Farm No Longer a Movie Set for This Cattleman
By Olivia Maddox
When Hunter von Leer completed his bachelor's degree at Indiana State University in the late 1960s, he'd already done a one-year hitch in Vietnam. He was looking for something more exciting than returning to Riley, the small southwestern Indiana town where his high-school graduating class numbered 17.
To the collegiate athlete, skydiver and lifeguard, the life of a Hollywood stuntman seemed right up his alley. He packed his teaching degree and headed to Los Angeles. He eventually got his break, going from stuntman to character actor—guest starring on hundreds of TV series, racking up movie credits and pitching products in commercials. He played many roles on the screen, including that of cattleman, never expecting he would return to Indiana and take up the occupation.
It all started with a late-night phone call to Richard Huntrods, then-superintendent of Feldun-Purdue Agricultural Center, near Bedford, Indiana. The conversation was the beginning of von Leer's leap from playing a cattleman to being one.
Raised near the Indiana-Illinois border, von Leer had never been to the south-central part of the state until a deer hunting trip in the mid-1980s. Afterward, a realtor friend called to tell him about a farm for sale near Mitchell, Indiana. He and a movie buddy bought the property sight unseen. But his initial idea of flipping it vanished when he saw the beauty of the old farmstead perched on a hill overlooking pastures and forests.
They rented the farm to a tenant who raised cattle. But by the mid 1990s, von Leer was ready to leave Hollywood after a 40-year career. "I just missed Indiana," he says. He bought out his business partner and stocked the farm with his own cattle.
He soon wanted to upgrade the quality of the herd and turned to the Internet. "I decided to buy a really good bull, so I went online and found Purdue's bull sale," he says. He had a vague idea of what to look for as he reviewed the sale catalog but wanted more information. "I called Feldun Ag Center and left a message—‘I'm Hunter von Leer; I'm in California, and I want to buy a bull.'"
"Richard (Huntrods) called me back at about midnight, and we talked for an hour. "I was looking for bulls to use with young heifers, where I could be hands off," von Leer says.
Huntrods helped von Leer revise his picks and continued to give counsel. "He started teaching me about good cattle and good hay, and about why you look for a certain bull because you want to increase your carcass merit, or you want to have low birth-weight calves."
Bull Test Delivers
After connecting with Purdue, von Leer sold his cattle and started a new Angus and Angus-Simmental-cross herd with replacement heifers he bought from the Feldun-PAC herd. "My entire herd, with the exception of the registered cows I have for the test station, are either first, second, third or fourth generation from the original Purdue cows," he says. "I've bought four bulls now through the bull test station. I currently have two herd bulls, and both are the top of the line for what I was looking for."
Von Leer and his wife Fariba moved back to Indiana, though they keep a house in the LA area, where Fariba has an insurance business. The couple built a new home on the hilltop that overlooks the 650-acre farm.
For the past five years von Leer has put his own bulls in the test station, which he admits appeals to his competitive side. Twice he's won top honors during the test for carcass merit bull. He currently has three bulls in the summer test.
"Once farmers buy from the bull test station, they're hooked," von Leer says. "Bulls have been tested for every type of genetics, all different types of problems. It's a rigorous test, and it makes a huge difference. I can't imagine buying a bull off somebody's farm that you don't know anything about."
Although Huntrods retired as Feldun superintendent in 2011, he and von Leer stay in touch and are frequent hunting partners. "Everyone at Feldun-Purdue has been very helpful," von Leer says. "It's a relationship that's been going on for 10 years now. Hopefully, someday, I'll be able to repay them."
For von Leer, Hollywood lights no longer shine brighter than those of small-town Indiana.