When Danielle Burch found herself in a cow-crossed love story, she knew something of the animal’s attraction.
Having grown up on a small Columbiana County farm, she can tell you that singing The Twelve Days of Christmas is the perfect measurement for how long it will take two people to milk a family cow by hand.
But it wasn’t until after she started life with her husband Andy, a nearby dairy farmer, that her commitment became clear.
“I didn’t understand he was already married when I married him,” she laughed. “He loves those cows.”
For Andy, it’s simple: Give all he has to his herd of 95 Holsteins and they’ll do what they do best.
“There’s nothing fancy about it,” he said “It’s just milk. It’s good milk.”
And good milk makes good cheese. Award-winning cheese, in fact.
The milk travels from the farm’s refrigerated tank to Guggisberg Cheese in Holmes County. The family-owned business received a “Best Cheese of the Year” award in 2013 from Culture magazine and boasts numerous industry accolades. It also helps propel Ohio to the top spot in the nation for the production of Swiss cheese.
For Andy, there’s no hidden secret to success. Here, a modern farm is still held together by old-fashioned hard work.
“He wakes up, and he’s bone tired from all the work he did the day before,” Danielle said. “And yet he still wants to go out and do what he’s doing. That’s amazing to me.”
But the farm’s resilience—it has been passed down three generations—does make it a bit of an outlier.
According to federal statistics, most new businesses don’t last 10 years, and most farmers in Ohio also rely on off-farm jobs. Only about 4,000 of the state’s 75,000 farms depend solely on farming for their household income. Add to that, the average Ohio farmer is 56 years old.
Andy, 32, jokes that he can finally retire now that Danielle has started her career as a social studies teacher at the local high school. But it is all too obvious this is where he is glad to spend his time.
His favorite spot on the farm: “Everywhere.”
Pressed to narrow it down, he acknowledges he’s most comfortable in the milking parlor. That’s fortunate because each cow needs to be milked three times a day. Singing The Twelve Days of Christmas is out of the question, Andy assures.
But go down the checklist of what surveys say the Millennial Generation is looking for in a career—meaningful work, a values-based company, a balance with family life and the opportunity to innovate—and perhaps the dairy is the obvious choice.
Danielle appreciates that their 3-year-old son, Doyle, can be at work with dad by walking out the back door. Andy can’t help but think how increasingly popular robotic milking stations could help him improve cow care. And they both see their farm as much more than a paycheck.
“We’re not just out for dollars,” Andy said. “Most everybody you run into cares more about their farm, or the cattle or whatever they’re doing.”
Ultimately, only 7 percent of the state’s farmers are age 34 or younger, according to the most recent agricultural census. For nearly half of them, farming is not their primary occupation.
Securing adequate land to grow crops and raise livestock was cited as the top challenge for young farmers in a survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau earlier this year during its 2014 Young Farmer & Rancher conference. Other concerns included government regulations, availability of labor and urbanization of farmland. About 9 out of 10 considered themselves lifetime farmers, and just as many want to see their children follow in their footsteps.
“You have to be tenacious,” Danielle said. “You have to love what you’re doing.”
The Burches are helping others who share their passion by serving on Ohio Farm Bureau’s Young Agricultural Professionals Advisory Team. The program provides support for up-and-coming farmers as well as food advocates and others working in agriculture.
It is designed to be a melting pot where participants can share ideas and better themselves personally and professionally, according to program coordinator Melinda Witten.
“The one common statement I often hear from YAP members is that they are happy to know they are not the only ones facing certain issues, whether it is getting a farm started or working with several generations on the family farm,” Witten said.
Capital improvements, in particular, can be a challenge, Andy confirms. Those robotic milkers he’s keen on, for example, come with a $250,000 price tag. But he’s guided by a straightforward philosophy: “If you take care of what you have, you’re going to be rewarded.”
The payoff for the Burches comes in the simple pleasures of supporting a family and living close to the land.
“There’s a real blessing in what we have,” Danielle said. “It might be tough, but it’s worth it. It’s worth the fight.”