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Band of Brothers
It is not every day that seven brothers enter the same line of work, but for Casey van Tol and his siblings, dairying is in their blood.
“Even back in elementary school, I knew this is what I wanted,” Casey says. “I guess we all always knew that one day we’d follow in our dad’s footsteps and have dairies of our own. I’ve just always loved it, as do the rest of them.”
Their father started his own dairy in 1953, 12 years after arriving in the United States from Holland. The brothers all grew up milking cows with their father and as their passion for the industry grew, it led six of the seven brothers to partner together to form new operations.
For 20 years, Casey and his older brother Jake have worked side-by-side on their farm, Van Tol Dairy No. 2 in Orland, Calif. Brothers John and Ted operate Van Tol Dairy just down the road from Casey and Jake, while the two youngest brothers, Tom and Dan, run the family’s original dairy in San Diego, Calif. Gerrit, the oldest brother, has his own organic dairy in La Center, Wash.
“As for the partnerships, it’s just the way they fell,” Casey says. “We all started out working for our dad and then finally decided to get some other operations going. It’s worked out well for all of us.”
And although Casey and his brothers have formed different operations, Casey says they all believe in buying cheap whenever they can and always watch where every bit of their milk check goes. Most of the brothers also attend church together on Sunday and spend holidays with one another.
“It’s nice being in the same business as my brothers because we can bounce ideas off one another,” he says, “We each run our farms in a similar fashion, guided by things our dad taught us.”
Casey and Jake broke ground on their dairy, Van Tol Dairy No. 2, in June 1990, and by January 1991, they were milking 450 cows. Today, the brothers milk nearly 1,300 Holsteins twice a day in the farm’s double-16 parlor. They also grow corn, wheat, barley and oats on the dairy’s 640 acres and another 520 acres of leased land.
The brothers, who both live on the dairy, start each day between 5 and 6 a.m. and rely on each other to get the day’s tasks accomplished. According to Casey, he and Jake meet when it’s necessary to discuss next steps for the dairy, but the two have formed a working relationship that allows them the freedom to work independently as well.
Except for seven milkers, every other job on Van Tol Dairy No. 2 is a family affair as the third generation has also become involved in the business. Casey’s three sons, Tim, 20, Brian, 18, and Chris, 17, work part time on the dairy before and after school, while Jake’s two sons, Jake, 25, and Nathan, 23, work full time. The boys do everything on the farm from feeding cows and rotating the calves to welding and chipping hay. And they do their fair share of milking.
Van Tol Dairy No. 2 is not the only family operation where the next generation has shown an interest in the industry.
“It’s interesting to watch this family,” says Western Area Field Representative John Ball. “The brothers have such a passion, and now their boys are involved too. It’s fun to watch this family’s passion for dairy pass through each generation.”
Deciding to remain on the farm after high school was an easy decision for Jake’s son Nathan. After growing up on the dairy and working beside his father and uncle, Nathan says he always knew he would follow in their footsteps.
Now, Nathan is busy learning everything he can in hopes of one day running the dairy with his brother and cousins.
“Instead of going to college, I wanted to stay on the farm and get hands-on experience from my dad and uncle,” he says. “It’s always been my dream to take over the dairy someday. Ever since I was little, I knew this is what I wanted to do. It’s what my family’s always done; I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
For Casey, working beside his sons and nephews reminds him of the days he spent milking cows with his father.
“Having the kids help out whenever they can is a great feeling,” Casey says. “Of course we’re hoping that they’ll want to take over the dairy one day; they all seem to love it, but we’ll have to see how stuff works out. For now, it’s just interesting to watch them grow. It makes us think about what our own dad taught us.
“And if there’s anything that Jake and I have tried to instill in the boys, it’s to have a good work ethic. To be in this business, you’ve got to be willing to work hard, and you’ve got to be able to make smart decisions. I’m always telling them, ‘Don’t be afraid to get in there and learn something new.’”
As for the future, Casey says he and Jake have discussed expansion possibilities of the operation but are waiting to see how the industry progresses over the next few years before they make a final decision.
“Right now, we’re content, and like my dad used to say, ‘I’m just happy to be working with my family,’” Casey says.