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Farm life is ‘work, work, work, seven days a week’

Greg and Mary Jane Turnley laugh when neighbors ask what they’re doing on a Sunday afternoon.

He suspects some are looking for dinner invitations, imagining the farm couple sitting down to a feast of pot roast, mashed potatoes and homemade casseroles prepared from homegrown food.

Greg hates to burst their bubble, but says there’s no time in the schedule for that kind of break.

“We’re doing the same thing on a Sunday afternoon that we do on a Monday or a Wednesday or any other day,” he said.

The husband–wife team don’t just tend Black Rock Farm, land that’s been in his family for 150 years. They raise cattle and crops on eight farms within a 20-mile radius of their home in western Spotsylvania County.

In the past, one farm generated enough income to support a family, but the Turnleys say those days are long gone. Market prices for livestock fluctuated so much while other expenses—such as health insurance—continued to rise.

As a result, the Turnleys have to operate numerous farms “just to make a living,” she said.

Every bit of income the two earn comes from the farm, either the sale of animals or equipment.

And because they have Black Angus calves in some fields and barley rows in others, they must check all their properties regularly for damage to fences and animals.

Coyotes are becoming the worst predators, he said, and black Angus cattle giving birth for the first time don’t automatically “own” their calves. The young mothers sometimes butt the babies to keep them away and refuse to nurse them.

When that happens, the Turnleys bring mother and calf into a pen, put a bar over the female to keep her from bucking and let the young one nurse for the first time.

The bond usually forms from there.

This time of year, the Turnleys also have to break ice in troughs to make sure the cattle have water or clear trees that have fallen onto fences. They heat solely with wood, so they’re always splitting logs.

In the summer, he cuts hay and she rakes it. He runs a machine that bales it, and she drives dump trucks or tractors loaded with giant round bales.

When they treat young calves, he runs them into a chute and she closes the restraints that keep the animal in place. He gives them shots; she fills the needles with vaccines and records the dates and treatments.

“It’s work, work, work,” she said, “seven days a week. All work and no play.”

But clearly, there’s nothing the Turnleys would rather do than work on the farm—side by side.

He’s 58, and she’s 52, and they’ll celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary this year. Based on their backgrounds, they couldn’t be more different.

He grew up in Spotsylvania County, amid the same farm fields and types of animals that occupy his current days.

She’s from a big Irish Catholic family in Philadelphia, where she knew more about hopping on a bus than climbing onto a tractor.

Her family always talked about moving to Virginia, but never did, so Mary Jane struck out on her own with her two children.

She met Greg when she worked at a store on State Route 208, and the city girl and country boy clicked instantly.

“Mary Jane had never been on a farm until she met me,” Greg said in a 2002 story in The Free Lance–Star. “I gave her a crash course.”

During a recent interview, he told a story that illustrated how willing his wife was to jump into whatever task was at hand.

Greg used to raise pigs—before market prices dropped from 55 cents to 12 cents per pound—and he needed to round up piglets. He and Mary Jane were still dating then, and she told him she’d help.

She put on a bikini, climbed into a pig pen and got down in the muck.

She was covered in pig manure when another farmer stopped by and saw the two in action. The visitor told Greg he’d better marry her.

He took the farmer’s advice, and the two have become practically inseparable.

“If you see one of us, you pretty much always see the other one,” Greg said. “I could never get the farming that I get done without Mary Jane. It would be impossible.”

He’s the fifth generation of Turnleys to farm on American soil, the fourth generation to work Spotsylvania land.

In high school, when he wasn’t on the family farm, he worked at a dairy near the Wilderness, run by MaryAnn and Donald Lyons, who passed away in August.

Greg said that MaryAnn Lyons taught him everything he needed to know about dairying, and she worked alongside her husband, doing the same chores as the men.

When Greg started farming on his own, right out of high school, he wished he could find a young version of MaryAnn Lyons. He’s sorry it took decades to do so.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would go to Philadelphia a whole lot earlier, looking for Mary Jane,” he said. “That’s the only thing I would do differently.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425