Explain the smell of freshly cut green grass. Can you? Do you ever notice it? Perhaps a description of the aroma escapes you, but you just know it when it's in the air.
Larry Dufek was in his early 30's when he found a greater appreciation for something as simple as the smell of fresh cut grass. "It's so small but you really see things differently when you go through a difficult time." Farming is his life. His humble beginnings of milking 120 cows have grown into a well-oiled, multi-barn operation with about 3,000 cows at two locations in Wisconsin.
"My grandpa farmed the land," says Larry. "I then went into a five-year plan with my dad who also farmed it and then bought it from him. A lot of hard work." He's been working with Land O'Lakes since the early 1990's and has been a member-owner for more than 10 years.
Running a business let alone two can have its ups and downs. Milk prices fluctuate, foreign and domestic ag markets can change and mother nature, despite the best predictions, can turn even a good year in to a questionable one. Then there are dangers of working on a farm. It’s something you can calculate and manage but never fully eliminate. "Nothing was different about that day when we started work. It happened quickly and on that day, I feel like I instantly matured 20 years in appreciating where I am at after that."
2001; A tough year
The seasons were in the midst of change. At the start of a September day in 2001, Larry Dufek had no idea that his life would take a dramatic turn later that afternoon while doing work on his farm.
A tug, followed by intense pain and even shock, left Larry asking himself what had happened? Suddenly he noticed his pant leg had become tangled with the drive wheel inside of a silo he was leveling off. Larry was rushed to the hospital where doctors determined his leg injury bad enough that it had to be amputated below the knee.
"It was tough for sure," Larry recalls before quickly shifting to the analogy that perfectly sums up his outlook on life. "Think about a car. You must keep looking through the windshield because it’s big and it’s what's ahead of you. The rearview mirror is the past and so small."
A blessing in disguise. It’s a phrase Larry uses when talking about his accident. How could that be? Before, he was only worried about his business. Working 20 hours a day and making sure the money was coming in. Family, community and his kids would now be his priority. He knew there was no way his personal comeback would happen alone.
His friends stepped up, family pitched in and his employees came through. After months of rehab, the farm work for Larry resumed. "It was never a question of 'if,' it was always 'when' I was coming back because farming is my life."
Sitting still and watching others do the work while he learned how to walk again with his prosthetic, Larry admits, was one of his biggest challenges. He likes to move, be involved and takes a hands-on approach in his operation. With his injury came the transition from being the farmer to a full-time business manager. "It was not easy to watch others take over what I had been doing. My employees really stepped up, my wife Patty was a big help.”
Since the accident he's also been determined to continually grow his operation through improved sustainability, efficiency and productivity, which has led to a more collaborative relationship with his co-op, Land O'Lakes.
[A methane digester]
A partner in Land O'Lakes through ups & downs
Larry Dufek will be the first one to tell you what a challenge farming can be. In addition to having his wife Patty and employees taking a more active role on the farm, he says he's found new ways to partner with Land O'Lakes.
"They have helped me plan and survive through the lows." His more than 30 years of running the operation has seen those lows in dairy prices, a fluctuating market and an industry sometimes at the mercy of politics. "Anyone can ride high on the wave, but Land O’Lakes has really helped with things like my financing structure. They've helped to reduce fuel and input costs with their programs, which has all helped me and my operation thrive."
Larry’s planning began long before his accident, back to when he first bought a stake in the farm in the early 1990s. "Land O'Lakes had a program back then that helped me with financials, balance sheets and laying out a plan on where I wanted to be in the future. It helped me focus on the business instead of just the labor aspect of farming." Today Land O’Lakes still offers a similar program, Dairy Enterprise Services (DairyES) offering, that helps members discover what’s next for their business.
Larry has also taken steps over the years to save money and safeguard natural resources. For instance, Larry operates a methane digester and bacterial scrubber, which allow him to convert manure into energy and produce electricity on his farm. That cost savings, in part, helped Larry purchase new energy-saving LED lighting for each of his roughly 6,000 square foot barns, taking advantage of a program offered through Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN that provides discounts on low-maintenance LED lighting systems for Land O’Lakes members. "It is unbelievable the cost savings we're seeing,” Dufek, says, adding that the lighting transition has reduced his energy usage by about 30-40 percent.
"You know, we're all in this together. There's no secret sauce to the business. It's persistence, hard work and staying positive about whatever comes your way." Larry’s love of farming has not wavered through the years. The grass doesn’t cut itself. Its another task in the long list of chores to get done on the farm. However, its perspective that is more powerful than any project or challenge that has been thrown his way.