Hard work, good luck, and a little help from his friends.
That’s Justin Schafer’s recipe for a richly rewarding life in agriculture and agri-business.
But looking back at 94, he’s not sure a young person would find success on the same path.
“I think it could be done, but it would be tough,” Schafer says. “These young guys farming today are tough, but these days you’ve got to have some help.”
The landscape has changed dramatically from Schafer’s era, when there were 1,600 to 1,700 farms and seven implement dealerships in the county.
Today there are only a couple of hundred farms, and they’re far larger in terms of acreage and livestock. Implement dealers now operate on a regional basis rather than serving a small local market.
“It changed pretty quick,” says Schafer of the transformation of the farm implement business in the 1970s and 1980s, which saw longtime Portland dealers close their doors.
For Schafer, a life’s journey in agriculture began on the family farm two miles west of Saratoga in Randolph County.
“I was working for the next door neighbor after high school,” says Schafer. That neighbor had a large dairy herd, and by working for him as a hired hand Schafer had the opportunity to learn how to run the McCormick milkers.
He was making $7 a week when Wilbur Sheffer of Portland stopped by to see the dairy farmer. Sheffer, who owned the International Harvester dealership in Portland, was there to try to sell the farmer a cream separator. The farmer wasn’t there, so while he waited Sheffer struck up a conversation with the young man from Saratoga.
Something must have made a positive impression, because before the conversation was over Sheffer had told Schafer that if he wanted a job to get in touch.
(The Sheffer-Schafer connection still draws a smile from Justin Schafer today. Though the two names are pronounced the same way, the different spellings have sometimes confused people. Schafer’s roots are in Randolph County, while Sheffer’s were in the Salamonia area.)
Schafer took him up on the offer. The year was 1935.
“They needed a parts man, and I didn’t know a thing about parts,” he says. But he was willing to learn and was a quick study.
“Wilbur was a tough guy to work for, but he was a good boss. Tough but fair,” says Schafer. “I worked for him six years to the week.”
Schafer’s uncle, Harold Rickert, then established an Allis-Chalmers dealership on South Meridian Street near the concrete arch bridge. Rickert was the investor behind the dealership, while Schafer managed the business.
Industrial production related to World War II made it difficult for farmers to find pieces of equipment that they needed.
“We got a lot of machinery that farmers just couldn’t get,” Schafer recalls. “We just had good luck and things just took off.”
But while business was booming, Schafer wasn’t prospering personally. His first wife, Helen, thought his uncle was taking advantage of him.
A rift developed. It ended when Schafer handed Rickert the keys and walked out. “I quit and went home,” he says.
When he did, he took with him a solid reputation in the implement business that he’d built up over a dozen years. It wasn’t long before former customers started contacting him, urging him to get back into the business.
Among them was Oliver Steed.
Steed was a big dairy farmer by the standards of the late 1940s. His farm included land that today is the site of Jay County Hospital, Crown Pointe, and the Wal-Mart Supercenter. Along North Meridian Street, it included a piece of land that’s now the site of Marsh Hometown Market and Pizza Hut.
Steed knew that for Schafer to get started with his own dealership he’d have to have some help. He offered to sell 11 acres at what is now the corner of Lincoln and Meridian streets for payments of $100 a year for five years, followed by a balloon payment at $1,000 an acre. The contract gave Schafer an opportunity he couldn’t resist.
“Oliver Steed made it so I could do it,” he says.
Then it was a matter of finding a manufacturer he could work with as a dealer. Some implement-makers had developed reputations for burdening dealerships with more debt than they could handle, sending some of them into bankruptcy.
For Schafer, the right fit was the Oliver Company.
“Oliver treated me the nicest for a poor guy,” he says. “I knew they would treat me right.” The company still has a loyal following among exhibitors at the annual Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Association show.
“Oliver people knew their product,” says Schafer. “They knew the size of every bolt in their plows.”
For more than 20 years, the Schafer Oliver dealership prospered. Schafer’s son Richard joined him as a partner and today manages the old family farm near Saratoga. It’s been in the Schafer family for 240 years.
“I had a lot of good luck over those years,” Schafer says.
But he could see the business changing dramatically as the 1960s wound down. Manufacturers and dealerships were consolidating. Farms were growing in size, while the number of farmers decreased. It was time to get out.
“We sold out the business in ’71,” he recalls. It took three years to completely liquidate.
Since then, Schafer has focused on his own farming on land near Portland Municipal Airport. He lost his first wife and later married Ruth Starlin, Paul Starlin’s widow. She’s now a resident of Miller’s Merry Manor, Dunkirk.
And though slowed a bit by the years, Schafer still keeps an eye on the farm scene.
“I got a call today from an old Oliver customer,” he says with a grin. “I’ve got a jillion friends.”