This is the first in a series of stories about this year’s Master Farm Family award winners.
Tom and Judy McCarty came to Kansas 20 years ago looking for a way to put their experience in dairying to use with room to create opportunity for their four sons. Never in their wildest dreams could they have foreseen where they would be in two decades, they say today.
“It’s just unfolded one thing at a time,” Tom says. “But wow, it’s added up.”
Tom grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania and graduated from Penn State with a degree in Ag Education. Judy’s home was Rochester, N.Y., and she received a teaching degree from Mansfield University. They met while student teaching.
Even though he taught special education for three years, Tom’s dream was to return to the family dairy farm and take over from his dad. In the early 1970s, Tom and Judy purchased the farm from his father and grew the herd from 70 to 150 cows.
It was a busy life, Judy recalls, especially for her as four sons joined the family and she found herself primary transportation provider to sporting events all over northeastern Pennsylvania, along with managing the household and being a full partner in the business.
Room to grow
As the boys grew, they realized their business could not.
“That was all the room there was,” Tom says. “We couldn’t buy more land, and without more land we couldn’t expand. I told the boys they should plan on other careers.”
Their oldest son, Mike, went to Lycoming College and majored in biology. After graduation, he began working in a meat packing plant. Their second son, Clay, majored in criminal justice at Lycoming College and was accepted into law school. The younger boys, Dave and Ken, were still in school and pondering their future.
Like their dad, however, the boys’ hearts were in the dairy business. Clay told his dad he really didn’t want to go to law school. He wanted to run a dairy.
That led to the decision to leave Pennsylvania for the wide-open spaces of western Kansas, where they had room to grow and then some.
They bought a farm near Rexford and, with help from dairy experts at Kansas State University, laid out plans for a modern dairy capable of milking 700 cows. At the time, the operation — 10 times the size of the dairy they started with in Pennsylvania — seemed enormous.
Mike moved with them to Kansas in 1999 and worked with his mom to maintain the financial side of the business. Then, the McCarty family was approached by economic development officials in Bird City about building a second dairy there. In 2008, when that dairy was built, Mike moved to Bird City to run that operation.
The following year, in 2009, the McCartys were recognized as the Kansas Distinguished Dairy of the Year. But it was in 2010 that they made a big decision. They entered into discussions with the Dannon Co. to form an industry-first “cost plus” collaboration, selling all their production to the Dannon plant in Fort Worth, Texas.
POINT OF PRIDE: A digital sign in the McCarty Dairy processing plant at Rexford keeps track of the plant’s safety record and serves as a daily reminder to employees.
Because that facility required evaporated milk, the McCartys made the decision to build a milk processing plant at the Rexford location. In 2011, the family added a third dairy when they took over operation of an existing facility at Scott City and began renovations there. And in 2012, the first shipment from the McCarty Family Farms milk processing plant was sent to Dannon.
A byproduct of the processing plant was that it allowed the water removed from the milk during processing to be returned to the operation, which resulted in a big increase in production with no increase in water use.
Always moving forward
Major changes have been made every year.
In 2013, McCartys were named Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year by the International Dairy Foods Association and Dairy Today magazine. The same year, all McCarty farms earned environmental certification by Validus, and the McCarty’s received the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development Agricultural Leader of the Year.
In 2014, McCarty Dairy won the U.S. Sustainability Award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, and the Kansas farms earned the Validus Certified Responsible Producers achievement. McCarty Dairy received the Vision Award from the Kansas Governor’s Conference on the Future of Water. That was the year that they purchased and renovated a fourth dairy across the border in Beaver City, Neb.
In 2015, the McCarty’s combined farms were employing 165 people, and all four farms had earned the Validus Certified Responsible Producer Certification.
In 2016, plans were draw up for a fifth McCarty Family dairy and the cows averaged a daily milk production of almost 85 pounds.
In 2017, all McCarty farms became non-GMO Project Verified and Validus Worker Care Certified.
In 2018, a fifth dairy began milking in Celina, Ohio. The location was chosen because the Dannon Company has a milk processing plant in Minster, 20 miles from the dairy.
“That operation is state-of-the-art,” Tom says. “It’s just amazing how technology has advanced. It makes our operation at Rexford seem obsolete.”
Keeping it in the family
All four boys are now part of the dairy operation.
Mike continues to operate the dairy in Bird City.
Clay, who graduated with a degree in criminal justice and was accepted to law school, decided to return to the family farm instead and now partners in the management of the Rexford dairy, focusing on heifer development and maintaining the farming operation.
Dave is a Kansas State University graduate in animal science and returned to the dairy industry, running a dairy in southwest Kansas until the McCarty processing plant opened. He returned to Rexford in 2012 and now manages the financials across all five farms. He also handles the purchase of feed commodities.
Ken, who also graduated in animal science at K-State in 2005, is co-manager with Clay at Rexford and oversees the milk processing plant. He is also the leader in the environmental and animal welfare initiatives and was instrumental in implementing the Validus and non-GMO initiatives.
“It’s not that we are anti-GMO,” Tom says. “We went that route because Dannon wanted us to and they are the customer. We’ve been fortunate that Mitch Baalman, who does all of our farming, was willing to cooperate.”
The Validus program, which includes cameras that monitor every phase of the operation on all McCarty dairies, is something that the entire family agreed was worthwhile.
“We care deeply about the well-being of our animals and our people,” Judy says. “We want to know that everything possible is being done to keep them safe and comfortable.”
McCarty Family Farms prefers to hire workers who have families that bring business to the community and children to the school system. At the operation in Bird City, Mike has started a shift of women working the milk parlor.
“The wives of some of the employees were driving every day to Colby to work, and they came and asked if they could learn to milk,” Judy says. “Mike thought it was a good idea. Now they can work right at the dairy. They have more time with family. He says it’s working out real well.”
Tom and Judy have both stepped back from day-to-day operations but remain involved and available for advice. Judy also serves on the board for the Thomas County Community Foundation, belongs to a local sorority and volunteers as a “Pink Lady” at Citizens Medical Center in Colby one day a week.
“We all have to stick together in western Kansas in order to continue to thrive,” Judy says.
In conjunction with Dannon and their dairy checkoff group, the McCartys created the Yogurt for Youth program to donate yogurt to local schools so that children would have a healthy snack during the school day.
Donations started with the beginning of the program in 2013 and totaled 84,000 servings in the 2017-18 school year.