Under the Shema prefix, the Bontragers milk 48 registered Holsteins on their farm. They also raise 150 heifers – many of which are born through embryo transfer. Aside from the dairy end of their farm, the Bontragers manage a 2,000-hog nursery and 2,400 wean-to-finish barn and raise 810 acres of crops. Here, Mitchell milks one of the Bontrager cows. (photo submitted)
Under the Shema prefix, the Bontragers milk 48 registered Holsteins on their farm. They also raise 150 heifers – many of which are born through embryo transfer. Aside from the dairy end of their farm, the Bontragers manage a 2,000-hog nursery and 2,400 wean-to-finish barn and raise 810 acres of crops. Here, Mitchell milks one of the Bontrager cows. (photo submitted)
KALONA, Iowa - Music is a big part of many dairy farmers' days. Some listen to their favorite station in the barn; many listen in the tractor. Other farmers might actually try to sing their favorite verse of a song, but mostly when no one is around because of their fear of being heard singing and suffering the harassment that might follow.

The Bontrager family that dairies near Kalona, Iowa, is, however, distinctly different. Not only do they milk cows, they sing and play instruments as well, and enjoy it. The Bontrager Family Singers - consisting of Marlin and Becky Bontrager and their 10 children, Chelsy (18), Mitchell (16), Allison (14), Carson (13), Joshua (12), Denver (9), Taylor (7), Elizabeth (5), Hudson (3) and Rebecca (1) - is a family of singers that spends parts of their year traveling the states to perform and share their ministry with others.

"We have been averaging 70 to 80 concerts per year," Marlin Bontrager said. "This year so far we've done around 40 and will probably do close to 90 by the end of the year."

The Bontragers perform for a wide array of audiences in nursing homes, prisons and churches and at festivals and fairs throughout the central, eastern and southern United States. While on tour, the family travels in a 40-foot bus they converted into a home.

"The bus has four bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen/living room area," Chelsy Bontrager said. "The bedrooms are very tiny (five-foot by six-foot), but they are nice and allow some privacy, and it is a real blessing for all of us to be together all the time."

The Bontrager family's ministry, however, has not always been like this.

"We started [singing] when there was just five of us [children]," Chelsy said, recalling the early years of her family's ministry. "Mother took us to nursing homes to sing a couple of songs every week, while she accompanied us on guitar."

While Becky and the children made their weekly visits to the local nursing homes, Marlin - who had grown up on a dairy farm - spent his time working for Semex until 2001.

"My boys were growing up, so I decided to take an opportunity to go back to farming," Marlin said.

Although the Bontragers had been living on a farm and running a 2,000-head hog nursery and a 2,400-head wean to finish operation for extra income, they had not been dairying. They gradually built up a herd of registered Holsteins and in 2003 built a new dairy barn. Now the Bontragers milk 48 cows, raise 150 heifers - they do a lot with embryo transfers - and raise nearly 810 acres of hay, soybeans and corn along with their hog operations.

The responsibilities of the farm, crops and household are divided between Marlin and Becky. While Marlin is the overall manager of the farm, Becky busies herself with the housework. Becky's tasks also include home-schooling the Bontrager children - all whom play an integral role in the success of the family business.

"The boys are very involved on the farm," Chelsy said. "Mitchell and Carson do the bulk of the milking. Mitchell is really interested in the genetics of the cows, and Carson enjoys the machinery. The younger boys do the calf chores. The girls enjoy the chance to fill in outside when the boys are gone, but we are usually in the house cleaning and cooking for the boys."

"Our goal for the dairy isn't to grow the herd, but to focus on genetics and merchandising," Marlin said. "It is sink or swim for us now; we are in dairy for the long haul. The dairy farm is definitely our passion."

So is their ministry. As the Bontrager family and ministry grew over the years, instruments were added to accompany their vocals - after gaining a musical foundation by taking piano lessons for a few years, each of the children chose a second instrument to learn. This led to a variety of sounds blending together as one family voice.

"We play mainly bluegrass instruments, but we don't sing bluegrass music," Chelsy said, explaining her family's unique sound. "We sing a lot of gospel music and old hymns."

The Bontragers held their first formal concert five years ago. As their popularity spread, doors of opportunity were opened.

"Four years ago, we went to South Carolina to a prison crusade," Chelsy said. "We started doing that and got more concerts. Last year we did our first big three-week tour. A lot of doors have opened for us in the last three years."

Today, the Bontragers look forward to the time spent together both on the farm and through their ministry. Within the ministry - just as on the farm - everyone has a job. Marlin is the lead singer; Becky sings lead, alto and tenor and plays guitar; Chelsy sings lead, alto and high tenor and plays piano and mandolin; Mitchell sings lead and baritone and plays banjo and bass guitar; Allison sings lead and high tenor and plays violin and piano; Carson sings melody and plays bass guitar; Joshua sings lead and plays the dobro (an instrument with a sound similar to that of a steel guitar); Denver sings and plays violin; Taylor and Elizabeth both sing and have started piano lessons; Hudson helps sing and Rebecca follows some songs and gives the family moral support on stage.

Concerts, performances and tours for the Bontrager Family Singers are scheduled seasonally by Marlin. The off months are set aside for farm work and provide opportunities for the Bontrager children to spend quality time with their books and practicing for performances.

"November and December are really big school months for us. We do take some schoolwork on the road with us and are required to get a certain amount of schoolwork done before we go do other things. There are days in between performances when we have time to work on schoolwork," Chelsy said. "Individually, we practice year-round for concerts. During the months before a big concert or one of our tours - for example in January and in June - we do more family practices. We practice together during the evenings in our living room."

Because farming is a time-sensitive occupation, Marlin tries to work the schedules for the ministry and the farm together.

"Dad usually tries to plan so the cows are not calving while we are gone," Chelsy said.

Crops are also taken into consideration.

"Our last concert in April is around the 26th. We won't schedule anything else until late June to get the crops in," Marlin said. "And we won't schedule anything from Oct. 1 through the end of the year. During the critical planting and harvesting months we make sure we are home."

But while the Bontragers are gone - especially on their three-week-long tour in February and throughout the summer months - the farm is put under the capable hands of Marlin's relatives, an Amish couple that stays at and works the farm in their absence. However, no matter how capable the hands, things do tend to go wrong when the rightful owner is not present.

"No matter when we are gone, there are more chances for things to go wrong. I really battle with that and try to do whatever I can think of [to keep things from breaking down]," Marlin said. "Breakdowns are costly when you're not around."

He also said that while the thought of traveling the country and singing may sound appealing, it is a weary lifestyle.

"It is very fulfilling, but also stressful and tiring at times," Marlin said.

When asked why he and his family continue their ministry, knowing the trials ahead of them, his answer was this:

"In this country there has been a breakdown of the family unit. Every night 52 percent of this country's children go to bed without a mom or a dad. I see this problem when we visit the prisons. In 1985 there were 110,000 inmates, now there are 2.3 million. At one prison in South Carolina, 95 percent of the inmates raised their hands when I asked who of them were fathers. I blame [these numbers] on kids growing up in unstable homes," Marlin said. "I feel a burden for this country, to challenge families to stay together and not be afraid to share their faith. I feel this is what the Lord wants (my family) to do."

Marlin also said he has been asked why his family does not sell the farm and do the ministry full-time, but he said the lifestyle is almost surreal.

"Singing and performing in concerts - while it is great - it is almost not real life," he said. "I don't want my sons to grow up not realizing the value of hard work and farm life. At least at this point, we have intentionally decided not to do the ministry full time."