Strong partnerships with co-op members and each other keep this couple's farm evolving
Some couples share hobbies and some couples like the same music. But for others, collaboration gets even more fundamental.
“When we started dating, the dealmaker was that we would farm together when we got married,” says Aubrey Bolender. “Agriculture has been part of both our lives since we were young.”
Aubrey and her husband, Adam, are two Farm Credit Mid-America customers with a grain and small-scale beef operation in Southern Ohio. Adam grew up on a farm just down the road. A future in farming was non-negotiable; they knew it would be the best fit for their family.
Still, the Bolenders’ vision for their farm has shifted over the years. The couple’s original operation was a multifaceted approach to establish a stable farm income. “We relied heavily on the income from the grain operation more so than the milk and they complimented each other well for a few years until the markets drastically changed,” says Adam. “We've both always enjoyed working with cattle, so we couldn't imagine the farm without them in some way. It just made more sense to expand our beef cattle numbers when the dairy operation continued to face unpredictable milk prices and inconsistent returns.”
“In 2012, when the price of corn spiked and the price of milk fell, we started having serious conversations about what we needed to do,” says Aubrey. “This is a business, so we obviously needed to see profits. That’s when we cut the dairy herd in half and started building our beef herd.”
Just a few years later, Aubrey and Adam found themselves in the same cycle. “The price of milk dropped,” says Adam, “and our trucking costs went up. At that point, we had more beef cattle than dairy. We decided to expand into beef completely and sold the dairy cows.”
Strong partnerships, strong operations
While the beef markets may be a little steadier than milk prices, there are still ups and downs. After leaning on each other for so long to figure out a way forward, the Bolenders wondered if there was a way to expand their two-person team.
“About five years ago, I read about a co-op in Virginia where farmers created their own niche market,” says Aubrey. She was interested, “but with general farm life and having kids, it became one those on-your-list kind of things.”
In 2016, the United States began importing beef from South America, which in turn meant the price of American-produced beef dropped dramatically. Suddenly, finding a new market went from being something that was just on their list to something that was the highest priority. They approached some farmers in their area and that’s how Buckeye Valley Beef Cooperative was formed.
“We didn’t want to have a huge group of people to start off with,” says Adam, “so we kept it small and found people we knew would be a good fit.”
Those good fits include Nethero Family Farms, run by Lori and Eric Nethero, and Ben Parker and Tricyn Huntsman from Parker Farm Red Angus. The group worked with a consultant at the Ohio Cooperative Development Center through The Ohio State University Extension, who specializes in helping farmers form cooperatives as they navigate complications like developing by-laws and guidelines.
Cooperatives can provide many benefits to family farms, says Adam, including more negotiating power with vendors, the ability to share equipment and responsibilities, and a combined larger volume of product to market.
“The co-op provides us with both diversity and the ability to provide a consistent product in the volume that local vendors need to do business,” says Lori Nethero.
In addition to helping the members be more efficient, the co-op has created a strong foundation of trusted peers and advisors, says Ben Parker. “When one of us has an idea to improve our product, process or sales, we have a network I can trust to do what is best for the whole. We constantly talk about possible markets and whether those relationships are beneficial.”
“We help sort, pick up and haul each other’s cattle from the processor. We even roast s’mores with each other’s kids at our monthly meetings,” says Lori. “We’ve become more than just members; we’ve become family.”
Farming and families have always been linked, but at the end of the day, it’s also about the business. “We feel like the cooperative has gotten us more attention than if it were just Adam and me,” says Aubrey. “It’s easier to reach out to folks in the city. We get a lot of recognition for being a group of small family farms working together as a cooperative — rather than one family farm trying to feed large numbers of cattle. Our customers appreciate that we’re holding on to the small-scale, quality-oriented way of feeding cattle.”
Change is strength
Aubrey and Adam have never shied away from letting their operation evolve, no matter what that change required. To them and many other young farmers, change is just an inevitable part of farming, they say. It all comes back to something fundamental: Simple love for their farm.
“Even with all the difficult decisions and tough times farming can bring, we know we’re doing what we want to do,” says Aubrey. “We’re happy out in the field; we’re happy feeding calves. You can’t beat the feeling you get from watching the seeds you’ve planted produce a crop, or the calves you’ve seen since birth grow into healthy finished steers. It’s the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had.”