How one family dairy managed to stay whole by growing apart.
By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole
What’s a mom and dad to do when all four of their strapping boys want to join the family dairy? Send them away, let them stay, buy another farm?
Paul and Rosemary Gingue did … well … all three. They made room for the two youngest as they reached adulthood, helped the two oldest buy another dairy, then helped merge both operations just two years later. It all went according to plan … the second one … or maybe it was the third.
The point is, the Gingues put their heads together and made the necessary adjustments. As a result, they all work together these days on a dairy that’s weathered some tough times and seems stronger for it.
Best Laid Plans …
“It wasn’t the way I expected it to happen,” says Paul Gingue, of how the transition to the next generation has begun. “Originally, we expected at least two of the boys to want to stay home and take over the farm, but they all came home, one at a time, all interested in agriculture and wanted to stay in it.
“We knew that the farm wasn’t large enough, and we couldn’t expand it enough for all four boys to make a living off it,” says Paul, echoing the sentiments on any number of farms through the generations and around the world. “So we started looking around, trying to find another farm for the two older boys to operate.”
Paul’s two older sons, Dan and Shawn, had worked at the family dairy practically all their lives, except for some time away at school. “They were by my side all the time,” says Paul. “With maybe just a little bit of help, they were ready to run their own dairy.”
Dan and Shawn, then in their late 20s, formed Gingue Brothers Dairy in 2008, leasing another farm in Fairfax, Vt., about 70 miles away—as the tractor rides—from St. Johnsbury, where the original family farm is located. The new place, which the Gingues planned to make a mostly separate operation, came with some 570 acres and a barn capable of holding about 400 cows.
“After they started the farm in Fairfax, the business plan was all put together, and it looked rosy. Then,” continues Paul, sighing just a bit, “milk prices tanked just six months into when they started the operation.”
… And, Plan C
When Dan and Shawn leased the dairy in Fairfax, the price per hundredweight (cwt) ran about $20. By February 2009, the price had fallen to just under $13. With the cost to produce that cwt at about $19, the immediate future looked bleak for dairies across the state, and much more so for those just getting under way, such as the younger Gingues.
“I started sharing equipment with them so they could save on their custom work,” says Paul. “Going back and forth and helping them on the farm, I just kept thinking to myself, ‘We can’t continue doing it this way.’ I figured if I’m going to invest this much into that farm, it’s probably a pretty darned good opportunity to put another business plan together and have all four boys become members.”
“It may not have been the way we started out,” says oldest son Dan, “but it’s worked out really well, maybe better this way. One of our goals has always been to keep the whole family involved. All four of us brothers have really loved working on the farm all our lives … and with the two locations, we’re able to have enough separation so,” he adds with a smile, “we don’t get under each other’s feet or under each other’s skin.”
Between the two farms, the Gingues now lease and own a total of 1,100 acres on which they grow alfalfa, corn and grass—all of which gets chopped for silage. They also have a little more than 1,000 cows and heifers between the two facilities. As part of the effort to cope with a difficult market and merge the farms, they recently underwent a series of changes to improve efficiency—an effort largely led by Dan and Shawn.
“As 2009 was an extremely difficult year for the dairy industry, we had to make some changes,” explains Dan. For instance, to save money, the Gingues needed to reduce tasks they were hiring out. “We were using custom work for almost every job in the field. Also, we were hiring somebody to raise our heifers [from the Fairfax farm].
“In looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each location,” he continues, “we were able to focus on milking in Fairfax and special-needs care in Waterford.”[Note: Waterford and St. Johnsbury are virtually the same municipality, and the Gingues refer to the original farm using both town names.] Now, all the milking cows—about 430—are at the dairy in Fairfax. Meanwhile, the original family farm in St. Johnsbury houses the 150 fresh and dry cows, and 460 young stock.
“We looked hard for efficiencies,” adds Dan, noting their use of an outside consultant. “On the operations side, we’ve improved our milk parlor flow, how many cows per hour we can milk; and we make sure we’re maximizing our employees’ hours on the job, not just in making sure they’re working the whole time per se, but to make sure they’re working efficiently.”
That’s easier, he says, because the employees at Fairfax, for instance, “are specializing in just milking the cows day in and day out.”
The two farms still work semi-autonomously, with family communicating via text and conference calls. They also bridge the gap by sharing one main tractor, a Massey Ferguson® 8660.
“It runs 33 mph on the road,” says Shawn, who explains that’s “a big factor for us because we move it 70 miles between our farms … between eight and 10 times a year.” As a result of its increased road speed as compared to their older tractor, the MF8660 reduces travel time by about 40 minutes. It uses less fuel too, both on the road and in the field.
Using the MF8660 to work their silage bunk, pull a liquid manure wagon and tiller—among other tasks—Shawn says they save as much as half of the fuel used by their other comparably sized tractor. “That’s helped with our efficiency efforts. The fuel savings has opened our eyes quite a bit.”
Slow, Steady Transition
The original transition strategy may have needed a few tweaks, but one thing that has gone as planned was the family’s efforts to begin the transition early. “We’ve got a very good lawyer that’s got some experience passing family businesses from one generation to the next,” says Dan. “But it takes time, and we’re lucky our father started the transition process at a relatively early age for us.”
Paul also started early handing over responsibilities, allowing his sons to learn by doing. “Dad started a good 10 years ago allowing us to do more things,” says Dan. “We’d screw up a few things, but that was probably the best way to learn,” he adds with a smile. “That’s helped us and helped him as well, and we really respect him for that.”
“I’m pretty fortunate to be able to have all four of my sons together on a farm,” says Paul, “and be able to get along and make a living at it. But giving them responsibilities and letting them make mistakes … education’s always expensive but that’s how you get there.”
“But dads aren’t always right. I learn from my boys too,” Paul continues, noting Dan’s and Shawn’s work to make the two farms more efficient, as well as younger sons James’ and Jeff’s efforts on the St. Johnsbury farm.
“Watching them grow up and working with them … it’s been a great experience so far, and I’m looking for a great future too.”