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The six core values that guide Swiss Lane Farms

Melissa Hart for Progressive Dairyman Published on 12 December 2016
Winter scenes on the dairy at Swiss Lane Farms.

Management of any farm is crucial for long-term success. Swiss Lane Farm of Alto, Michigan, may not have found the special sauce yet, but they are striving to “successfully and happily redeem the equity of the three senior partners”.

As they continue to transition from the third to the fourth generation of the family farm. And six core values guide their every step.

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Swiss Lane Farm consists of six family partners of the Oesch family. The senior partners are brothers Fred, Jeff and Tom Oesch, with the next generation brothers Tom and Matt Oesch, and their cousin Annie Link.

When the fourth generation came back to the farm, the herd size increased, and presently they have a robotic facility milking 500 cows and a double-16 parlor where 1,650 cows are milked. The workforce consists of the six family members and 44 employees.

Swiss Lane Farm is guided by six core values that were developed and refined over the years. These values encompass the passion, productivity and the very essence of four generations of the Oesch family.

When making the transition from the third to fourth generation on the farm, the six family partners put considerable thought into exactly who they were as a business and the core values that would guide their decision-making.

Winter scenes from Swiss Lane Dairy

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Many of the values were principles that were exemplified by the first generation on the farm, the great-grandfather Fred Oesch, who was not only a dairy producer but a preacher.

1. Practice God-honoring conduct

In honing the core values, the Oesch family gave considerable thought to the question, “Not who are we but Who made us who we are?”

Tom explains, “We can’t help but honor our Lord because we’ve been taught for four generations that that is the main thing.”

The conduct of everyone on the farm should be worthy of honoring God. The employees are evaluated each year on how they reflect humility, respect for others, trustworthiness and selflessness.

2. Focus on the cows

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“My (great) Uncle Ernie died the day my parents brought me home from the hospital, so I never got to meet him, but my grandfather, Joe, who is 90 years old still misses his brother and says he was a way better dairyman than he ever dreamed of being,” Tom said.

Ernie Oesch was responsible for teaching his brother Joe about caring for the cows, the importance of knowing genetics and to basically focus on the cows. Decades later, this knowledge and focus helps the Oesch family keep their priorities in line. They expect appropriate animal handling and dairy knowledge from their employees.

3. Be light years ahead

This value speaks to being proactive, and the Oesch family strives to be early adopters of technology. This value was fleshed out, as they were one of the largest herds in Michigan to install a robotic milking system and were the mentors to other dairy producers who were contemplating adopting the new technology.

Embracing change and being a visionary are important aspects of being light years ahead.

4. Turn a nickel into a dime

In the early 1960s, Joe Oesch wanted to buy a piece of land and, while talking on the phone with the banker, he turned to his brother Ernie and asked, “Should I buy that land?” Ernie told him, “Joe, you have to buy that land.” Joe made the purchase, and that land turned out to be a pivotal piece of the puzzle that spurred their expansion in 2000.

Tom relayed, “Grandpa always said, ‘Ernie could turn over a nickel and find a quarter.’”

The key aspects of this value are the use of resources, efficiency and continuing education.

5. Make hay while the sun shines

This may be a popular saying among all farmers, but this value stems from a very special day for the Oesch family. Tom explains, “The story that I was told when we were developing these values was that my grandpa was late to his wedding because he was harvesting corn.”

Joe had a passion for farming and passed that on to his children. This passion and problem solving are two areas that are key to this core value and are essential for employees to demonstrate while on the job.

6. Become productive people

This core value encompasses a person’s attitude, commitment and quality of work.

Being unproductive isn’t an option with the Swiss Lane Dairy crew. Tom says, “I think we all have it in the family; it’s a multi-generation push to be productive. You don’t waste your days.” He continues, “The only day you waste is Sunday and that’s not wasting – that’s resting.”

Managing people is difficult, and Tom admits they haven’t always done everything correctly. Consequently, they looked for an example of infallible leadership, and they found it.

“When it comes right down to it, and when we have trouble and conflict, we turn to the Gospels (of Jesus Christ) because Jesus never got it wrong,” Tom says. “He got it right every single time.”

When conflict crops up on the farm between employees, they use a Biblical approach for the solution. Tom encourages the two parties to solve it between themselves. If that doesn’t work he tries to help them, and if that still doesn’t resolve the conflict, a third party is brought in.

Oddly enough, most of the conflict isn’t between employees but between family members. “We know that the odds are significantly against us making it work with our unique ‘cousin consortium’,” Tom says. “The percentage of businesses making it to our stage of development as a multigenerational business is less than 5 percent. And now we know why – it’s hard.”

The employees are evaluated annually in hopes that they will strive to demonstrate the core values of Swiss Lane Farm not only at the farm but in the community in which they live and do business.

Tom concludes, “We aren’t perfect people, but I like to think that in our day-to-day work and our business dealings I hope you will find these core values represented.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Winter scenes on the dairy at Swiss Lane Farms.

PHOTO 2: The multi-generational dairy family relies on six core values to keep the family and farm going through all four seasons. Photos provided by Annie Link.

Melissa Hart is a freelance writer from North Adams, Michigan

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