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Tips for farming with non-family partners

Callie Curley for Progressive Dairyman Published on 29 June 2018

Ron St. John of Trenton, Florida, got his start in the dairy industry like many others: by being born into a farming family. His farm business has taken a long journey from his father’s 67 cows in a small, northern New York town to the herd’s current status as the largest freestall dairy in Florida that may seem unique to some.

With his partners and a few key family members at his side, St. John has brought Alliance Dairies to the forefront of the dairy business world. Today, his operation houses more than 5,000 mature dairy cows and employs more than 120 people throughout Florida and Georgia.

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Though he retired in 2016 and has since handed the reins of the farm over to his partners, St. John remains involved. He also shares his experiences growing his farm and building a business in a way not typically seen in dairy farming.

In his presentation, titled “Bringing in non-family partners,” he shared his perspectives and advice with those who attended the 2018 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit in February.

“I got into dairy farming because I wanted to see what I could do with my hands,” St. John said. “That satisfaction isn’t something you can get just anywhere. What I’ve realized over time is the difference between getting things done, doing them well and managing others who will get it done well. My role on the farm has changed, but I like to think it’s made me into somewhat of a leader.”

St. John shared advice on identifying strengths and backgrounds, relationships with managers, employees and partners, and the importance of sharing values and philosophies with everyone involved in growing a farm business with non-family partners.

Background is key

St. John describes himself as a businessman at heart who chose to be a dairy farmer.

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“I’ve always loved to farm,” he said. “I’ve never worked a day in my life. Today, I organize work on a large scale. All I want is what any farmer or businessman wants: for my life’s work to continue on.”

When push came to shove, and St. John had the opportunity to grow his farm businesses by moving his herd from Oakfield, New York, to north-central Florida, he embraced the change in his core work and became a leader, both on his own operation and across the industry.

Not anticipating anyone in his family would want to take over the farm, St. John began looking for outside partners to continue the business and begin succession planning for the dairies. His focus wasn’t on how to work with who was around him but on who would be the best candidates to bring in.

“I’m never one to knock a dairy science degree,” St. John said. “But in 40 years, that science has changed at warp speed. You know what hasn’t changed all that much? The principles of business. I would encourage any farm, when looking for successors, even if those successors are your own children, to require even a basic understanding of business and economics. The business will be better for it.”

St. John found this in his own partners – each selected from careers in corporate America – and stands by the decision as one of the best he’s made.

People matter

That desirable outcome didn’t come without its challenges. With more than 120 employees across multiple operations, Alliance Dairies rely on the skill, work and initiative of their employees and managers to make the business successful.

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On farms of any size, the importance of investing in and valuing team members at all levels, be they herdsmen or weekend milkers, is key to the health and future of the farm, St. John said.

“I’m a believer that all businesses are no better than the people they are surrounded by; you can’t be good enough to overcome poor employees or poor leadership,” St. John said. “I don’t do business with other companies; I make those decisions based on the people.”

Even within a single farm business, there is a need for strong relationships among everyone working together.

“Successors need to be grown and developed,” St. John said. “And it’s OK to be wrong the first time around. When we hired three people as our successors, they all came out of corporate America. We found out after four-and-a-half years two worked very well together, but one was not a team player and did not have the philosophy we did. Ultimately, I asked him to leave. It wasn’t easy, but you have to do what is right for the success of the business.”

There are signs to look out for when reflecting on new partners and their contributions to the team.

“What I found out with this particular individual was: I’d end up defending him a lot in our group and in conversation. When you have to start defending somebody, that person is probably not someone who, long-term, belongs in your business as you take it into the future,” St. John said.

“Those who work with their own children as successors may see this take shape in thinking about your favorite children and realizing those favorites may not always be the best for the farm business – or even are hurting the success of the farm by creating conflict with other partners. It’s much easier to end a relationship with a non-family partner who doesn’t fit into the team culture than it is to do the same with a relative.”

There must be trust

Perhaps most important of all, St. John said, is the foundation of trust among partners.

“Trust and philosophy, in that order, are paramount in a partnership,” St. John said. “If you don’t have absolute trust in one another, you have the wrong partner.”

Trust makes way for something bound to happen again and again when more than a single person is managing a farm business – differences of opinion. According to St. John, sharing philosophies and values are extremely important, but trust makes room for respectful disagreements.

“Sure, we can all say we want to build the business, grow the farm, but then we turn right around and disagree on how to do it,” St. John said. “If we can’t trust one another enough to say, ‘Let’s try it your way,’ we should know the partnership is no good.”

In his lifetime, St. John has grown a successful dairy, sourced partners from unique and different backgrounds to manage it in his place and learned many lessons in dairy, business, people and relationships along the way that have only served to strengthen the future of his operation. In spite of all these successes, he remains content knowing nothing has been or will be “perfect.”

“Never have I had a perfect operation,” St. John said. “We’ve struggled, like everyone in the industry has and does. I like to think we do more right than we do wrong as I look around our operation, but there is only so much we each can manage, only so much that is up to our control. We all do the best for ourselves and the future of our businesses we possibly can. We learn from our mistakes and try, try again.”  end mark

Callie Curley is a graduate from Penn State University

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