More in common than not

CM-MR-3-CzechVisitors2by Sally Colby

In early 2013, Joy Hess, the herdsman for her family’s JoBo Holstein Farm, decided it would be a good idea to start a Facebook page for the farm. Nearly every evening, Joy posts photos and tidbits of information about the farm, including new calves, planting and harvest, cow management, general dairy farm life and the accomplishments of the youngest family members at shows and sales.

Joy is somewhat surprised that more than 1,000 followers are interested in what happens on the family farm, but not as surprised as when she was contacted by someone in the Czech Republic expressing interest in visiting the farm as part of a farm tour.

“This is all from Facebook,” said Joy as the 38 visitors from the Czech Republic arrived at the farm in a tour bus. “I just can’t believe it.”

The tour guide invited Joy to board the bus to provide background on the farm. Through an interpreter, Joy explained that her parents, John and Bonnie Hess, started the Adams County, PA farm in 1970, after moving from Lancaster. She told the group that JoBo is currently home to 950 milking cows, 60 dry cows and 800 head of replacement stock. Joy also provided the numbers every dairy farmer wants to know: 29,000 herd average, 3.9 fat and 3.2 protein for the registered Holsteins, and 29,500, 4.0 fat for the 40 Brown Swiss.

Joy also explained that her parents provided a means by which the children could return to the farm and raise their families there. Joy, along with her father, brother, sister and brother-in-law, own the farm. Each has a management area in which they specialize. When asked about the role of her father John, Joy replied, “he oversees everything and makes sure that everyone is doing things right.” That brought a chuckle from the visitors, many of whom have generations of farm background.

As the group visited the dairy barns, milking parlor, machine shop, feed storage area and manure handling facilities, it was becoming clear that Czech Republic farmers and their families were interested in the same issues and had similar concerns to those of farmers in the United States. They asked nearly the same questions as any other farmer on a farm tour. They wanted to know about milk prices, bonuses or deductions for variations in fat and somatic cell count and who manages the bookwork. Someone asked about milk prices and contracts — does the farm have a contract for selling milk, what length of time is the contract, who is responsible for hauling milk and how much do they pay for shipping? Since JoBo raises registered stock, visitors were interested in whether the farm was required to report animal sales to the government.

Many were intrigued with the farm’s sand bedding and recycling program, manure storage and regulations about manure management. “We can’t spread if there is any snow on the ground, and this winter there was a lot,” said Joy. “Some of our neighbors just grow crops, and they buy manure from us that we spread in their fields.”

The visitors wanted to know about JoBo’s hired labor — whether it was difficult to find qualified labor, how that labor was distributed on the farm and housing for laborers. Joy told them it was fairly easy to find Hispanic workers willing to do a good job. “We take great pride in the fact that many of our employees have been here for several years,” said Hess, explaining the farm’s Hispanic workforce. “The ones who have been here the longest continue to stay with us. My parents have 16 grandchildren, and a lot of them help on the farm too.”

Tour organizer Barbora Vachkova, who says it takes at least six months to plan such trips, explained the demographics of the group. “These people came from all over the country, and each person represents either a company or a farm,” she said. “They are technologists from a company or farmers themselves.”

As she talked about the trip, Barbora noted that Pennsylvania was selected for the dairy tour because there were plenty of dairy farms and other attractions in a fairly concentrated area. As she was planning the 10-day tour, Barbora was searching for more dairy farms, especially farms with Holsteins. “We found JoBo on Facebook,” she said. “We found it attractive and interesting, so it worked.” Although she usually relies on Internet contacts, universities and other associations to plan United States tours, Barbora says this is the first time she has used Facebook to contact a farm.

Barbora says the group was especially interested in JoBo Holsteins because of the family-oriented organization and succession planning that allows current and future generations to operate the farm. She noted that the several young women in the group came with their parents because they are considering staying on their family’s farms.

Some of the most popular conversations centered around topics that are especially interesting for Czech Republic citizens, such as land availability, prices for rented land, whether additional land was available for purchase and cost per acre for rental or purchase. “Our history was quite difficult,” said Barbora. “Private properties were banned for a long time. After the revolution, which was 20 years ago, private properties started again, so these people (on the tour) are now already working on their farms. That’s why it’s interesting for them to see a long-run family farm.”

Just as it would be difficult to describe an average dairy in the United States, Barbora says that there is no average size dairy in the Czech Republic. “It’s interesting for them to see how this size farm is operated,” she said. “When they talk together, they find out that they share the same problem, but there are different approaches.”

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