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His last harvest: Hillsboro farmer calls it quits

Staff writer

Reno Penner, Hillsboro, finished harvesting his 2009 wheat crop at 11:17½ a.m. Saturday.

“I wanted to document it,” he said. It was his final harvest. After 59 years, the 75-year-old farmer has decided to retire.

“This not only was my last harvest,” he said, “it’s the end of an era.”

Penner took over operation of the farm when his father, J.S. Penner, died of a heart attack in 1951. Reno was 17 and a senior at Hillsboro High School.

His mother, “Lizzy,” was a country correspondent for the Hillsboro Star-Journal and Marion County Record. He married Edith Eitzen in 1962, and Lizzy moved to town.

Reno began farming with a 1938 A John Deere tractor and a five-foot Allis Chalmers combine.

He bought his first piece of land in 1967. He paid $280 an acre and received a third of the standing wheat. The wheat was poor that year and made nine bushels per acre, leaving him with three.

The couple made it through and eventually farmed 720 acres, including the 400 acres on Edith’s homeplace. They also had a small cow herd. The last cow was sold this spring.

“Basically, it’s been a mom-and-pop operation,” Reno said.

He hired young people to help with fieldwork in the summer, and Edith drove the grain truck.

She spent the past 24 years working at the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies on the Tabor College campus. She retired in 2008.

Reno fulfilled his dream of driving a semi-truck, something he did in winter for 10 years or more in the 1970s and 80s.

He has been active in the ag industry, including 15 years on the board of Marion County Conservation District, for which he received a “Distinguished Service“ award. In 1987, he won a conservation award.

In 1992, he won an award from a Haven seed company for producing the most pounds of protein per acre in a wheat contest.

The couple had no children.

About four years ago, Reno began to downsize, giving up the 400 Eitzen acres.

He owns 400 acres.

He harvested 110 acres of wheat.

“I told the elevator to sell when the price got to $7 per bushel,” he said. “I’m still waiting.”

The couple began talking about quitting almost four years ago, when Edith experienced a serious illness. They set their minds to it in 2007.

“You need to plan ahead for tax purposes,” Reno noted. “Besides, I was getting tired. I’ve done it long enough, and I can’t do it physically anymore. I want to be able to do what I want, when I want to, and if I want to.”

Edith was coming home from town Saturday when she saw Reno harvesting his final acres near their home at 120th Street and Indigo Road.

“I cried,” she said.

More tears likely will be shed Aug. 22, when Reno plans to sell his equipment.

He is a John Deere buff, owning several antique John Deere tractors and many other John Deere paraphernalia. He knows that someday he will have to sell that, too, and eventually, even their home, which they built in 1974.

He would like to work at restoring a tractor or two, and the couple plans to do some traveling.

They are longtime members of Ebenfeld Mennonite Brethren Church, where Reno has been a member of the Lighthouse Quartet for 35 years. He is the only original member. He also sings in the church choir. Edith gave up choir in 2008.

“Reno still has a beautiful voice at 75,” she said.

Penner may not be completely finished with farming. Now that he has retired, he is available to help others. Monday found him in the fields once again, hauling wheat for a neighbor. He was driving, a large, air-conditioned truck.

“I want to see how the big boys operate,” he said.

He is happy with the way he has lived his life.

“I would never have been happy working for someone else,” he said. “I’m too independent.”

The couple will continue to live in their country home. The land has been leased to other farmers.

Last modified July 2, 2009

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