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From Fighter to Farmer: Passion for Farm and Country
As a young boy, Steve Conrad would sit on the edge of the south fork of the south branch of the Potomac riverbank and watch airplanes fly over his family’s farm in the Allegheny Mountains. Inspired by the machines soaring 30,000 feet above him, the West Virginia farm boy knew that he wanted to fly one day.
“I wanted to fly the biggest planes,” he recalls. While that particular wish didn’t come true, Conrad did get to fly – and he got to fly fast. During his time in the Navy, he went two times the speed of sound in an F-4 Phantom fighter jet.
Conrad was one of the winners of this year’s Successful Farming magazine Fighter to Farmer contest, sponsored by Grasshopper Mowers. After reading his story, you’ll see how he exemplifies what it means to be a loyal serviceman and a passionate farmer. “He’s proud of his family, his country, his service, and the farming operation he built,” says his wife, Jane.
In The Beginning
The start of the Conrad farm dates back to 1841. “That’s the date on the oldest deed I have,” says Conrad, who is the eighth generation to farm the land in Brandywine, West Virginia.
Conrad’s great-grandfather Jake fought in the Civil War on the Confederate side. “He deserted before the war was over and worked on a corn farm in Iowa,” says Conrad, adding that his grandfather was drafted and didn’t believe in slavery. “After the war, he walked home to West Virginia to the family’s farm.”
From there, the farm was passed on to Conrad’s grandfather, Jim, and his father, Bill. Conrad’s oldest brother, Jim, was next in line to carry on the farming tradition as well as the family name before a tragic farming accident.
When Jim was 19, he was run over and killed by a tractor that he had been operating. The tractor was in gear when he climbed off it to open a gate. When he realized it was still in gear, he tried to pull it out of gear and it caught his leg and rolled over him, says Conrad.
“He was going to be the farmer,” he adds. “When he was killed, that opened up the possibility for me to farm.”
Conrad was sixteen at the time and changed his occupational choice from aeronautical engineering to animal husbandry, so he’d be better equipped to take on the responsibility of the farm.
From Fighter to Farmer: Steve Conrad
Getting His Wings
Even with a new career path, Conrad hadn’t given up his dream of flying. He was planning to join the Air Force until his uncle, a navy carrier pilot, changed his mind.
“He talked about flying and the Navy,” Conrad recalls. “He said, ‘You don’t want to join the Air Force. The Navy has prettier uniforms.’ That was as good a reason as any.”
Jane agreed. “We knew each other all our lives,” she says, adding that Conrad and her brother, Bob, were best friends. “But I didn’t pay a lot of attention to him until he joined the Navy. I guess I liked that uniform!”
Officer candidate school began in Pensacola, Florida, on August 5, 1964. Four months later Conrad was commissioned and started primary flight training in a T-34.
“I got airsick in every doggone flight. I had a paper bag, threw up, and kept on flying,” he recalls. “I was so determined to fly that I kept at it.”
Eventually his body adjusted, just in time for jet training, followed by his first landing on an aircraft carrier. “I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment and pure pleasure,” he says of what would be his first out of 496 aircraft carrier landings.
In May 1966, Conrad received his wings of gold and was selected to fly the F-4 Phantom fighter. After receiving training in F-4s in Florida and then Virginia Beach, he was ready for combat.
On June 6, 1967, Conrad left for Vietnam on the USS Forrestal.
Fire at Sea
On July 29, 1967, Conrad was in the process of recording music on a reel-to-reel tape recorder when the USS Forrestal captain ordered, “General Quarters!”
“When that’s called, everyone on ship has some place to go to fight whatever emergency there is. Mine was in ready room two,” explains Conrad. “You have three minutes before the water-tight doors close. I was halfway through recording a song, so I knew I could finish recording the song and still make it.
“About 30 seconds later, a bomb went off and knocked the tape deck off the locker. I decided it was time to get the devil out of there,” he adds.
On the ship deck, a rocket from an F-4 was accidentally launched across the deck, hitting an A-4 Skyhawk jet. This was the jet of future Senator John McCain. Fire started from the fuel pouring out of the Skyhawk, spreading to planes on the deck and detonating a 1,000-pound bomb. This caused a chain reaction with more explosions blowing holes in the flight deck and adding to the fire.
“On my way to ready room two, one of my buddies, Jack Davis, said, ‘Go forward.’ He was white as a sheet, and I went forward,” says Conrad. “It was critical enough that if you heard general quarters and were in the berthing area located just under the flight deck and didn’t put on shoes or socks, you survived. If you stopped to put on anything, you didn’t.
“134 men lost their lives that day,” he says.
Aboard the USS Enterprise
After the fire, the USS Forrestal went briefly to the Philippines for minor repairs before heading back to the U.S. for six months of extensive restoration.
On June 1, 1968, Conrad and Jane were married in West Virginia. Three weeks later, Conrad was back on the USS Forrestal for a nine-month-long cruise in the Mediterranean and Jane went back to college. The newlyweds were reunited in December 1968 when Jane met up with Conrad in the Mediterranean to follow the ship from port to port.
“We had our honeymoon in Europe, which was a super deal for a young couple to have the opportunity to visit Europe on little money,” says Conrad.
The cruise ended in April 1969 and Conrad received his orders for the Naval Air Station in Point Mugu, California, where he spent two years working on tactics to increase the success of air battles.
In August 1972, Conrad headed back to sea on the USS Enterprise. Aboard the Enterprise, he made two cruises and flew in 124 more combat missions.
“The majority were up North, but we did fly some close air support down South,” explains Conrad. “I never came back with holes in the airplane, so I don’t know if I had any close calls.”
Conrad was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal for a mission where he was an escort to a photo airplane. “They shot three SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) at us,” he says. “If I could see a SAM, I could out maneuver it. That’s the closest call I know I had, and the Navy awarded a medal for it.”
In January 1974, Conrad retired from the Navy and returned to the family farm. While his military chapter closed more than 40 years ago, his patriotic spirit still runs fiercely through his blood.
“I’ve always said that people who serve have an appreciation for the country that you can’t buy at Walmart and no one can ever take it away from you,” he says. “If you serve in the military you recognize that freedom is not free. Somebody gave their life or their time in order to make that happen.”
Back to the Farm
Since 1974, Conrad has poured the same passion he had for the military into the family farming operation, which he took over from his dad.
“When I came home, my dad was 74. He helped me on the farm and gave me advice, but other than that, it was my ball to roll,” says Conrad, adding that his dad rented a farm out to him for free to help him get started.
Conrad started out with 54 sows and boars in a farrow-to-finish operation and 30 head of cattle he bought in Virginia. The hog operation was phased out in 1984 and turkeys were added in 1987.
“Because of the amount of land available for row-crops in the mountains here, you almost need to get into livestock. Poultry has been a boon to these counties,” he says.
This boon was threatened, however, when Pilgrim’s Pride announced in 2004 that it would stop purchasing turkeys from 159 producers in Virginia and West Virginia, including Conrad. “A group of farmers got together and started a co-op. Nobody gave us much chance of success,” he says.
Thirteen years later, the Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative continues to work with those farmers as well as new ones. “Since it’s a co-op, the money is returned to the owners – the growers. The co-op has been a tremendous boon to local growers,” says Conrad.
The Farm Today
Under his father, the Conrad farm had 40 acres of corn, 40 of hay, 40 in wheat, 3 sows, and 40 head of cattle.
Today, Conrad starts out 24,000 turkeys three times a year. The cow-calf operation has grown to 220 cows. This year, Conrad sold half and finished out the rest.
The farm spans 1,800 acres with 275 in corn; 100 in beans, 25 of which is double cropped with barley; 150 of hay; 600 in pasture; and the rest is woodland.
“We double crop barley after soybeans to use for straw bedding for the cattle in confinement and to feed to the feeder cattle,” he explains.
The larger operation allows the farm to support four employees, including Conrad’s son-in-law, Doug.
Doug and Kelly (the Conrad’s only child) moved home to the farm in 2011. Doug works on the farm, focusing on precision ag, while Kelly works remotely for a company in Pittsburgh. Their four-year old daughter, named Harper after Conrad’s mother’s maiden name, is the 10th generation in the Conrad family to live on the farm.
“If there’s one common thread through the generations it’s that each generation has improved the productivity of the farm. That wouldn’t have been possible if we weren’t conscious of the environment,” says Conrad. “Farmers are the original environmentalists, and we need to have more that are talking and practicing that way.”