HUMBOLDT — Most days, Julie Sterling’s only concession to fashion is her diamond earrings. Otherwise, she’s comfortable wearing nary a trace of makeup, a no-fuss bob for a hairdo, and she finds jeans and rubber boots are the most practical.
Julie is a modern-day pioneer woman. She’s as handy on the farm as any man and pulls her own weight — all 93.4 pounds — when it comes to doing chores.
And at 74, Julie can still swing her 3-year-old granddaughter, Mylan Sterling, up to her hip with ease.
Julie and her husband, Merle, live on a farm west of Humboldt where they raise crops and cattle. These days, however, the bulk of the work has fallen to Julie and their son, Layne, who lives east of town with his family.
Two years ago Merle, 72, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease which, coupled with congestive heart disease, has taken a toll on his level of activity.
“But he’s always thinking about the farm and what needs to be done,” Julie said. And conversely, while Julie may be on a tractor or combine, her thoughts are never far from her husband of 44 years. Only minutes from leaving him eating his breakfast at the kitchen table on this summer morning, her cell phone rings. It’s Merle.
“This is how we stay in touch when I’m out in the fields,” she said.
How often does he call?
“Oh, it depends. Some days every five or 10 minutes,” she said with a ready smile that couldn’t quite hide the worry.
JULIE IS IN her realm on the farm.
“I love to be outdoors. It’s peaceful. I like the wildlife.
“I grew up on a farm, but with three older brothers, I never got a chance to farm as a kid,” she said. Instead, she and her two sisters helped their mother with the cooking and household chores.
“Now, I got my chance,” she said.
Whether it’s driving a combine, manhandling live stock, or clearing fields, Julie is up to the job.
“I enjoy farming. Picking corn and cutting wheat is relatively easy work. Milo, though, that’s itchy stuff to combine. The dust clings to your skin,” she said.
The milo is ground up as feed for their pigs.
They’ve tried to get out of raising swine, she said, but return to it each spring so their grandchildren can enter them into the Allen County Fair.
“We have the facility, so we’re willing to keep a few,” she said. They most recently sold off the last and will wait until next spring to start over again.
Time was they kept 20-30 sows, but “there’s no market for pigs anymore,” she said. With the closest livestock market for sows in Coffeyville, “it’s more trouble than it’s worth,” she said.
Julie and Layne work the crops together. This year’s included milo, soybeans, wheat and corn.
Layne now rents his parents’ land to add to his own as well as other land that he rents.
“We’re a small operation,” Julie said of their 46 acres that surround their modest home. Scattered around the place are the requisite “toys” — tractors, ATVs, plows, and discs. In the pole barn, hay is stacked to the ceiling. Friends helped the Sterlings build the barn in the old-fashioned barn-raising style.
Out back is a chicken coop where Julie tends 20 hens and 12 pullets.
“Had I known the demand for eggs these days I would have got more pullets,” she said. “Seems everyone wants eggs.”
Most days she collects a baker’s dozen. Every other weekend she sells five dozen to Audrey Johnson in town.
She stops by the hen house to collect the eggs several times over the course of an afternoon.
“Otherwise, the hens will break them,” she said, with not a little disgust in her voice.
AS WE GET older, the more we realize life has no script.
“There’s lots of ups and downs,” Julie said of farming, but it could easily be extrapolated to other areas of her life.
“I’m busier now than ever, a little more tired, I suppose because there’s more stress.”
Her husband’s condition is a constant worry.
Two stints in a nursing home convinced them they were both happier with him home, but that comes with its own set of challenges.
Sleep is a precious commodity. Julie has had to learn home health care duties. And the responsibility of his care falls on a frame, that, while strong, is hardly equipped to handle everything.
Similar to the joy she receives from having her husband nearby, so, too, are the benefits — and responsibilities — of caring for her grandchildren, Morgan, 10, Mason, 7, and Mylan Sterling during the summers.
Their parents, Alicia and Layne, have full-time jobs, Layne on the farm and Alicia with ANW Cooperative.
“Usually, I give Merle his morning medications and then get to their house by 7,” she said. After the children are roused and fed they typically are transported over to grandma’s until their mother picks them up mid-afternoon.
When school is in session, the children take the bus out to their grandparents’ home after school lets out.
“I like to help them out,” Julie said of her son’s family.
Every other Sunday she also watches her daughter Kendra’s two children, who are 8 and 10. Kendra is a nurse at Allen County Regional Hospital. Her husband, Steve Weatherman, is a farmer. They live outside of Colony.
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