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Family makes the move into fast food after selling dairy

Karma Metzler Fitzgerald Published on 11 March 2014
Carey and Alex Fetting

There were a lot of tears the day Eugene Smith’s cows left the parlor for the last time.

“That was harder than moving off the farm,” he said.

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Smith was the fourth generation of his family to farm and dairy on their property near Clinton, Wisconsin. He bought the place from his parents 30 years ago. Early last year, he sold the property to his cousin, sold the cows and moved into town.

This spring, he and his family will move to Twin Falls, Idaho, to begin a new life.

Smith is transitioning away from the dairy business and into a life without cows for the first time in his life. For some dairy producers, the exit from the business is easy; for others, it’s not. Smith has found peace on his new path, thanks to a sense of adventure and some strategic planning.

Smith says he left the dairy industry for three reasons: First, he’d built his herd from 40 cows to 200 Holstein and Brown Swiss over the last 30 years, but he had no more room to expand.

Second, a cow kicked him in the knee a few years ago, and the resulting injury was making it difficult to do his job. Finally, none of his children wanted to take over. He went in search of something he could love as much as his dairy farm.

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“It was hard at the beginning. I miss the cows. I still wake up at 4 a.m. and wonder what you’re supposed to do at 4 a.m. when there’s nothing to do,” Smith says. “I love being around people and making people happy – you don’t always get that on the dairy farm. There’s a lot of joy in what I’m doing now.”

He said he still wanted to be his own boss and make people happy. He started doing some research and found a friend who owns a Culvers’ franchise. He worked in the restaurant for a while to see if he’d like it. He and his family already enjoyed eating at the chain, and it drew him in.

He bought a franchise and is opening the first Idaho-based Culvers in Twin Falls.

Idaho had long been on the Smith’s radar. He’d served a mission here for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormon church, in the early ’80s and fell in love with the Gem State.

He went back to attend what was then known at Ricks College and is now BYU – Idaho and studied dairy management. There, he met his wife, Shawn, and together the Smiths went back to Wisconsin to start their family.

Eugene said while driving through the tiny town of Carey, Idaho, he and Shawn decided if they ever had a daughter, they’d name her “Carey” because they liked the spelling and the beauty of the south-central Idaho community.

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That baby girl arrived and is now Carey Fetting. She and her husband, Alex, will make the move to Idaho with her parents. They’ll be managing the restaurant. A few weeks ago, the Fettings made their first trip to Twin Falls to discover their new home and check on the store’s construction progress.

When her dad told her about the impending closure of the family dairy, she wasn’t sure what to think.

“I didn’t know how to take it at first,” Carey Fetting says. “I thought he was joking. I never thought he’d do anything else.”

She said the sale of her family farm was difficult, but she’d already moved away, and once she saw her dad’s plans, the decision made sense.

“We kept it in the family, and it was a bittersweet farewell,” Fetting says. “I’m happy for them. They’ve done a great job.”

Her brothers are also part of the change. One brother is looking at opening a Culvers in Boise, about two hours away from the Twin Falls location. The other brother is at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, just a few hours south of Twin Falls.

Smith went into the transition with the help of an accountant and a lawyer and figured out how to make the change work and still be stable financially. Although he wouldn’t give specifics, he said he came away from the sale with a gain.

“That’s part of the reason we sold the farm, to make the financial part of it work. We tried to figure out how to keep the farm,” Smith says.

He won’t completely leave the dairy business behind. He has a few Brown Swiss show cows he’d like to bring with him if he can find a place to house them until the family is settled.

“I’m not willing to let them go,” he says. PD

Karma Metzler Fitzgerald is a freelance writer based in Shoshone, Idaho.

PHOTO:Soon-to-be Idaho residents Alex (left) and Carey Fetting take pictures in front of the state’s only Culvers. Carey’s dad, Eugene Smith of Clinton, Wisconsin, recently sold his dairy and bought a Culvers fast-food franchise. The Fettings will manage the new restaurant. Photo courtesy of Karma Metzler Fitzgerald.

Planning is key to successful transition

John Ellsworth is a Modesto, California-based farm finance and business strategy consultant. He says planning is the key for a successful transition away from the farm toward retirement.

“It doesn’t have to be 20 pages of text. It could just be one big sheet of paper,” Ellsworth says.

He recommends producers take a look at where they are now and where they would like to be down the road. Identify those things that might be roadblocks between one place and the next and figure out how to eliminate those road blocks.

The first step, Ellsworth says, is to meet with an accountant to figure out the tax implication involved in any transition.

“I think not planning the tax aspects can be devastating for them,” he says. Once that’s done, “Anything you do, every successful business plan, includes an exit strategy. A lot of people, including myself, don’t think about that. None of us plan to get kicked. I don’t plan on it.”

The key is that plan. Decide what it is you want and develop a step-by-step plan to get there.

“Do you want to transition to a son or daughter? Maybe lease it out to another young dairyman?” Ellsworth says. “I think step number one, besides the taxes, is figuring out what you want – and when you do, it’s just a matter of steps.”

The plan allows producers to have more control when exiting the dairy business becomes necessary. Ellsworth said with a plan, you could potentially sell at the height of the market rather than being forced to sell when the market is low.

“I see people who don’t even start to plan until they are ready to move. At that point, it might be too late,” Ellsworth says. “I think it’s critical to say, ‘What do I want and how do I want to get there?’ They can be thinking about it long before the opportunity arises.”

Check out the Success Strategies website for additional information or contact Ellsworth by email or by calling (209) 988-8960.

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