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Milking a legacy

Mississippi State University graduate finds her life calling in revitalizing a legacy dairy in Alabama by adding a farm-to-table focus.

Pam Caraway

November 28, 2023

4 Min Read
Jessica Vails and parents
Jessica Vails, far right, went west to Mississippi State University for an education, but circled back to Gordo, Ala., to revitalize a family operation, Circle J Dairy, with her parents, Ralph and Robin Junkin, Jr.Pam Caraway

The dairy at Junkins Farm in the Zion Community near Gordo, Ala., closed in 1995. Milk prices were low. Feed prices were high. And the local buyer stopped sending trucks out to pick up milk. 

But this isn’t another story about the little dairy that couldn’t. 

This is a story about the life of a farm, Circle J Dairy, and the baby girl who was born a year or so after the dairy closed. 

“We didn’t think there would ever be dairy cows on this hill ever again,” Robin Junkin said, recalling when her father-in-law sold the dairy. “We didn’t know 27 years ago that the next farmer would be a daughter.” 

The daughter of Robin and Ralph Junkin, Jr., the child who grew up adoring her papa, picking out where on the farm she’d build a house, and debating where she would take her degree from Mississippi State University. Ralph Junkin, Sr., didn’t live to see the day his granddaughter restored his dairy legacy. But his wife, Judy, revels in it. As does Ralph Jr. 

“It’s been great since we started back,” Ralph Jr. said. “You just never know what’s going to happen. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. To get to work with your daughter every day, that’s special.” 

Coming home

Jessical Vails, that daughter, that granddaughter, today’s farm woman, put her dad on notice to be ready to dairy after she graduated from MSU. Between dairies, the Junkins raised commercial beef and chickens. 

Related:Full-fat dairy is back in style

“She told him he needed to get his knees done because she needed him to do this,” Robin recalled. “He listened to her.” 

That was 2018 and she was still Jessica Junkin. She graduated from MSU in May 2019 then married Tyler Vails in May 2021, and broke ground on the dairy in fall 2021. Circle J Dairy opened in 2022. 

In addition to undergoing knee replacement surgery, however, Ralph Jr. also created a milking parlor that’s less likely to wear out those new joints. The dairy parlor is designed for operators to stand during milking. The parlor also carries a bit of the farm’s history: the stanchions are built with parts of the family’s old chicken houses. Ralph Jr. brings more than cheap labor to the operation. He also delivers the generational knowledge of dairy farming. After all, he grew up working the original dairy – a flat barn that milked eight cows at a time and served a 180-head herd. 

Pulling in expertise was a first step for Vails. 

“It was hard for her because she didn’t have a dairy background,” Robin said. “We sold out before she was born.” 

For that reason and all of the economic pressure on dairies, the Junkins moved deliberately before revitalizing their family operation. 

Related:Tips for young farmers taking over the family farm

“We had long talks and lots of prayer,” Robin said. “She proved herself because she came back from school to work here to be able to do this.” 

Ultimately, she said, “we believe in her.” 

Being prepared

And Vails believes in being prepared. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications, the second-generation MSU graduate puts social media to work to elevate Circle J’s visibility. Media reports developed organically following an article in a local newspaper. 

“It was great that people were interested,” Vails said. “But we didn’t go after it. We’re just not that way.” 

The way they are is deliberate, especially in every business step taken. Before the publicity, Vails turned not only to her dad but also to other dairy families who are finding success in providing local product to farm-to-table operations and consumers who prefer farm-fresh products. 

A Neighbors magazine article on an Alabama dairy caught her attention, then farmers in Philadelphia, Miss., shared their experience and expertise. Vails and her parents trekked across the state line to the Beason Family Farm a dozen or so times. 

“We knew they had been tremendously successful, so maybe we could, too,” Vails said “The Beasons were great mentors to us.” 

Related:Dairy farmers generate renewable energy

Fresh milk

With that guidance, Vails, husband Tyler and her parents made the decision to start small with fresh milk processed and sold from the farm and through a contract with local groceries. They sell from the farm store from 2 to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. They deliver to grocery stores, farm stores, and farm-to-table businesses as far away as Tuscaloosa. In recent months, Circle J added runs of chocolate milk to their offerings. Butter and, perhaps, ice cream are on the goal board, or perhaps more aptly, the milk bucket list. 

“Farm-to-table is the only way for us to be sustainable, whether that’s from here or another local business,” Vails said. “Tanker trucks don’t come to the farm anymore.” 

Another question for Vails was whether Pickens County was the right place to raise a family. She and husband Tyler Vails knew they wanted to stay in Gordo. But was the dairy the best decision for their children? 

“I didn’t know what this would be like for a family,” Vails said. “Now I know it’s perfect for a family.” 

The younger generation is growing that family and their business. The Vails are expecting a little girl. “The girls,” the dairy cows, are expanding the herd. And customers are encouraging the family and the business. 

“We’re selling every drop the girls produce,” Robin said. 

About the Author(s)

Pam Caraway

Farm Futures executive editor

Pam Caraway became executive editor of Farm Futures in 2024. She has amassed a career in ag communications, including leadership roles in editorial, marketing and public relations. No stranger to the Farm Progress editorial team, she has served as editor of former publications Florida Farmer and Southern Farmer, and as a senior staff writer at Delta Farm Press.

She started her writing career at Northwest Florida Daily News in Fort Walton Beach. She also worked on agrochemical accounts at agencies Bader Rutter and Rhea + Kaiser.

Caraway says working as an ag communications professional is the closest she can get to farming – and still earn a paycheck. She’s been rewarded for that passion and drive with multiple writing and marketing awards, most notably: master writer from the Agricultural Communicators Network, a Plant Pathology Journalism Award from the American Phytopathological Society, and the Reuben Brigham Award from the Association for Communication Excellence.

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