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Farm-sitting: a new way of life for ex-farm owners. The Drexlers' business keeps them close to the cows and barns they love

``We were in a horrible hole,'' says Paulie Drexler as she thinks back to August 1985. She and her husband, Ed, had just sold off the last of their 180 dairy cows. A bacterial infection had decimated their once-thriving herd. For seven years they had tried to establish a family farm. Now they were selling the land, too; calling it quits.

``We were right back to Square 1,'' says Ed Drexler. But they didn't stay there very long.

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After a few months of selling Christmas trees and firewood, the Drexlers realized how much they missed the animals. ``We began to look for a way to market the skills we had and not leave the cows behind,'' says Paulie Drexler.

What they came up with is a way of staying in farming without owning a farm. They became professional farm sitters.

The business was a success right from the start. Traditionally, farmers accepted the relentless round of daily chores that kept them tied to their farms as just part of a way of life. To get away, even for a wedding or a graduation, they usually depended on help from a neighbor. This kind of arrangement was hard to count on, and all too often didn't work out very well.

But times have changed.

``Today, young farmers look at agriculture as a business,'' says Paulie Drexler. ``They grew up with a lot of nonfarm friends whose fathers took vacations and enjoyed it. They see taking time off as a necessity they're willing to pay for. We've never had to do a hard sell.''

In the year and a half since the Drexlers took a simple mimeographed brochure explaining their Farm Sitter Service to a trade show in upstate New York, the business has brought in more work than they can handle. In the first year they had to turn down six jobs for every one they could take.

``Two weeks ago we had six people in four states, a difficult situation for us, because we always want to keep someone free for emergencies,'' says Paulie Drexler.

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So far the staff, comprising the Drexlers plus two permanent and two temporary employees, have filled in for more than 100 farmers in five Northeastern states, and they say they are willing to go anywhere. ``We'll milk in Tahiti if someone there pays our air fare,'' Paulie Drexler quips.

Although the typical farm they sit has 50 to 60 dairy cows, they'll tackle smaller jobs, like hand milking eight goats for a cottage industry cheesemaker. Much larger ones, like fully automated dairy operations of 150 or more cows, are within their scope as well.

For a farmer to leave $600,000 worth of top-notch dairy cattle for a week or two requires a good deal of confidence in those minding the barn. The Drexlers, with a combination of their own farming experience and animal science degrees from Cornell University, pride themselves on offering a reliable management service.

According to Ed Drexler, the farmer who pays them $125 per person per day is really buying insurance.

``If everything goes OK on a farm, anybody can come in and do it, but that isn't usually the case. We're being paid for handling the unexpected, not the routine work.''

Like the time he flicked on the lights inside a milking barn at 5 a.m. to discover that a rainstorm had blown out enough windows to flood half the building. Or when a workman almost let a pasture fire get out of control.

Or when a farmer underestimated his feed supply. On the fourth day of a 10-day stay, the Drexlers ran out of one component of a feed mixture - an event that could have dire consequences, not only on milk production, but on the cows' eventual reproductive performance as well.

``The feeding programs for high-performance cattle, those that produce more than 20,000 pounds of milk a year, are quite technical, right down to balancing so many pounds of several different types of feed,'' says Paulie Drexler. Many farmers use computer-generated nutrition programs, but all Ed Drexler had were his wits and his experience. The off-the-cuff program he created worked just fine.

``When Robert Miselis came back, he found that we were producing as much milk as when he left; the bulk tank never lost a pound.''

Like many of the Drexlers' customers, Mr. Miselis, who owns a dairy farm in Verona, N.Y., rebooked the day he returned. ``They're real professionals,'' he says; ``very well prepared for the work they do, yet they make decisions just the way I would have.''

It's this combination of attention to detail and the desire to run the farm like its owner would that is particularly appreciated. During the Drexlers' three-hour orientation on the first day, dairy farmer John Werbela of Cazenovia, N.Y., said: ``Ed wanted to know every move I make, he asked a million questions.'' Such thoroughness pays off. ``I used to get a neighbor to help my dad when I was away. This is the first time I came back and heard something good about how it went. The Drexlers really care.''

It's comments like these and those from New Jersey farmers Bill and Marilyn Bird (``Everything was great. We can't think of a way to improve!'') that bring the Drexlers so much repeat business. This year they have been booked solid from the last week of June until Christmas; next year is filling up fast.

But farm-sitting isn't for everyone - not even experienced farmers. ``One person who applied to work for us had 23 years experience on his own farm, but the first job was just too much for him,'' says Paulie Drexler.

There's the stress involved in handling unfamiliar, sometimes unruly animals (``Cows do things that can drive you nuts,'' she says) that are also valuable. Then there are all the different types of equipment they must run and, upon occasion, fix. But the most difficult is maintaining the flexibility to move from one type of operation to another every few weeks.

Nevertheless, the Drexlers say their new life is full of joy and the chance to learn new ways of farming.

``We aren't afraid to look foolish,'' Paulie Drexler says, ``or to learn from our mistakes.

``Everybody says that the best thing about America is the opportunity to succeed,'' she adds. ``That's wrong. The best thing about America is that you have the opportunity to fail, and start all over again.''

She describes starting a new kind of business as a personal triumph for her and her husband, and important for their three young children, too.

``It's the best of both worlds, because most of the time I can stay home with the children and run the business end of things. It's good for them to see their folks as capable of starting something and getting somewhere with it. A very gratifying thing.''

For more information, write Farm Sitter Service, PO Box 17, Fabius, NY 13063.

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