Milk Money

Hard work, brain power and savvy risk-taking have made these farmers as contented as their cows

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Brothers Chris and John Laggis, and John's wife JohannaBrothers Chris (left) and John Laggis work with John’s wife, Johanna, to run Laggis Brothers Farm on about 600 acres in East Hardwick. They milk 400 Jerseys and Johanna raises and breeds the heifers.

When they were approached about being the subject of a Business People-Vermont article on their family business, John and Chris Laggis were hesitant. Johanna, John’s wife, had to do some arm-twisting.

John and Chris are partners in the Laggis Brothers Farm on about 600 acres in East Hardwick. The Laggises milk 400 Jerseys and have 275 heifers — more heifers than they need for replacements, so they can sell them or cull them for beef.

Although they share most duties, John generally handles the bookkeeping, does the feeding, deals with the machinery and works with crops; Chris deals more with the cows — “making sure everything’s clicking,” he says, “and taking care of herd health stuff — vaccinations, feeding, all that.” Johanna, who left her full-time job in 2000, raises and breeds the heifers, feeds the calves and manages the herd records.

Chris makes their reticence clear. “We do not like bragging or having a spotlight on ourselves,” he says. “Especially in the Vermont press, we see how negatively people will talk about the dairy industry and how rough it is. It is a difficult business, but a lot of businesses out there are difficult.

“We think it’s a great business, and we don’t have any misgivings about staying in it. The one thing that haunts us is maybe our business skill — we try to learn all the time — but every day, my brother and I ask ourselves, ‘Are we good enough to be here 10 years from now?’”

That question is coupled with what Chris calls the “fundamental rules you have to live by,” the most important of which is getting and keeping a strong equity-to-asset ratio, something he paraphrases from the writings of George Mueller, a New York farmer and author: “You go as fast as you can, whatever you can do legally and ethically, to get to 50 percent equity, and once there, you never let yourself be below 50 percent. You never want to let the bank be in control of your business.

Following this “golden rule,” he says, has allowed them to survive the down cycles in milk prices. “I don’t want to sound conceited, but these lows, we look at them as learning curves when they hit. They make you sharper.”

The most recent low, which began the last quarter of 2005 and “kind of recovered about two months ago,” says Chris, caught a lot of people off guard, because of a simultaneous leap in fuel prices. “We had quite an education ourselves,” he says, “and fortunately, we were in a pretty decent equity situation.”

The other thing they have to remember, he continues, is that “we’re producing a perishable commodity, and when you do that, you’ve got to understand that your bargaining power is diminished, because you’ve got to get rid of the stuff every 48 hours.”

Both brothers say there was never a time they did not want to be farmers. “My mother claims that ever since we could play, we always played with tractors,” says John, “and I never remember doubting that decision.” The surprise is that John and Chris did not grow up on a dairy farm.

Their father had attended the University of Vermont and liked the state. They came here from their home near Boston to visit friends, and in 1966, bought a summer home. In 1973, the family moved here permanently.

Johanna, a Vermont native and daughter of an Episcopal priest, grew up on Mission Farm, a 188-acre, self-sufficient farm in Killington owned by the Episcopal Church of Vermont. “My mom was the original back-to-the-lander, so we had a couple of milk cows, made our own cheese. I always said that’s how I wanted to live my life,” she says.

Ted Foster adn Dan LaggisTed Foster (left) has worked on the farm since he was 12. He was offered a partnership, but turned it down, says Chris. In the cab is Dan Laggis, John and Johanna’s son.

When they were in high school, John and Chris sought out farm jobs. “I worked for a fairly large farm,” says Chris. “At the same time, John started working for a neighbor up the road. It was the quintessential Vermont farm — 30 Jerseys, a guy in his late 50s — and he had a string of just horrible health.” The farmer, Ralph Stewart, was ecstatic. “He said John was the best help he ever had.”

The brothers were trying to figure out how to fix up an old barn on their parents’ property so they could milk cows for themselves. They talked to a couple of contractors, who were not too hot on the idea, says Chris.

Their break came when John mentioned their plans to Stewart. He told John it was the dumbest idea he ever heard, Chris says. “He said, ‘If you want to milk cows, why don’t you buy my cows? I’m getting sick of it anyway.’”

Chris was 17, a senior in high school; John was 15. They bought the herd. “It was a dream come true,” Chris recalls, adding, “He was probably the guy we owe the most to.”

They rented Stewart’s farm, including the machinery, and outgrew it in about two years. They worked a deal with Kenneth Batten, who owned the property on which John and Johanna’s house now sits. “We borrowed the money to build a barn on his land and use his name and his farm as collateral to build the barn,” says Chris. “If we messed up, he was going to get the whole place. If we got the place up and going, we could eventually buy it out. All he wanted was a lifetime lease.”

In about 1990, they leased the farm across the road from the Vermont Land Trust. “The place was not operable,” says Chris, “but we cleaned it up, got it running and then took an option to buy the place. We set a purchase price and said, ‘In five years, if we’re not successful enough to buy it, we’ll walk out and leave it in better condition than we found it.’” They bought it.

The brothers own all their property jointly. John and Johanna and their children, Dan, 12, and Anna, 15, live on one side of the road; Chris, who’s divorced, lives on the other side. Dan and Anna work on the farm as do Chris’ two boys, Andrew, 13, and Hans, 10. His oldest, Hillary, who he says is “15 going on 21,” isn’t interested in farming.

They have continued to pursue opportunities when they can. Although their parents encouraged them, Chris says he knows they were upset that the boys missed out on college. Johanna, on the other hand, has a degree in forestry entomology, and puts it to good use.

She worked for the state forestry department until 1990, when she went to work doing national sales for Concept 2, which makes indoor rowing machines and racing oars. Her goal in 2000 was “to stay home and be a mom and to not work on the farm!” she exclaims. “I made that quite clear to the guys.”

Paul, the Dutch Belt ox eating candy from the palm of Johanna LaggisPaul, a Dutch Belt ox, always comes whenever Johanna Laggis calls to him with gummy candy in her hands. Paul is one of a pair trained by Johanna and John’s son, Dan, who hopes to show them at the Barton Fair this year.

That May, she helped out a bit driving the truck when they were chopping the first cut of hay. “By the end of the month, I was driving the dump truck and hauling seed,” she says.

In October, John went hunting out west and asked her if she would feed the calves. “We used to raise about 20 calves a year, not out of choice, but because they couldn’t keep them alive. He got back from two weeks out West, and I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, but I can do a better job than you can.”

Her degree in biology clicked in, she says. “It makes complete sense. I understand the life cycles of diseases, I can handle problems, do studies, do the data. I’m using all my education, but I never thought I’d do this.”

Her challenge was learning about raising calves. Fortunately, loads of information is available, she says, and consultants. When calves began dying and she didn’t know why, she put together a team and found Sam Leadley, Ph.D., a calf and heifer management specialist and author at Attica Veterinary Associates in New York. She hired him to come for a day, and learned a great deal.

Three years ago, she decided to buy a used computer from a veterinarian to begin keeping her own records. “In the beginning, a guy came to your farm with a computer in a van, and he’d crunch numbers and print them out on blue bar paper. I decided this was crazy, I ought to be doing this for us.” Since getting the computer, the information has helped close the gaps created when information was input only once a month.

The Laggises use every resource at their disposal. A lot of their land is wooded, and in winter, they cut a fair amount of timber, says John. A local sawmill saws the wood, and they use it for any building projects they have, and sell some to help pay the property tax, John adds.

“We are on the current use program, which requires a forest management plan, and it’s followed very closely.”

Asked if they considered themselves pretty self-sufficient, John laughs. “If we were smaller, we’d be a lot closer, but we depend on the Midwest for grain and the Middle East for oil. We do raise our own meat. Johanna always feels funny at the supermarket because she only buys coffee, sugar, toilet paper and beer, because we grow everything else.”

Although the feed comes from the Midwest, it is bought from a local company, Feed Commodities in Vergennes. “Feed is roughly a third of everybody’s milk check,” says John, “but this is a Vermont-owned and -based company.”

Gardner Merriam is nutritionist and sales manager with Feed Commodities International Inc. He has worked with the Laggises for at least 10 years, he says. The Laggises are “really excellent managers all the way from the cows to the money side of it, and the people side, too,” he says. The people side includes the few Hispanic workers on the farm, for whom Feed Commodities provides translators, he says.

“Dairy is just huge as far as the investment, and the percent of the dollar paid to us that revolves around the community, I think, is a lot higher than most other businesses,” John says. He cites Vermont Agency of Agriculture statistics that show that the annual economic impact of just one cow is $14,000.

Neither brother believes for a minute that farming won’t always be around in Vermont. “Farming has done nothing but change in New England and Vermont ever since the Pilgrims,” says John, “and I don’t doubt that it will continue to change, but I’m certain there will always be a form of successful agriculture here. With the populations in Boston and New York City and fuel costs being what they are, there will always be a strong agricultural segment. Maybe 50 years from now, we’ll be growing organic carrots, but there will be farming.” •