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For Two Commercial Airline Pilots, Farming Keeps Them Grounded

Pilots Larry Rhea and Steve Specht are still commuting — and more involved in farming than ever before.

Landscapes Summer 2008

Pilots Larry Rhea and Steve Specht and their families were profiled in the first issue of Landscapes in 1998 as members of a growing trend: commuting to jobs in the city from homes in the country. Ten years later, they both are still commuting — and more involved in farming than ever before.

Steve Specht and Larry Rhea hold a sign for Final Approach Lane

Steve Specht, left, and Larry Rhea both farm and ranch in East Texas when they’re not flying.

Photos by Randy Mallory

When American Airlines pilots Larry Rhea and Steve Specht are not flying across the country, you can usually find them back home on their East Texas farms, building fences, improving pastures and enjoying rural life with their families.

Back in the 1990s, both the Rheas and Spechts were enticed by the promise of solitude and safety to sell their suburban homes and buy rural acreage 120 miles east of Dallas. And both financed their land purchases with Heritage Land Bank in Tyler.

"It is always a pleasure to help new customers pursue their dreams of leaving the city and making a home in the country," says Clint Walker, Heritage vice president and branch manager. "Heritage Land Bank helped both of these borrowers make their dreams a reality. Today they have beautiful places to call home and to leave as a heritage for their families."

While Farm Credit lenders are helping more and more urban commuters purchase rural properties, land ownership isn’t for the faint of heart. But Rhea and Specht agree: The hard work they’ve put into their respective properties has been worth the effort.

Larry Rhea

Logging, Haying and Clearing Land

A move from Atlanta, Ga., to 200 wooded acres near Lindale, Texas, in 1993 allowed Larry Rhea and his wife, Noelene, to enroll their five children in a smaller — and safer — school district. The two oldest have since married and added three grandchildren to the family. The Rheas’ middle child attends college; their twins will start in the fall.

"Living here has worked nicely for us," says Rhea, looking back. "The kids rode horses and did what they wanted to do. We built three miles of barbed-wire fence around the perimeter of the ranch but away from roads so we’d have privacy. I improved pastures and cleared timber from some of the land."

Larry Rhea smiling near a tractor

For Larry Rhea, a move to the country evolved into a logging business and a custom hay business.

Then and now, Rhea uses his four-day breaks away from flying to work on his property, which he christened the Flying R Ranch. "I started with one tractor," he says. "Then I bought a track loader to clear land and move dirt. After that, I bought a dump truck."

Unexpectedly, the truck purchase led to a sideline business. When neighbors saw his equipment, they’d call and ask if he could do jobs on their land. They also called when he converted a moving van for use in hauling timber.

"I started logging on my place. Then I logged for neighbors and other people, too," he says. "I also sold topsoil from our place. All the work I did for people paid for my equipment and gave us a little extra money, too."

In recent years, he has branched out into the hay business. At first, Rhea partnered with a man who cut and baled the hay. Then he bought his own equipment: three tractors, cutting and raking implements, and balers, both round and square.

As much as he enjoys ranching and all the hard work it involves, Rhea — who homesteaded as a youngster with his family in Alaska — admits that he could do without the frustrations, namely uncooperative weather and mechanical breakdowns. For instance, he originally planned to build his cattle herd up to 75 cows. "But because of the drought, we haven’t been able to do that," he explains. "We even started over twice. When I retire, though, I plan to put more time into the cattle.

"Yes, living in the country costs a lot in time and effort," Rhea concludes. "But I like working outside with my hands and seeing progress. And we really enjoy listening to the coyotes and birds."

Steve Specht

Busy With Cattle, Horses and Hay

After living in the Dallas suburbs for five years, Steve Specht and his wife, Charla, wanted to live in a small town, where they could enjoy a more relaxing lifestyle and finish raising their two children. So in 1996, the couple bought a home in a gated community near Lindale. A year later, they purchased 170 acres of pasture and wooded land east of town.

Steve Specht stands on circular hay bales

Ranching and small-town life are relaxing for pilot Steve Specht.

"I kept that until 2003," says Specht, who had always longed to live in the country. "After Sept. 11 (2001), I decided I needed to pull in the reins a little, so I sold it."

Specht missed owning land, however — so much so that he started searching for more acreage. In 2006, he purchased 75 acres near Van, a small community located 15 minutes from their home in Lindale.

"This land is very different from what I owned before, which was primarily timber," says Specht, whose two children are now nearly grown. "This place is set up for hay production and a cattle operation. Thirty acres is dedicated to hay, and the rest is grazing production. We’ve got about 20 head of cattle and a half dozen horses. This place keeps me busy with cutting hay, repairing fences and doing chores."

When he’s not flying, Specht and his ranch dog, Ginger, generally head for the land, which he calls Crooked Creek Ranch.

"I love spending time out here," he says. "I even built a small cedar cabin with a metal roof so I can stay overnight if I want."

-Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

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