E. Budd Gerrits started farming on his own with 12 cows and three heifers bought with a loan from his local banker. A year later, he added 60 acres of land and from there he just kept expanding.
In 2008, Country Aire Farms, now operated by Budd and his two sons, Tom and Mike, will host Wisconsin Farm Technology Days on their 1,800 owned and 1,050 rented acres near Greenleaf in southern Brown County. The dairy herd, which now numbers 1,128, is expected to be another 500 head or so larger by the time of Farm Technology Days, and is milked in a 40-cow carousel parlor.
Budd's story of farming success began in 1965 when he convinced a Greenleaf banker to lend him the money to buy his starter dairy herd. He bought his first land the following year with a unique arrangement with his father. "My wages for the year were, dad planted corn in the fields and I got the money," he says. "In two years I had the 60 acres paid for."
In 1968, Budd and his wife, Ione, bought his dad's 80 cows and the farm machinery and five years later they were able to buy the 160-acre home farm. Year by year, they continued to expand, building a free stall barn and milking parlor in 1974 and enlarging to 125 cows, adding a machine shed in '76 and a beef facility in '77.
"We were also buying land as we went along," Budd points out. By 1982 they had added another free stall barn to double the herd size. In the mid-'80s, as Budd and Ione's sons joined the operation, the herd was increased by another 200 cows, utilizing what had been housing for Holstein steers. Around that time, Ione began working off the farm She's currently the head clerk at Arla Foods Cheese Store.
"In 1994 we talked about more cows," Budd says, "and we decided to sell the cows to the boys. We agreed to split the milk checks and I took over the crops and harvesting." Tom is in charge of the milking herd and Mike handles feeding and heifers. The farm has 16 full time employees plus additional part time workers in the summer. Budd is pleased that a couple of grandsons are helping out.
The two sons have partnership agreements. "I wanted them to handle the checkbook," Budd says. "It's coming time for them to take the whole thing over. That'll be down the road, I guess, in a couple-three years." Budd earlier had established Country Aire Farms as an LLC and recently formed Country Aire Harvesting as a second LLC. Through Country Aire Harvesting Budd does custom harvest work.
In 1998 it was expansion time again - to the current 1,128-cow herd. "Instead of putting more money into the old milking facilities," Budd says, "we started from scratch across the road." They built the carousel milking parlor and a 100- by 700-foot freestall barn. At the same time, they saw milk production jump from 22,000 pounds per cow to 28,300. In 2004, they put up a 700-heifer barn and moved their heifers - 850 of them - to the home farm after a period of using a custom raiser.
They're not done growing. In the past year they added 350 acres of land and are building another 700-cow free stall barn. "I don't know what figure (of cow numbers) we'll settle on – 1,600 to 1,800," Budd says. "We hope we can grow 50% from within. But we will be buying. We're looking already."
Budd also has a wide range of off-farm interests. He says he farms by day and takes part in his activities at night. "Most of my off-farm activities are done in the evening hours," he says, "so there's time during the day to farm. I do work with my guys, from early in the morning to the wee hours." Off the farm, Budd has been a member and president of the Wrightstown School Board; is a member and former president of the Wrightstown Lions Club and has been a Lions zone chairman; served his church in numerous ways, including 22 years as a trustee and 17 as choir director; is chairman of his town zoning board; and is a lead singer with the Green Bay Barbershoppers. He's often called on to sing at weddings and funerals. He's also a Farm Bureau member, crop equipment adviser for John Deere, a former 4-H leader and FFA Alumni member, chairman of the local high school ag advisory group, a past DHIA officer and served on U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl's ag advisory board. It's pretty obvious he doesn't let grass grow under his feet.
Looking back, he says his only regret is that "I didn't buy some of the neighboring land" when it became available. In all, he says, though, "It all sort of went as planned. We tried to keep debt in line. Someone once told me, 'Don't worry about debt; worry about your ability to repay debt.'"
That philosophy worked for him as he expanded the dairy herd and the farm's acreage, all of it planted to grow alfalfa, corn, soybeans and wheat to feed the cattle.
"There's nothing like it when you plant the seed in the spring and watch it sprout and develop into feed for the animals," Budd says. "It's a great thing to see." Though he plans to retire soon from the financial part of the business, "I'll still be out there working," he promises. And he'll be out singing, meeting with the Lions and joining in a variety of civic activities as well.
E. Budd Gerrits, Greenleaf
Location: Brown County
Farming enterprises: Dairy, crops, custom harvesting
Size of farm: 2,850 owned and rented acres
Number of cattle: 1,128 cows, 850 heifers
Years in farming; 38
Family: Two sons, both farming partners, and two daughters, all married; 11 grandchildren.