Four generations of Matthew Heldreth’s ancestors farmed Virginia’s Wythe County. But that tradition was in jeopardy after his father, Kirk, died of cancer in 2008.
“When he passed, I thought we’d sell the cows,” said Don Heldreth, Matthew’s 79-year-old grandfather. “But then Matthew came up and said, ‘Grandfather, I’m going to school so I can stay in the dairy business. I’m going to come back and run the farm.’ ”
Faculty members in Virginia Tech’s dairy science program -- in which Matthew Heldreth enrolled the year before his father died -- knew it would be tough for anyone to manage both a full course load and a farm that is 70 miles from campus.
So far, Matthew Heldreth has pulled it off. In fact, the 21-year-old senior made the dean’s list in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences the spring 2010 semester.
“We were very concerned and really believed Matt would probably not come back that fall” after his father died, said Dairy Science Professor Katharine Knowlton. “When he did come back, we assumed he’d have to make a choice, either his college education or his farming, but he’s pulled off both with great success.”
It hasn’t been easy. During the spring 2010 semester, Matthew Heldreth would spend four nights in his Blacksburg apartment, then rush home to Rural Retreat as soon as he finished class Friday morning. He did so to work the better part of three days on his farm, which his grandfather helps him run.
Workdays on the farm began at 6:30 a.m. and often went until 7 p.m. But Matthew Heldreth’s days in Blacksburg were just as busy -- crammed with classes, studying, and conducting farm business by phone.
“The main thing that gives me headaches running a business and being in school is labor [issues],” he said during an interview at his farm. “I remember trying to study for an anatomy test … and being on the phone with our herdsman just trying to find an employee [to hire]. We were sorting through people wanting a job, because we had to have somebody here at 2 in the morning to help milk.”
Heldreth’s Dairy Farm has 200 milking cows. The overall herd, including calves and some beef cattle, numbers about 500. The Heldreths own 500 acres and lease about that much. They grow alfalfa, corn, hay, and wheat.
It’s rare for a full-time student to be one of the main people responsible for such a large operation, said Dairy Science Professor Bob James, who has been on the faculty for three decades and can recall just one other dairy science student doing something similar.
“I think a lot of other people in a similar situation would say, ‘Let’s sell the farm and simplify and worry about things after college,’ ” said James, who is Matthew Heldreth’s academic adviser and also advised Kirk Heldreth, who earned his bachelor’s in dairy science in 1985. “But I never doubted that Matthew could handle this. I had known his father and knew Matthew and the family for many years. Their family support runs deep, and their work ethic indicated that success was likely.”
In some ways, selling would have been the easier option. The past few years have been tough ones in the dairy industry, with rising operational costs and consistently low prices fetched by milk.
Had his family sold the farm, Matthew Heldreth probably still could have found a good job with a dairy science degree. Knowlton said about half of the students in her department come from farming families. Those who don’t, and even some of those who do, have gone on to work at feed companies, at banks that provide farm credit, in veterinary medicine, or in other agriculture-related jobs, she said.
Heldreth said he wasn’t certain he wanted to run the family farm when he went off to college. But as he learned more about the dairy industry, met classmates from farms across the nation, and came to understand the key role of agriculture in society, his desire to extend his family’s farming tradition to a fifth generation grew.
“I just love to farm,” he said. “Dairy farming is kind of like a passion, you know? For our family, it’s what we’ve always done, and I wanted to try to continue it.”
Virginia Tech is one of few universities to have a standalone Department of Dairy Science, as opposed to offering dairy courses as part of a larger animal science program. The program is nationally renowned. In fall 2009, Virginia Tech’s Dairy Judging Team won a national championship at the World Dairy Expo – its third win in four years. Three of the team’s four members were dairy science majors.
In an edited interview, Matthew Heldreth discusses how he manages to juggle farming and school, how his education helps him farm better, and how a scholarship has helped him afford school during tough times in the dairy industry.
Heldreth’s Dairy Farm in Wythe County, Va., is one of several that regularly host Virginia Tech students for hands-on learning projects. Kirk Heldreth started the partnership, and his son, Matthew Heldreth, has continued it.
Heldreth’s Dairy Farm was briefly famous after a calf with two faces was born there in December 2006. Named “Star,” in a nod to the international media coverage she received, the calf lived 27 days.
Longtime Dairy Science Professor Bob James recalled just one student other than Matthew Heldreth who managed a farm while attending Virginia Tech full time.
While earning his bachelor’s in dairy science, Mark Sowers (pictured) ran Huckleberry Dairy, in Floyd, Va., with his older brother Curtis. They still farm together and were honored as Virginia Dairymen of the Year at the 2009 Virginia Beef Industry and State Dairymen’s Convention and Trade Show. Sowers graduated in 1986 and was a classmate of Heldreth’s father.
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