Processing Crops into Silage: Top of the Heap
From where D&G Chopping sees it, change offers opportunity.
By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole
They share an office, staff and plenty of laughs. They even finish each other’s sentences. Butch Gist and Marvin Davis are something of a dynamic duo. Together, they own D&G Chopping, a silage harvesting and packing operation, and run the latter’s family business, Gist Farms, a conglomeration of trucking, rail, equipment repair and farming.
Having worked together for 40-plus years, the two have weathered the ups and downs that buffet any business. Having experienced it in the fast-paced, topsy-turvy environment that is California agriculture, it has at times seemed more like a super roller-coaster ride, complete with barrel rolls and loop-de-loops.
They’ve seen business models and farms come and go. Yet, they’ve adapted and survived, even thrived. “We’ve seen a lot of changes in farming,” Davis says. “But we’ve found our way … found a way to adapt as the business changed.”
Differences and Strengths
Both natives of Tulare County and accustomed to leading their companies via the trenches, perhaps what’s most striking about Davis and Gist is their differences. Gist came from a prominent local family that has owned land in Tulare County, Calif., since 1886. Gist Farms is reportedly the second-oldest agriculture-related company in the storied county. His grandfather, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, was a decorated U.S. Naval officer and Chief of Naval Operations, after whom a new class of stealth-technology destroyers has recently been named.
Davis hales from a family of Dust Bowl refugees, who traveled 1,300 miles from Oklahoma and worked their way through some of the toughest economic times in modern U.S. history. “We were prune-picking Okies,” says Davis of his family, who arrived in Tulare to help harvest fruit before he was born.
“Things were so bad, there was just no work back in Oklahoma. My aunts and uncles moved out here, and they told [my parents] about all the opportunity in the farming industries.”
Then, too, Davis and Gist are yin and yang in what they bring to work. “Butch is a mechanical whiz. I like working with people,” says Davis.
“Marvin doesn’t mind the paperwork as much as I do,” says Gist. “Between the two of us, we kind of fill in each other’s weak spots. That just kind of makes for a more complete management team.”
When Change Is Opportunity
Davis began working for the Gist family in high school, then came back for good after an 18-month hiatus. Looking back, he says he was lucky to catch a ride on the family’s “shirttail. They’ve helped me do a lot of things.” His now-business partner, Gist, says he and his late father, Tom, respected Davis’ work ethic and loyalty. Helping create D&G Chopping was not only seizing a business opportunity, but a means of showing that appreciation.
“We were meant for each other,” laughs Davis.
“He’s lucky to have me,” retorts Gist, with a chuckle. “Seriously, though, we’ve made it through some tough times together. This is hard work and we lean on each other.”
Said leaning began in earnest in the early 1980s, when the farm economy began its now-infamous downward spiral that decade. Commodity prices were low and interest rates high. To earn additional revenue, Gist, with Davis’ help, began a custom harvesting business that covered five counties in southern and central California.
When dairies began replacing row-crop operations, Davis and Gist changed their focus, too. “The dairy industry just exploded in our area,” Davis says. “They were moving everything over to chopping, to silage. By the end of that first season, we had three new choppers … and basically a
D&G Chopping was born. “That was 25 years ago,” continues Davis, “and since then we’ve begun packing that silage for our customers, and all along watching for other opportunities.”
For instance, he says, “When we were making some money with our choppers, and things were going pretty good, Gist Farms invested the money back into trees. Gist Farms started with a walnut field when other people were not putting them in. Everybody thought we were crazy at the time,” Davis continues, “but it wound up being perfect timing, because when the waves rolled in with higher prices, we had trees already producing.”
Keeping the Best Employees
Today, Gist Farms also owns a rail spur, which delivers feed from as far away as Canada for delivery to area dairies via the company’s 14 trucks. The company runs an equipment repair shop as well.
“It’s always been a farming operation,” says Gist of the family business, “and I’m third generation. It’s, of course, changed a bit since the beginning. We don’t have any horses anymore, but we’ve got lots of horsepower,” he says, with his trademark smile.
The variety of the two companies’ offerings provides not only the advantage of diversification and hedges against downturns experienced by any business unit, it also offers the opportunity to keep employees working full-time year-round.
“We’re two separate entities, but we both work together because we’re able to utilize our employees,” explains Davis. “When they’re not working for the D&G Chopping side of it, we just transition them straight over to the Gist Farm side. That gives us a kind of advantage over a lot of similar companies.”
Because Gist and D&G keep their people on full time all year versus only seasonally, continues Davis, “we’ve been able to hire and keep the best employees.”
Perhaps surprisingly, given Gist’s and D&G’s entrepreneurial history, the two principals aren’t looking to expand, at least not quickly.
“I’d say to anyone looking to diversify, don’t get too anxious in making changes,” says Gist. “Sit back and watch for a period of time, because sometimes these changes are short-lived.”
But when one does decide to take the plunge, says Davis, “A good reputation helps that opportunity grow into business. It’s kind of the same thing in life and business—it’s how you take care of people.”
Then, too, say both partners, don’t get so far removed from the business that you lose touch
“It all goes back to the saying that I always felt was important,” says Gist: “‘The secret to success is putting your shadow on your business … across what’s going on.’ You just have to make sure you’re there watching and stay in touch.”