DRASCO — Raising strawberries is a family project for the Robert Byler family of Drasco.
Most of the members of the Mennonite family can be found in their 1-acre strawberry patch on any given day during the busy month of May. At other times of the year, Robert may be seen tending to his cattle or at the construction business he owns.
The Bylers have been selected as the 2014 Cleburne County Farm Family of the Year. Robert, 51, and his wife, Katie, 48, have six children — Carla, 22, who is married to Lyndall Mast and is the mother of Allison Rose, who was born May 7; Kendall, 21, who returned home recently from a mission trip to Belize, where he taught school; Stephanie, 18, who just graduated from the Shady Lawn Christian School; and Crystal, 15; Shauna, 12; and Timmy, 9, who all attend the Shady Lawn Christian School.
The Bylers own 88 acres and have been farming for 10 years, with the past seven years devoted to raising Chandler strawberries. In addition to the strawberries, the family raises 33 head of Angus cattle. Robert is also a general contractor and the owner of Top Notch Builders of Drasco, which has three employees.
“Buying the farm was made possible because of the construction business,” he said.
Robert said he was “shocked” to learn they had been selected to receive the farm-family honor.
“And I was surprised, very surprised. I thought to be farm family of the year, you had to be a big operator. I am not a very big operator.
“I think we were chosen because of the strawberries,” he said. “That’s something different.”
Robert grew up in Gambier, Ohio. Katie grew up in Drasco, the daughter of Amos and Hannah Stoltzfus, who still live in Drasco and help with the strawberries.
“We moved here with I was 4,” Katie said. “We came from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I graduated from Concord High School.”
Robert and Katie met in Virginia, where both were working in a Mennonite Voluntary Service Unit serving the needs of adults with mental-health issues. They got married in 1989, after about a year in Virginia. In 1991, they moved to Arkansas to be near Katie’s family.
“This is just the place where we want to be,” Katie said.
“The farm was neglected when we bought it,” Robert said. “We tore down or removed seven buildings that were not usable and built a 48- by 52-foot hay barn. We cleaned up lots of fence rows and built new fences.”
Robert said the couple began growing strawberries because they like them.
“There were none being grown close by,” Robert said. “Katie had to drive some distance to get them. One day she said, ‘Why don’t we grow strawberries?’
“And I said, ‘Oh, my,’” Robert said. “So here we are, growing our own berries.”
Robert said another reason for the berry patch is “to give our children an incentive to work and make money.
“They all help plant them in the fall and pick them in the spring,” he said. “They pick them every morning before they go to school during strawberry season.
“However, Grandma Stoltzfus has been our main picker for several years,” Robert said with a smile. “In 2012, she picked 2,900 quarts.”
Katie added, with a laugh: “Everybody’s happy when Grandma’s here.”
The Bylers market their berries through advertisements in local newspapers and by word of mouth. There is no “u-pick” service offered. “Our children pick them all,” Robert said.
The family sells its cattle at local livestock auctions, raising the calves to about 500 pounds, and also raises a couple of pigs for family consumption.
“I cure and smoke the hams and bacons,” Robert said.
Robert said farming is his main hobby.
“I love to be on our farm,” he said. “That’s where I spend most of my spare time.”
Katie calls working in the strawberry patch her “therapy.
“I’m happiest when I can be outdoors,” she said.
“As a family, we love to camp,” Robert said. “This strawberry patch is the means of a lot of family activities. We were able to buy a camper one year, and we’ve been on trips out west several times. The proceeds from the strawberries paid for all of that.”
Robert said one of the major problems with growing strawberries is preventing frost or a freeze in the spring when the plants begin to bloom.
“Sometimes we have to get up in the middle of the night to pull the row cover on the plants so they don’t freeze,” he said. “One night we burned a bale of hay to try and prevent a freeze. We really have to watch the weather and dew point during bloom.”
Robert said he only uses a fungicide on the berries.
“No other pesticides,” he said.
“Instead of fumigating the soil in our strawberry patch, we use a three-year rotation plan. In the patch that is not being used for strawberries, I plant sorghum-sudan grass one year, cowpeas the next year and caliente mustard this year, which is a natural fumigant.”
He said he works with the Cleburne County Cooperative Extension Service, sending in soil and plant tissue samples, which helps to monitor the nutritional status of the plants and correct deficiencies that may occur.
In the future, the Bylers hope to grow other produce, build more cross-fences on their land and begin rotational grazing of their cattle. They would also like to have their own beehives.
Robert and Katie are members of the Cleburne County Cattlemen’s Association and the Mid-America Strawberry Growers Association. Robert has been a member of the Christian Aid Ministries since 1996 and has served as the regional contact for disaster response services for 16 years. Katie is a member of a local quilting group.