the sectional crown.

After the game, roads were impassable. Snow drifts reached as high as school bus windows.

"You couldn't drive the roads. I mean it was pitiful," Finke recalled.

"Most people had to spend the night there (at the gym). But not Irvin," said Mike Yarnell, a farmer and friend and neighbor of Finke.

Instead, Finke walked with his wife to the Bob -O-Link restaurant, at the intersection of 25th Street and U.S. 31, where she stayed overnight with other stranded motorists.

Finke kept going. He wanted to get to his barn, about four miles to the north.

"He had to go home and milk his cows," Yarnell said.

So Finke walked, through blowing snow, over streets and county roads and fields, and knocked on the Yarnells' door around 1 or 2 a.m.

Finke wanted to warm up at his neighbors' farm but was determined to keep walking, Yarnell recalled.

Yarnell's father, Richard, who was Finke's best friend, persuaded him to stay until morning.

Friends and family members say the episode is typical of Finke's perseverance.

"He's very determined. Some people would say hard-headed," said his daughter Jill Wilkerson, a Columbus North High School teacher.

That resolve, which to this day keeps Finke farming, selling seeds and taking care of a cemetery at 81 years old, has its origins in his upbringing in the Great Depression era, when family farms were the norm and the children of farmers were expected to carry on the agricultural tradition. That won't happen in Finke's case, and he worries about his farm's future.

Finke, two sisters and six brothers were born between 1922-39. Their parents, Walter and Katie Finke, had a farm on Road 100E, west of Clifford. Two of the brothers died of scarlet fever. One served in the Pacific in World War II, and another fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

The family had everything it needed, but sharing and innovation were critical.

Irvin and his brother Richard, 79, remember farming with a walking plow and horses, picking tomatoes and milking cows before school, and putting heated bricks in their beds to keep warm.

Their brother Joe, 72, remembers the brothers trying to break horses, swimming in the Flatrock River, throwing rotten tomatoes at siblings and jumping off a 12-foot-high hay loft into loose hay.

Joe takes care of the family farm. Richard has retired from farming. A nephew, Tom Finke, takes care of his farm.

For the brothers, their occupational choice was clear from an early age.

"I was going to be a farmer all my life," Irvin said in the kitchen of his home, on Road 450N. "Brothers, too. I never heard 'em talk about nothin' else."

Irvin married Joy in 1950, after they had dated for four years. He started out renting land from Joy's parents, bought properties throughout the decades and now farms just under 500 acres.

"I just love farming. Put a crop in and watch it grow," he said.

His formerly lanky frame, which made him a good basketball player, has filled out to make him look more like an offensive lineman. His blond hair given way to tufts of white and gray.

He worries about what will happen to the land after he's gone. His daughters have non-agricultural careers.

"I just like to see it stay in smaller hands," he said.

As the average age of farmers increases and the number of children who want to tend the family farm declines, succession planning become more important to farm families, said Angela Gloy, a farm business planning specialist in the department of agricultural economics at Purdue University.

Succeeding generations sometimes hold onto the land and rent it to a different farmer, especially if they value the land for emotional reasons, Gloy said.

While Irvin worries about his farm's future, his family worries more about his safety.

Irvin conceded that his knees, back and shoulders are getting stiffer all the time, but he said that's not enough to slow him down much.

He fell off the combine a few years ago and had a close brush with a fire last year. A broken leg in 2008 required two surgeries -- the second one because he was impatient and kept pushing himself, Wilkerson said. He still has 16 screws and a 12-inch long plate in his leg.

Irvin figures out ways around physical limitations. While recovering from the broken leg, he and friend and neighbor Don Dillman built for Irvin's John Deere combine a winch that allows him to mount the machine more easily.

"I get by pretty good," Irvin said.

He said he could just as easily fall and hurt himself in his home. He would prefer it happen while he's doing something he loves.

"I don't know how I'd get along if I didn't have some kind of responsibility," he said. "I don't know what on earth I'd do with myself."

But Irvin also continues to farm to keep his mind busy -- and off his wife's death.

Joy died on May 13, 2007, about a month before what would have been the couple's 57th wedding anniversary.

"My goodness, I miss her terribly," Irvin said. "It's a different life."

Inclement weather still doesn't stop Irvin's routines.

A few years ago, Irvin called Yarnell, his neighbor, one morning and told him to pick him up because his van and truck were stuck in the snow in the driveway. He wanted to get to his tractor so he could plow the snow.

"I told him, 'You can't go anywhere,'" Yarnell said.

Irvin insisted.

Yarnell got on his tractor, drove to Irvin's house and drove him to his shed so he could plow lanes.

"Even though you couldn't get down the main roads," Yarnell said, shaking his head.

"Irvin's just Irvin. That's all you can say," he said. "He's just out of a different mold, but he's as good a guy as it gets in the world."

And come spring, he plans to be back in the fields.

"Two-hundred acres of corn and 200 acres of beans," he said. "Anytime after the first of April."

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Information from: The Republic, http://www.therepublic.com/

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