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Mideast Area Members of Distinction - Alpine Hills Swiss Farm
For the Colson family, dairying isn’t just what they do, it’s who they are. And with a passion for farming dating back three generations, the family prides itself in finding ways — whether online or on the farm — to educate consumers about milk.
In 2010, Dean Colson and his wife Debbie, along with their daughter, Melissa Lipps, sons Daniel and Matt, and Matt’s wife, Shelley, started hosting farm tours for nearby schools, churches and local residents as a way to connect with consumers.
Last year, the Colsons welcomed more than 2,000 visitors to Alpine Hills Swiss Farm, which sits nestled in 248 acres of rolling hills in Dry Ridge, Ky. The tours, held during the fall and spring, are designed to give guests a positive experience on a real family farm and a firsthand look at modern agriculture.
“Anymore there are just too many people, even those living in rural areas, who are removed from the farm, and with all the misconceptions about dairy already out there, we wanted to find a way to help set the record straight,” Dean says. “As producers, we believe it’s our job to invite the public out to experience what we do to get milk to their table.”
The Colsons’ farm tours began as an expansion of Country Pumpkins, the family’s fall festival. What originally started with pumpkins for sale at the end of the road has become a Grant County destination for families. Country Pumpkins now includes pumpkin picking, hay rides, a corn maze and other activities, and they offer dairy tours to school groups for $6 a person.
“October used to be our down time,” Dean says. “That’s when we had the crops in, but now it’s one of our busiest months.”
The dairy’s spring tours are specifically designed for elementary age children. The Colsons make the tours as hands-on and educational as possible. During the tours, children can bottle feed a calf, see a cow being milked, learn about dairy products, what they feed their cows and more. Melissa created one of the tour’s most popular attractions, Molly Moo, an artificial cow that children can milk by hand.
In the spring, Melissa, a veterinarian, joins the tour on select dates for an attraction called “Dirty Jobs with Dr. Lipps” to give visitors an opportunity to learn what a veterinarian does. Off the farm, she owns Shelby Veterinary Clinic in Shelbyville, Ky., but remains an integral part of the dairy as the farm’s veterinarian. Melissa, her husband, Joe, and 3-year-old son, Caleb, reside in Bagdad, Ky., a little more than an hour drive from the farm.
“I somewhat decided to follow in my dad’s footsteps because he instilled hard work in me,” Melissa says. “I love animals, so vet school was an easy decision. Now, I have the opportunity to combine both those passions and still work beside my family.”
Dean’s father, Joe, started Alpine Hills Swiss Farm in Corinth, Ky., in 1947 with a small herd of Holsteins and Jerseys. But after getting kicked by a Holstein a year later, Joe traveled to Illinois, purchased six Brown Swiss and never looked back.
“I’ve kept the Brown Swiss around because they are so docile and easy to work with, and I suppose I’m partial to them because Dad had them,” Dean says. “Honestly, I’ll milk anything that milks, but there’s just something about a Brown Swiss.”
The passion for Brown Swiss was not only passed down to Dean, who served as president of the Kentucky Brown Swiss Association for 15 years, but also to his children. Melissa currently serves as secretary of the association. Melissa, Matt and Daniel also show Brown Swiss at the Kentucky State Fair in Louisville each August.
Dean farmed alongside his father for 17 years before taking ownership of the Corinth farm 1981. In 1993, Dean and Debbie purchased their current land in Dry Ridge from Debbie’s mother.
“My dad raised beef cows on this land, so for me this has always been my home,” Debbie says. “I was only 16 when my dad passed away, and I think he would be really happy to know that Dean and I are back here working the land that he loved.”
Today, the Colsons milk 70 Brown Swiss twice a day in an eight-unit parlor, grow corn for silage, harvest 90 acres of hay a year, raise beef cows and grow tobacco. In addition to helping Dean with chores and feeding the calves with Shelley, Debbie has spent the last 26 years working at a local bank and currently serves as chief financial officer.
“When people find out I put in a full day at the bank and then come home and work here, they can’t believe it,” Debbie says. “But after working in town, it’s nice to come home without all the hustle and bustle. For me, the work on the farm is relaxing and I love taking care of the calves. It’s probably my favorite part of the day.”
Over the years, the family has remained strong, relying on their faith to get them through their ups and downs. They faced one of their toughest challenges in 1991 after Debbie received the terrifying news that she has Stage 4 breast cancer. After beating the odds, the family rallied again after dismal milk prices and record losses in 2009.
“Life isn’t always easy, but we’ve come through everything together,” Debbie says. “We are a great team. Everything we’ve been through has made us stronger. We each know our roles and know we can count on each other.”
Matt attended college and spent nine years working in sales in Cincinnati, Ohio. He never thought of taking over the farm while growing up, but soon realized dairying was in his blood.
“After awhile I learned life off the farm just wasn’t for me. I knew that Shelley and I were capable of more,” he says. “I grew up seeing the great relationship between my mom and dad and decided that farming was a lifestyle I wanted.”
Dean began training Matt in genetics soon after he returned to the farm. Last year, Matt earned his artificial insemination certification and has since become the farm’s genetic guru. The dairy has gone from using just one company’s semen to various companies to increase both reproduction rate and milk production.
“I think my grandpa passed down the interest in breeding to me,” Matt says. “I grew up looking at the Brown Swiss Bulletin with him. We used to talk about cows and bulls, and why one bull would fit well with our herd over another. My dad, on the other hand, has taught me to be persistent. I’ve learned that he won’t give up until he gets her bred.”
For Shelley though, a city girl from Milford, Ohio, the idea of living on the farm was at first frightening. She anticipated the transition to be unfamiliar, but never life changing.
“When Matt first told me that he wanted to move back, I cried,” she says. “But now, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. The farm has made me a more grateful person, I enjoy each and every day now. Back in the city, I never stopped to enjoy the sunrises and sunsets. There were always too many buildings in the way.”
When Dean and Debbie started the dairy, they always hoped one of their children would take it over, but as the years went by, they started questioning what would happen after Melissa and Matt moved away from the farm and their youngest son, Daniel, graduated from community college with a electrical construction degree.
“For so long we were in the unknown, just not knowing what we’d do about retirement or the farm,” Debbie says. “Matt’s decision to return home was a true blessing.”
With the future of Alpine Hills Swiss Farm confirmed, Dean and Debbie are talking about transitioning the farm to Matt and Shelley within the next five years.
“It’s definitely exciting to know that we are going to be the next generation to run this farm,” Matt says. “My dad has taught us so much over the years; really all the ins and outs about farming. It’s going to be tough to fill his shoes, but I know that Shelley and I are up for the challenge.”