Bob DiCarlo remembers the first time he stepped foot on Fa-Ba Dairy in 2006. He asked owner John Knopf for a job, but for a suburban kid with no prior farm experience, it was a tough sell.
“I didn’t pay much attention to him … but he never left,” Knopf says. “And so I tried to teach him a couple of things along the way and he learned a lot on his own.”
Now, the two are partners in the Canandaigua, N.Y., dairy farm with DiCarlo poised to one day take over.
With many farmers not having a next generation to take over the farm, this is an example of how a nonfamily transition can work to ensure a farm stays viable well into the future.
Knopf is the third generation of his family to farm. He joined his father on the farm in 1980 after attending Michigan State University for just two years.
While his father wasn’t a risk taker, “he just wanted to make his business better,” Knopf says. The farm was a 40-cow dairy for 40 years.
Once Knopf took over, he embarked on a multiyear expansion of the farm. The facilities were upgraded, more land was rented, and the herd numbers increased to 580 cows and 400 heifers.
“I have no regrets at all. Everything has worked splendidly,” he says.
It was only through a school friend that DiCarlo found his love of farming.
“I started working on some farms while in school and I grew to like it a lot,” he says. “They say it can get in your blood and you can’t get away from it. I just found I really liked it and I decided to stick with it.”
He attended SUNY Cobleskill and then transferred to Cornell University for his final two years of college.
DiCarlo worked on several farms along the way, including working part time for Knopf at Fa-Ba. But the chance to join Knopf full time as he was modernizing the dairy was a challenge he couldn’t pass up.
"I really could see that he had a good vision for the future here,” he says. “It was kind of an exciting challenge, when you could see what the future was … see what you were working towards, instead of going somewhere that was large and was already really established.
“I felt like I could really have a part in helping build up the dairy.”
DiCarlo milked cows and did much of the farm’s herd work. As Knopf saw that he was becoming more comfortable with the work, he gave DiCarlo more responsibility.
"I put him in places that he wasn't prepared to succeed at first, but he got through it," Knopf says.
As time went on, DiCarlo expressed interest in becoming a partner in the dairy. Knopf says it was a stroke of good luck given that his own two children have careers outside the farm — one is a college English professor and the other has a nursing degree, although she helps occasionally on the farm.
In 2011, DiCarlo was officially made a partner in the business. They worked with a Farm Credit consultant and other consultants on the financial aspects of the agreement. The land was separated from the operating entity — Knopf and his wife own the land while he and DiCarlo own the operating entity.
Aside from a few cows he had purchased over the years, DiCarlo came into the partnership with little money. While his ownership percentage is small, his portion will gradually increase each year along with his profit share. He also gets a guaranteed payment for his labor.
“At some point in time in the future he’ll get a deal that will make it easy for him to continue on here,” Knopf says. “I’m never going to be looking for full value in some type of a buyout situation. That would make it difficult for him to be successful and my goal for him is to have the opportunity to be successful.”
Farm CreditLETTING GO: John Knopf, the third-generation owner of Fa-Ba Dairy, says that it was a stroke of good luck that Bob DiCarlo showed up one day wanting a job. His children aren’t involved in the dairy business, but with Bob now a partner, he’s happy that the farm will continue after he’s gone.
Having an “outside voice” consulting them was important.
“Somebody from the outside, whoever it may be, sees a lot of types of businesses. Not just dairy, other ag businesses,” DiCarlo says. “They’ve seen a lot of different agreements. They’ve seen things that work well, they’ve seen things that have fallen apart, so they know how to ask the right questions.”
“Having a neutral party is good to get everybody’s viewpoint out on the table,” Knopf says. “From an organizational structure, they bring some expertise in that area that is helpful.”
DiCarlo admits that communication has never been a strong suit of his. But with repetition comes increased confidence.
“I think we work together better now than we probably have before,” he says of his relationship with Knopf. “I think the biggest thing is you’re never really totally comfortable, but you have to be not afraid to try to make a decision sometimes. That was difficult for me at first, just to make a decision whether you are right or wrong.”
“I learned how to get out of his way,” Knopf says. “I gave up things I used to do, which I don’t regret doing that. I’ve done them long enough.”
Learning to let go
Estate planning can be a tough conversation to have. For many farmers the farm is their life, so envisioning someone else taking over, especially a nonfamily member, can be difficult. There are also stresses on the next generation taking over, too.
At 60, Knopf says that he can “still bring it when he can,” but he realizes the toll farming is taking on him physically.
“Bob is the engine that runs the farm,” he says. “The hardest thing on my end of it is you realize we're all just here for a certain amount of time. I can look at any pole on the farm and remember the day we put it in the ground and all that, but I could also look at it and realize it's going to be here after I'm gone, so how important am I really?”
The good thing is that it’s given him more time to pursue other interests on and off the farm.
“He's made good choices, and he's gained in responsibility and respect," he says of DiCarlo. “The results of the dairy are very consistent, so whether I agree with everything or not, it doesn't matter if the dairy is doing well. I try to remember look at the results, occasionally learn how to keep your mouth shut.”
The American Agriculturist website has many resources if you’re in the middle of a farm transition or envision doing something soon.
You can also visit the Land for Good website for resources on transferring the farm to a nonfamily member.