By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, February 1, 2019
CHRISTIANA, Pa. – “It was a gut feeling, more than anything — an inner sense of knowing something had to happen,” says Rusty Herr about his November decision to auction the 71-acre farm and its most unique dairy facility that is home to Golden Rose Genetics and its elite herd of 40 cows, 25 of which are related to the Oakfield Pronto Ritzi cow he purchased as a yearling in 2009 at the New York Spring Sensation Sale.
Beiler-Campbell Auction Company will conduct the public auction at the 3 Sproul Road farm in the Andrews Bridge historic district of southern Lancaster County near Christiana, Pennsylvania next Saturday, February 9 at 1:00 p.m. In addition to the farm, and it’s not quite four-year-old dairy and heifer barns, the sale includes the family’s restored historic home.
Rusty will determine his options for the cattle and equipment after the sale of the farm. He’s hoping to be able to keep some of his best animals and some heifers for his children to show.
The beautiful all-wood construction Canadian-style barn, complete with indoor wash rooms and a show case entryway was built so that Rusty could give his small herd of high-scoring cows the individual attention and as a show place to merchandise the genetics he has been developing.
In fact, his Golden-Rose Ladd Glory-Red (below), both Red and Polled, has not yet been classified and has the potential to be a 20th generation EX in Oakfield Pronto Ritzi’s line.
Good cows and good genetics, along with a love of marketing and the training and skill-set for reproductive work — these are the things Rusty has learned and will continue to love – even if the path forward right now is like opening a book of blank pages.
While it was a gut feeling and months of deliberation that led to the decision to sell the farm, it all comes down to the financial strain he and other dairy producers are enduring.
“Each of us has to know how much longer we can tread water before losing everything,” he says. “We also have to look at how the financial strain may be impacting on other areas of our physical, emotional and family life. If the dairy industry was in a good place, financially, it is obvious we would not have all of these farms going out of business.”
In kitchen table discussions with other dairymen who’ve crossed this bridge over the past several months, one thing is apparent, our industry’s young farmers and transitioning families do not have the cash flow to finish transitions or move into later stages of having started as beginning farmers. They also don’t have the peace of mind that the markets will cycle high enough to pull them up from four years of losses. This is concerning for the future as we are not just seeing the older generation retiring out of the business, we are seeing unprecedented numbers of young people who have a passion for dairy in these tough decisions.
For Rusty, it means walking away from the farm and most unique dairy facility he had spent years dreaming, planning, preparing for and then in 2015 building for his Golden Rose Genetics.
He had been sharpening his skill-set in embryo transfers, ultrasounding and IVF work, building a line of Excellent cows from the Oakfield Corners yearling he had purchased. He methodically built up the genetics side of his business, ultimately downsizing his prior herd with a 2015 auction to fund the new barn and intimate setting for a smaller herd where he could specialize in genetics.
What he didn’t plan on — what nobody could have — is that the milk price would abandon its three-year cycle to tumble low for four straight years, beginning in 2015 when he moved his smaller herd into their new quarters at Golden Rose.
“Without one good year in the dairy markets (since 2015), it’s been an uphill battle,” Rusty reflects. “We were treading water, but then the outlook sealed it. If it looked like markets would be a lot brighter going into 2019, maybe we could hunker down a bit longer, but we felt like we have already hunkered down and pushed it.
“Obviously it has not been an easy decision to make,” but he says that it is the right one for his family to move on from dairy farming as they have known it.
Looking back, he has no regrets.
“Life has a way of teaching us valuable lessons that we would have never learned if we didn’t go through certain things. When things get difficult, when the pressure is high and the pain is great, those are the times when we learn the most, when we figure out who we really are and come out better and more prepared to handle what is to come,” he describes the perspective that leaves him with peace about stepping towards whatever God has in store next for him and his family.
With the decision made, the marketer in him has Rusty feeling excited about the upcoming auction on February 9.
He and his wife Heather feel a sense of relief knowing the financial strain will ease, and he believes that any number of options could be in front of him.
He says the whole experience has taught him patience and to trust God for His perfect timing.
“This wasn’t how I would have planned it, having just purchased the farm and begun construction on the dairy less than four years ago, but it’s how the script is unfolding,” he notes.
“The dairy industry is changing in many ways, and to think that anyone could have predicted the markets would be moderately to severely depressed going on a fifth year in a row would have been unimaginable.”
But he adds that, “This is the reality of where we are with a high debt load, input costs from all angles and a very uncertain outlook. It’s just not sustainable to continue with the farm and small dairy herd.”
He and his wife Heather and their four children have put the future in God’s hands. He loves the work he has been doing both on and off the farm.
If a buyer wants to keep the dairy going and keep him working with it, he is open to that potential.
If the farm sells to a buyer completely unrelated to dairy, his path could change dramatically, and he’s ready for that.
“We chose to auction the farm. This is not a forced auction,” Rusty affirms. “I have always loved cow auctions and after meeting with Beiler-Campbell, we decided this is how we would handle the farm sale.”
True to form, Rusty finds himself seizing the opportunity to learn about marketing real estate through this whole experience. Just another way to embrace circumstances and decisions even if they are completely opposite of earlier dreams and plans.
In fact, Rusty penned these words in a Facebook post 10 days before Christmas just after the auction signs went up, thanking their network of family, friends and church family and offering to others a glimpse of the hope and faith that remain strong – knowing so many farmers are wrestling with similar difficulties and decisions.
“Yes, it is sad to walk away from something I have worked my whole life to get to, but in other ways I can be so happy to have been given the opportunity to do it. So many people can never say that,” Rusty wrote, and reiterated during a Farmshine visit to Golden Rose Monday evening. During the visit, Rusty confided that the rollercoaster has not been the markets — they’ve been down with no relief. The rollercoaster he and other dairy producers deal with every day is an internal up-and-down in the mindset of whether they can move forward, or how.
“We can control a lot of things, but not the market,” he explains that they have done all they could to increase income and cash flow amid the perfect storm of lower prices for milk, cattle and beef. He stepped up his ET, IVF and other reproductive services to dairy producers in the region –pulling him away from the very farm he was bringing income back to keep going.
“What’s the family farm going to look like in the future?” Rusty wonders aloud. “That question, I think, is being answered. We are disappearing.”
“I don’t want sympathies and people feeling sorry for us…” he wrote in that mid-December post announcing the sale of the farm. “There are dairy farm families right now who are grieving over the loss of a loved one who thought that ending their life was the best way to cope with their overwhelming situation. They are the ones who need our prayers and support. There are others who have no idea how they are going to get through the coming months and years if things don’t dramatically improve. They might be retirement age and have just watched all of their net worth get eaten up while trying to ride out the storm. I would like this post to be about them.”
Rusty is grateful for family, friends and faith. He urges everyone in the dairy community to “Reach out to your neighbors and friends. Let them know that you care and are praying for them.”
In short, he says, “2018 has been the most difficult year in modern history to be a farmer. Farmers are strong people and can deal with more than most will ever have to, but we all have a breaking point. Pay attention, listen when someone just needs to be heard. Be a shoulder to cry on if needed. Be kind — you never know how much someone might be dealing with. People are good at hiding their struggles and pain.”
As Rusty and one of his daughters, Daisey, 13, began milking Monday evening, younger daughter Maddie, 12, fed the cats and prepared to join in. Their dad started a pot of coffee and prepared to feed.
“It’s a bittersweet thing,” he said as we concluded the interview as night fell. “The decision was difficult, but we’re all looking forward to what’s next, even if we don’t know what that looks like at the moment. For now, I’m focusing on the auction on Feb. 9, and trusting God has our back.”
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”