Growing for Generations
David Opperman plants seeds in the same soil as did his great-great-grandfather, Fred Dittus. It seems that distant grandfather also sowed the seeds for a long line of farmers.
Farming in Opperman’s family predates Chevrolet and professional American baseball. More amazing yet is the fact that the family still owns and farms the land that Dittus bought in 1862 during the Civil War.
“I think it’s not only your livelihood or income, it’s a way of life,” says Opperman, a fifth-generation farmer. “It’s become a heritage as it’s passed on from generation to generation. We’re blessed with some of the best farmland in the world right here in Central Illinois. It’s been a good source of revenue, and it’s something we like to do.”
The family’s oldest tract of land, near Lincoln, marked 150 years in the family in 2012. The state honored the farm’s sesquicentennial status at the Illinois State Fair that year. The family earned a commemorative outdoor sign and a place in the Illinois Department of Agriculture archives.
Since the 1970s, the department has recognized longtime family farmland owners. The Centennial Farm Program acknowledges families who have owned their land for more than 100 years. The Sesquicentennial Program began in 2001 and honors 150 years of continuous ownership.
Today, at least one century farm exists in every county, says Delayne Reeves, who coordinates the program. Statewide, more than 9,200 farms have registered for the centennial designation. The department recognizes more than 600 as sesquicentennial.
They consistently receive about 250 applications annually for the programs. Reeves says this demonstrates the state’s deep agricultural heritage and commitment to farming.
“They have cared enough for the land and their family to continue it through time and usually many hardships,” she says.
Farms such as Opperman’s have survived the ownership challenges of wars, economic depression, crop failures, estate tax challenges, urban development and even today’s record-high land prices.
While the state in 2012 recognized the original 80 acres where Opperman lives, family members also own several farms with 100 years of continuous ownership. More approach the 150-year mark.
And these milestones invite reflection.
Opperman’s mother, Ruth Opperman, owns the 80-acre parcel today. She remembers when the farm’s horsepower came from actual horses, when electricity first came to the farm, and when blacktop paved the dirt road. She shares stories of how the farm produced less by today’s standards yet required more intensive manual labor.
Old aerial photos show this land’s evolution in farming practices, Opperman says. Multiple fences once partitioned the land into smaller parcels – typical at the time for livestock, such as cattle, hogs and horses, and field crops, including corn, hay, oats and wheat. Wood buildings of various sizes dotted the farm for livestock shelter and crop storage, including ear corn.
Today, the land is fenceless and produces either corn or soybeans on nearly the entire 80-acre spread minus the 3-acre farmstead. That farm site today includes two metal-sided buildings to accommodate today’s tractors and implements, storage bins for corn or soybeans, and a house where Opperman lives with his wife, Stephanie, and their four children. Time and weather, including a tornado, ravaged the farm’s original buildings. A garage from the 1960s survived, making it the oldest standing structure.
Someone with a keen eye may even notice the improved soil conservation practices in these aerial farm photos. And a sharp observer may see narrower and straighter rows, planted with the assistance of global-positioning technology. The photo doesn’t show advanced farm equipment, crop genetics or technologies that improve production and conservation practices.
Opperman wishes his ancestors could see the farm now.
“I wonder what they would say,” he muses. “We have tractors that can drive themselves with auto guidance. My great-grandfathers had to use horses to drag planters with the check wire to plant corn.
“I think they’d be in awe.”
A Family Tradition
In 1848, Fred Dittus of Germany traveled 47 days on a steamboat vessel to settle in the United States. In 1862, he bought an 80-acre farm near Lincoln for $11 per acre and started a family legacy.
The farm passed through generations of the family who owned and farmed it: Charles Dittus, Norma Dittus Finke and Ruth Finke Opperman. Ruth, a retired farmer, owns it today. Her son, David Opperman, farms the land.
David and his sister, Janet Dullard, share the future of the property. They hope the next generation will continue to farm it.
Top Century Farm Counties
Where can you find the most centennial and sesquicentennial farms in Illinois? Below, we list the top counties in order of the number of farms with these historical designations. To search the database or learn more about the program, visit agr.state.il.us.