Diana: [00:03] Good afternoon, this is Diana Schad, the Director of the Family Business Alliance. I am here today with Annie Link, the fourth-generation family member of Swisslane Dairy Farms located in Alto, Michigan. Annie, thanks for joining us today!
Annie: [00:15] Welcome to the farm, Diana.
Diana: [00:16] Thank you, I’m glad to be here. So before we start, can you tell me a little bit about Swisslane Farms, and what you all do.
Annie: [00:22] Yes. Swisslane Farms was started by my great grandfather, Frederick Ersch. He was an immigrant from Switzerland, so that’s where we got the name Swisslane. He came over, he wanted to live the American Dream and become a farmer. So, he started working at the Wingeier Farm, which is on Wingeier Road right around the corner from where we are. He ended up marrying the farmer’s daughter and they bought the farm right next door. That’s where we are right now.
Diana: [00:49] And what year was that?
Annie: [00:50] That was back in 1915. So, our farm has been here for over 104 years. I always tell everybody [that] what we’re trying to do is get the farm to make it to 200 years. That’s my goal! We’ve got 96 years left to go. [Laughs]
Diana: [01:04] [Laughs]
Annie: [01:04] Hopefully we can get to that. As the family grew, so did the farm. Right now, there’s my dad and my two uncles who are the senior partners. We have myself and my two cousins, Tom and Matt, and we are the Next Gen. We are working on our transition, or our succession plan right now. We have grown over the years. Like I said, we started out… I think my grandpa started out with a handful of cows. Right now we are milking about 2,200 cows. We farm a lot of ground and lease a lot of ground from other farm owners. We are farming about 5,000 acres. Gotta feed the cows, right? And then, we have a lot of other things going on on the farm as well.
Diana: [01:45] Is it only milk, or are there other products that you do as well?
Annie: [01:47] One of our values that we have talked about is focusing on the cows.
Diana: [01:50] Mhm.
Annie: [01:51] Everything is kinda based around what is best for them. Gotta feed them, so we have the cropping enterprise that goes along with that. So, we grow hay, corn, beans, and wheat. We kind of do crop rotation with all of that. And then, we also sell the milk from the cows. But then, we have an educational program that ties in and serves the community as well so we can offer more services to our community than just the agricultural side of stuff.
Diana: [02:20] So how many cows do you have on the property right now?
Annie: [02:23] Yes. We milk the 2,200, but then we also raise all our calves as well.
Diana: [02:29] Ok.
Annie: [02:29] So, if took all of them and totaled them it’d probably be about 3,800 total.
Diana: [02:35] Ok. I think you were in the news this winter about the weather that we had had and taking care of the cows. Can you just talk a little bit about the care of the cows and about what’s involved with that, and how you go about caring for them and providing such a great home for them?
Annie: [02:55] Right. The polar vortex was what we were going through this winter. They came out and were interested in how we were caring for the cows through the extreme weather conditions. So, what we try to offer the dairy cows is they love consistency. They thrive when they can have a very routine. They are very habitual creatures. We try to keep everything as consistent and routine as possible. So, keeping their climate controlled in the barn as much as we can. So, a day like today is perfect where the humidity is low, the temperature is nice and steady. About 67 degrees is where the cows hit their heat threshold.
What we are always concerned about, is the cows can handle some cold, but they actually start getting stressed when there is a lot of heat. We do a lot of preventative measures for that. Number one, we have them in the barns. So, we keep the sun off of them. Even that was not enough. So, we added fans. I’ve never even done an inventory on how many fans we have. We add new ones all the time, just adding more fans to keep them cool. They’re all on a thermostat, so it’s basically like air conditioning. Once all the fans are on, all on high speed, that’s when our sprinkling systems kicks on. So, the cows don’t run through sprinklers, but they do like to stand and get cold water sprayed on their back in the heat. [Laughs]
Diana: [04:14] [Laughs]
Annie: [04:20] The cows love laying in sand. I always tell the kids, “You go to the beach and lay in the sand, but the cows aren’t allowed to go to the beach. So, we bring the beach right into the barn for the cows”. It’s nice and cool and comfortable, but we like [it for] the milk quality. That sand cleans their utters and makes sure that we have really healthy cows, comfortable, and really high-quality milk too. We are always trying to keep the barns clean. You may think pigs as a messy animal. My kids show kids at the fair, so we have a couple of pigs at our barn and at our house. The cows are way messier than pigs. [Laughs]
Diana: [04:54] [Laughs]
Annie: [04:54] So, we have automatic, I call them pooper scoopers, but they’re alley scrapers. They clean the barn for us. They automatically make sure that we are cleaning up after the cows so that we can keep them clean and ready to produce high quality milk. The biggest thing for the cows is making sure that they have a good diet. I would contend that cows eat better than almost 99% of the people in the US.
We’ve got a nutrition consultant who works with us. He’s got a Ph.D. in dairy nutrition. He comes over from Minnesota once a month and does an on-farm visit where he’s testing. He does a milk test, to make sure we are getting the highest quality feed so that they can make us the highest quality milk. We are monitoring that daily, their intakes and what their milk output is. We can change that. We just have a software system where we are changing their “feed rations” is what we call them, every day. It’s down to the macro-nutrient for these cows!
Diana: [05:56] It seems like things have gotten a lot more high tech, certainly from when your… would it be your great-great grandfather?
Annie: [06:02] Yep…
Diana: [06:02] Ok.
Annie: [06:03] Great grandfather!
Diana: [06:04] Great grandfather.
Annie: [06:04] Just one great.
Diana: [06:04] Ok, one great.
Annie: [06:05] But, what the cool thing about this technology is I would contend that we know more about animal nutrition than what we know about human nutrition. It’s just been leaps and bounds on what and how we have been able to care for these cows by providing them the nutrition that they need and actually giving them what they need instead of what we think they need – what they actually need. So, it’s pretty cool just to see them respond to that and be able to have really high-quality milk in return.
Diana: [06:37] Tell me a little bit about this Dairy Discovery. It sounds like [much] of this information that you are collecting you are sharing with the community and school kids in the community?
Annie: [06:45] Right. Dairy Discovery is a way for us to provide people a personal connection to their food is what we have said. That is our mission. What we’ve realized is, I grew up on the farm, [I] didn’t know how disconnected people were. They say that people are three generations removed from the farm now. So, that means that you don’t know where your food is coming from anymore. So, what we are trying to do is bridge that gap and offer people a connection. I’m not sure about you, but maybe you had a grandpa that was a farmer. That is typically what people had, they could go visit their uncle or their grandpa at the farm. Now, there’s not that option. So, we are trying to make this our family farm like your family farm.
Come out and you can see how your food is made and what the animals are doing, what’s going on on a modern farm. Providing people with authentic experiences that are fun and educational too. So, that’s our big goal for that. We have a lot of school groups that come out. Today we had a kindergarten group from Byron Center here. There were 120 kindergartners along with about 80 parents, 80 adults. About 1 parent per kid. I think the parents learned just as much as the kids, probably more.
What we are trying to do is just offer them hands on activities. A lot of the times the kids will get off the bus and have their nose plugged and I will say, “You know what? You’re not a school today, you’re not in the classroom. You’re going to be doing new things today. You’re going to smell new things; you’re going to taste new things. You’re going to see new things and do new things. That’s what we are trying to provide for them. I think that really gives them that personal connection then, when they’re actually doing hands on things.
Diana: [08:22] Do you feel like, as a society, there’s more receptiveness to this? I grew up in the ’70s when everything was processed. It was twinkies and Cheese Wiz. It does seem like there’s more of a movement towards whole foods and knowing where your food comes from. Are you seeing more of that in our culture as a whole?
Annie: [08:40] I would think just because it’s just not an option anymore for people to just show up on a farm. Yeah. Also, we get so much information off of our screens! We aren’t experiencing it in real life. We are reading blogs, we’re watching videos, but to actually do it yourself that’s something that a lot of people aren’t able to do. So, that’s what Dairy Discovery can offer. Yeah, I have tons of stories of kids, that light bulb going off for them.
Diana: [09:11] Do you bring in urban kids from Grand Rapids?
Annie: [09:14] Yep. We had a group from GRPS come out last week, they’re fourth graders. The one little boy was like “Oh, I’m not going to drink that milk! I’m scared, it comes from the cows”. Meanwhile, he’s drinking a 20 oz red Faygo or something! [Laughs]
Diana: [09:30] [Laughs]
Annie: [09:29] I’m like, “You should be more worried about what’s in that red pop rather than this natural wholesome product that has like two ingredients in it – milk and chocolate syrup”. Just connecting that stuff with them and making them think a little differently. Why we wanted to make Diary [Discovery] [non-profit] was because it’s very labor intense. You get your own private tour guide to take you around and teach you all about what you’re seeing and doing.
It’s very labor intense tours. I needed a lot more labor, so that meant I’m going to have to increase the admission cost. I just thought, that alienates a whole population or whole demographic. I thought, well, if I can do non-profit [we can offer it] to everyone. It will make it accessible to everyone. That was a big reason and a big incentive for us to go to the non-profit. I love collaborating and making connections and partnerships in the community. That’s a big positive for me. All the doors were opening, we went for that. June… not June. In the end of 2017, we became a non-profit.
Diana: [10:43] That’s fantastic. And you run the organization then?
Annie: [10:45] Yep. So, I’ll be the director and have a great manager. A great team. There’s three people on our staff who have teaching certificates, and then a lot of our other ones are from an agriculture background, or moms who know how to handle kids. So, we have a great staff.
Diana: [11:05] Well, and another neat thing that you do that I’ve enjoyed is your Specialty Shop. Actually, last time I saw you I went over there and did some shopping. Can you tell us a little bit about that and some of the products from the area that you carry over there, just promoting some other businesses as well?
Annie: [11:19] Yeah. The great thing about the Specialty Shop is that is supporting all of our programs at Dairy Discovery. It is part of the non-profit. So, when you are shopping there you are actually supporting this educational program that is offering a great service to the kids in our community. Some of the products that we offer and are very excited about are our beef, that is the stuff that we raise right here at Swisslane. You can get steaks and roasts and all that. And also, even snacks. I’m going to have the teriyaki jerky for my lunch today! We partnered with a friend of mine from Wisconsin, he is a master cheese maker in Wisconsin. I think it’s hands down the best cheese I’ve ever eaten.
Diana: [12:01] It’s wonderful, I’ve had your cheese.
Annie: [12:02] I’m kind of a cheese snob. So, it’s hard for me to find cheese that we really like and can get excited about. Unfortunately, we did have to go all the way to Wisconsin to get that, but maybe someday we will be able to make some really high-quality cheese right here in Alto, Michigan.
Diana: [12:17] I’ve had your maple syrup as well.
Annie: [12:19] We have the maple syrup and we have some other products. We have partnered with the Red Barn Market and offer salsas and jams from them. We have some honey, our neighbor produces. It’s a lot of fun for people to have that connection to their food when they leave here too. Best of both worlds.
Growing up on the farms was pretty intense. We always had jobs to do, there were always chores after school. I guess, for me, when I was really little, my passion was always for animals. I would be rescuing kitties; I was like the cat whisperer! So, I knew that I had a passion for animals. Most of my childhood I was going to be a vet, so I knew that I wanted to do something with animals. I wasn’t quite sure what it was.
When I got into high school, I was one of our head milkers, our milking shift was about four hours long. I would come home, after school I would have practice, cross country or track practice, and then I would go and milk. Basically, what I was trying to do was to get done as fast as I could so I could get to the football or basketball games, right? I wasn’t really worried about the milk quality and stuff like that, so things have really changed.
By the time I got to college our milking shifts were eight hours. I had started my family and became more active in the calf area so I could bring my kids with me and started being around them like with my kids, I could speak to that age group really well. So, yeah. That’s how I got started. But, growing up, I didn’t think I was going to come back to the farm. I actually left here right after high school and went to Grand Valley. Freedom! You know? It only took me about two years. My husband and I started our family a little premature and I knew, this was where I wanted to raise my kids. So, we came back and that’s when we started with the calves and Dairy Discovery. My roles have kind of changed a lot in the last few years. So now I am one of the junior partners, my role is HR and PR and a lot of administrative special legislative projects, and stuff like that too.
Diana: [14:37] What are things that you instill in them [the next generation]? Especially in a farm, you sort think you have to work together, you work with the animals, you think about hard work.
Annie: [14:43] Well, I think when we talk about sustainability and stuff, I ask all the kids who come to visit on the farm “We need your help, we want to make it another 96 years”. When you think about that, everything you do has to be with that in mind. It’s not just going to happen that you stay a farm for another generation. So, with how you are caring for the environment, with you are caring for your finances, with how you are caring for the animals, all of that ties in. We try to wake up every day as just continuous improvement. What can we do better? What are we going to do next? [We] kind of build off from that. We just want to make sure that we leave here with the same opportunities. I don’t know if my kids are going to want to be a farmer. I’m going to make sure that if they do that that’s an option for them. Some of those values would be, like I said, we actually have our core values of business. I could rattle those off. [Laughs]
Diana: [15:38] Yeah, I’d be interested.
Annie: [15:39] Something we talk all the time! So, we talk about God honoring conduct. How we are conducting ourselves with integrity, trustworthiness, and making sure we are responsible to our creator. Right? So that involves caring for the land and everything. So that, and then Lightyears Ahead. Just always trying to think visionary, turning a nickel into a dime. Being that financial resource that we are being stewards of. Making hay while the sun shines, is just being passionate and trying to get the work done at all costs, right? Sometimes it’s literally making hay while the sun shines too. [Laughs]
Diana: [16:20] [Laughs]
Annie: [16:21] Focus on the cows so that kind of goes back to our animal husbandry and just knowing that the better care we take of the cows the better they’re going to perform for us. So, we’ve gotta be focusing on them. And then, becoming productive people. What are we doing to better ourselves? Continuing education and having a good attitude. Those are our core values, and that’s what I try to instill in my kids. The cool think about that is, when it really comes down to it, they know, they have a true understanding and respect for what’s on their plate. You know? It’s not taken for granted is what I love about that.
Diana: [17:04] So to get to those next 96 years, you have your values, what are things that you use, what are resources that you use to get your there? Are there consultants, are there educational resources, are their things that you use to help the business thrive and survive?
Annie: [17:18] Yeah. We need a really strong team of consultants around us. We’ve been researching more about who we can gather and are always trying to improve ourselves. So, we have our nutrition consultant like I said, we’ve got an animal health consultant, like a veterinary consultant. We have environmental consultant to help us make sure we are applying our manure and being good stewards of the environment and following all of the regulatory [measures]. I should have made a list of all of the consultants! [Laughs]
Diana: [17:48] [Laughs]
Annie: [17:49] Then our cropping consultant, which those two kind of go hand in hand. We have to make sure we are getting the best feed value out of our crops that we can for the cows. So, cropping consultants. Then we have financial consultants that go over and do some benchmarking for us. Give us pretty tough goals and have some tough conversations. Give us our strategy for going forward on the finances. Then we have our HR consultant as well. Yeah, a lot. We need a really strong team behind us is what I’m finding out. I’m not going to do this by myself, you know. Of course, I have my cousins too, but we know that we need a strong team behind us going forward.
Diana: [18:31] It’s always important to have good resources. Do you market yourself as a family business?
Annie: [18:36] Um… I wouldn’t say that we go around as the tagline or anything, but it’s definitely something we talk about for the tours, just because we want people to know, this might be what you consider a factory farm but it’s also our family farm too. My grandparents still live right here on the property, I live just down the road. We have about 34 family members within 2 miles of the farm. So, we love this community and now we have all these people working alongside us and I see them as our family too. I go through tough hiring process and we make sure we weed out the people… we make sure we get the best of the best. Once they come in, they join the team and they are just like family too.
Diana: [19:27] So, to wrap up, do you have any advice for anybody working for a family business? Is there anything that you would say is the best part or the most challenging part of being with a family business?
Annie: [19:37] Yeah. The hardest part for us has just been trying to figure out this succession plan and working through that generational gap. The way that my dad ran the business is very different than the way that we’re running the business. Just communication is key, trying to make sure you communicate. For me, I know it’s just been our faith. Hanging on to that and practicing forgiveness and extending grace every day. So, that’s what’s helped me in the last four year for sure. It’s just been kind of a little mantra for me.
Diana: [20:13] Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for having us, and thank you so much for joining us today.
Annie: [20:17] Thank you.
Diana: [20:18] Yep, take care.