For more than 60 years in farming, Wilbur Leppke of rural Peabody and his wife, Helen, have sown seeds of friendship in hopes of bettering other people’s lives. The harvest hasn’t always been as hoped, but there’s satisfaction in knowing they tried.
Leppke said his father, Sol, set the example for him while he was growing up. He had a heart for others in need and took them in.
When Wilbur and Helen’s three sons — Stuart, Lyle, and Kent — were growing up, the Leppkes kept a couple of foster teenagers.
One, a 14-year-old boy, had a drug problem. They kept in contact with him for years. When he went on his own, he got back on drugs and got in trouble with the law now and then. When released on probation, the Leppkes would take him in until he got in trouble again.
The young man was smart and could fix things, Leppke said, but he also stole things from them to finance his drug habit. The man eventually got into an argument with his birth father and shot him. He is now 40 years old and serving time in prison for murder.
Off and on, Leppke hired high school boys for part-time help. He needed the help and took it wherever he could find it. One of the young men, now grown, gives him a hug every time they meet.
Leppke’s present part-time employee drives out from Newton to help him when needed. The 40-year-old man is divorced, provides support for two children, and just lives to get by from day to day. He makes enough money to rent a small home and maintain a car.
Leppke feels good about his efforts to help people, even if their lives didn’t always turn out well.
“I needed help, but I did have a compassion for them,” Leppke said. “They had a need, and I wanted to help them. But I could only help them so far. They have to help themselves.”
Leppke is 83. He farmed with his dad growing up and continues to farm. The couple has lived on the home place since 1959.
“When people ask me why I farm, I say I grew up and didn’t know any better,” Leppke said, although he admitted he was given the option to do something else.
“I went to Tabor, the windows were open, and I smelled the green grass,” he said. “That brought me back to the farm. I still love the smell of freshly-turned soil and green grass.”
When Leppke took over the farm from his father in 1959, he managed about 500 acres. A “D” John Deere was his big tractor, and he also had an “A” John Deere. He did a lot of plowing.
He had a herd of dairy cows and decided to get into feeding calves. He said he showed steers in 4-H as a teen-ager and made some money from them.
“I could make more money if I had more,” he reasoned.
He went to his banker and asked for money to buy five calves, but the banker said that wouldn’t be profitable enough and loaned him money for a dozen calves.
That was the beginning of a lifelong career of buying and feeding cattle. He sells them as 800-pound feeders or fattens them to slaughter weight, depending on the market. He was a cattle buyer for others for 10 years while his sons were at home and helped with the farming. He spent many hours in sale barns throughout the state.
Leppke bought more land throughout the years and now owns 1,200 acres. He paid $120 an acre for the first land he bought and $1,925 for his last purchase.
“We didn’t realize what appreciation (in land values) would do when we started,” Leppke said. “I think I’ve seen more changes than my Dad did. He went from horses to tractors, but now there’s been a technology revolution.”
Leppke decries the fact that farming has changed from a way of life to a business. However, he has not bought the latest models of equipment. He still uses 180-horsepower tractors and 1990s combines. He doesn’t have GPS on his equipment.
“If my rows are crooked, I say it’s contour farming,” he joked. “I still use my eye, overlapping rows sometimes.”
Helen was active in the field for many years, working ground and driving the combine.
“She was my hired man,” Wilbur said. “She did everything, although she didn’t get paid very well.”
She is 78 and still is the “gopher” of the operation.
Their son Lyle has a farm of his own near Aulne, and the two men often work together.
“My dad is old school,” Lyle said. “He has worked hard all his life. You won’t catch him sitting in the coffee shop in the morning. He’s consistent, and I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Leppke suffers from arthritis and worries about having an accident.
“I’m careful when getting on and off machinery, and I let my part-time help do the heavy things,” he said.
He figures his equipment will last until he’s through farming. He’s leaving the updating to his son, if he so desires.
“I’m thankful I can still farm,” Leppke said. “We had a goal of making a good living, and we’ve fulfilled our expectations,” he said. ‘There have been ups and downs, but our faith in God has sustained us.”
The couple will be married 60 years in September. They have six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.