On hills between the Mississippi and Cedar rivers in Muscatine County, John Walts carved out a homestead on 200 acres of farmland. In 1888, he built a house for his family, all the while raising crops and caring for livestock on his modest plot of ground. 

In 2023, in the same house that John once lived, Randall and Theresa Eichelberger spent time recently reminiscing about the family farm, which has been continually occupied by Randall’s family for more than 150 years.

“We don’t feel like we made this a heritage farm. We’re just the ones here right now,” Randall said last week, ahead of a visit to the Iowa State Fair to accept a Heritage Farm designation from the State of Iowa and Iowa Farm Bureau, recognizing the farm’s longevity in the Walts-Eichelberger name.

With the addition this year of 242 Century Farms, held in the same family for 100 years, and 156 Heritage Farms, held in the same family for 150 years, there are now more than 21,000 Century Farms and 1,800 Heritage Farms that have been identified and honored in Iowa.

The Eichelberger farm will receive both its Century and Heritage farm recognitions this year, since they had not applied for either previously.

Uncertain future

Randall and Theresa Eichelberger are a family in transition. Both of their kids are grown. Their son, Ben, lives in Florida and works in the airline industry, while daughter Sarah lives in Ames and works in precision agriculture. At this point, it’s unclear if a sixth generation of the family will be on the farm to carry it to its 200th anniversary.

For most of his life, Randall raised cow/calf pairs and fed out cattle. Those herds were sold off a few years ago and their hay and pasture ground has been rented to a neighbor. They still farm their row crop acres, growing rotation corn and soybeans.

Theresa said the couple is a near perfect match when it comes to the farm. Every fall, during crunch time for harvest, she runs the combine, while Randall handles transportation and storage.

“I think we’re perfectly suited to work together, we complement each other,” Theresa said. 

Over the years they have both had off farm jobs at different times. It’s only the last 15 years or so that they’ve both been able to farm full time together. 

They utilize no-till and buffer strips, helping to keep the soil in place on the hillsides, and limiting nutrient runoff into a creek that winds through their land and meets the Cedar River less than a mile away.

A lot has changed

Randall joined the family farm operation in 1981, the same year the couple married. They lived in a house just up the road from the farm, owned by Randall’s parents, Marlin and Roberta Eichelberger. In 1988, Randall’s mom insisted they switch houses, to give them more room for their children.

“Mom (Roberta) wanted to move to the smaller house, but then they added on to the house three times,” Theresa said, smiling at the memory. 

At that time, Randall said, there was a lot more manual labor involved in farming. He still remembers walking beans to manage weed pressure. All their hay at that time was made into small bales, loaded onto a flatbed, and transported back to the farm to feed their cattle. 

“The kids walked beans a few times, they didn’t care for it either,” he joked.

He began farming during the farm crisis. Randall had to keep an off the farm job for many years to support the family while times were tough. Later, when the kids got a little older, Theresa went to work as a secretary for a local church while Randall focused on the farm.

Priorities changing 

“I think our priorities have changed,” Randall noted. “We want to be able to go to Ames to see the grandkids whenever we want. You can’t do that when you’re caring for livestock.”

As of now, they have no plans to leave the family home behind. While the house itself is original, the foundation and basement were replaced in the late 1990s.

They are also still improving their property. Earlier this year, they put in a spring-fed pond for swimming and fishing. 

As for what’s next for the Heritage farm – Randall and Theresa said they just want it to stay in production and stay with a local owner, even if they are not a family member.

That’s not to say they are leaving anytime soon. Randall pointed out that his uncle Virgil is still on his farm at 93, not too far away from his and Theresa’s house. 

“If one of the kids wanted to come back and take over the farm, we’d like that,” Randall said. “But there’s no way to make it work with just the acres of row crops we have here. One neighbor just put up a chicken barn. Another added a cattle feed yard. The first thing we’d say to whichever of the kids wanted to take over would be, ‘show us your business plan.’”

Deep down, it’s obvious they would prefer the original Walts farm stay with an Eichelberger.

“This was absolutely the best environment to raise a family in,” Theresa noted. “It’s easy to take for granted what we have out here. We’ve been blessed.”