Gaf-Fine Farms: Defining Generations of Dairy Success
Truly solid businesses stand the test of time. Gaf-Fine Farms, Inc., near Greenville, Illinois, is no exception. Now in its third generation of family management, the Gaffner family finds that the long-time success of their grain and dairy operation has always required the right combination of professional skill, economics and local community involvement.
“Done right, dairy farming can provide a constant, year-round source of income. The grain business supplements that seasonally,” said Jerry Gaffner, whose grandfather, Carl Gaffner, established the dairy operation in southern Illinois in the 1930s. “We see a lot of synergy between the two, and they provide an incredible quality of life.”
Jerry and his father, C.W., are partners in the 80-cow, purebred Holstein and Jersey dairy and grain operation. C.W. is preparing to retire, which means Jerry alone will oversee both the dairy and grain aspects of the business. The Gaffners farm 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. Jerry and wife Sherri’s children, Jonah, Abby and Hannah, range in age from seven to 11. The children currently help by feeding baby calves. In addition, Gaff-Fine Farms employs a full-time herdsman and a part-time college student.
“I didn’t come back to the farm right out of college. I graduated with a degree in agricultural economics from the University of Illinois in 1988, and went to work for a computer company in St. Louis for five years,” said Jerry. “The experience helped prepare me to return to the farm and operate the family business.”
Jerry’s economics training helps him understand and interpret the benefits the operation has on the local community, as well as the dairy industry’s influence worldwide.
“The farm does have a direct influence …,” he stressed. “We generate half a million dollars in gross sales annually. Our herdsman moved his family to this area and now lives in the community. We purchase locally about 95 percent of the supplies and inputs we use in the dairy and grain businesses.”
That includes feed, which for dairies, often is rich in locally grown soy. U.S. dairies in 2005 consumed 6 percent of all U.S. soy consumed domestically, two times the amount consumed by “other”, non-livestock uses such as biodiesel and human foods. Livestock consumed 58 percent of the entire U.S. corn crop.
The Gaffners are also part of both the Growmark and Prairie Farms cooperatives, which brings economic benefits to the state of Illinois as well. Growmark is a regional cooperative that provides agriculture-related products and services and grain marketing in the Midwest and other areas. Prairie Farms Dairy is the cooperative for the hundreds of Illinois dairy farmers that supply milk to the Prairie Farms business. Jerry also serves as vice president of the Illinois Milk Producers Association.
“We have the opportunity to market dairy cow embryos internationally, and we have had a number of visitors from other countries to our farm and community,” he said. “We believe that also brings invaluable exposure to Greenville and to the state of Illinois.”
Jerry notes that 10 years ago, livestock farming in Illinois had become “out of vogue.” But, he is happy to say that is no longer the case.
“We are seeing an incredible transformation in the state with more livestock operations springing up,” he said. “For us personally, improved economics over the last five years have made it feasible and beneficial to make strides in paying off debt and making capital investments. As long as we continue to supply consumers with ethically produced food at reasonable prices in an environmentally sustainable manner, we have a bright future. We have to continue to be smart about how we operate our livestock businesses.”
While Jerry said it is too early to know whether any of his children will follow in the Gaffner family footsteps as the fourth generation, he believes the livestock industry in Illinois will continue to thrive, bringing benefits to farmers and consumers alike.
“We produce the most nutrient dense product in the marketplace today, and we want to maintain the market for milk in Illinois and around the world,” he said.