Puzzle pieces fit together for Thompson expansion
One farm family leaving Winona County meant opportunity for another
A message on a white board greets people to the farm site the Thompson family recently purchased April 8. It is a neighboring farm to their original farm site near Lewiston, Minnesota. PHOTO BY KRISTA KUZMA
LEWISTON, Minn. – More pieces of the Thompson Family Farm puzzle have fit in place.
“I’m very optimistic for the future,” Cliff Thompson said. “It’s really awesome to see and know that Thompson Family Dairy is not dying. People say in dairying you’re either growing or dying. We’re growing. This piece of the puzzle fell in place.”
The Thompsons – Cliff and his wife, Cindy, along with their son and daughter-in-law, Mitch and Hilary – bought a neighboring dairy farm April 8, expanding their dairy to milking 800 cows on two farm sites near Lewiston; however, the acquisition came at the loss of neighboring dairy farmers and friends, Parker and Katherine Byington, moving out of state.
“They were the best neighbors you could ask for,” Mitch said. “It’s a double-edged sword because I really hate to see great neighbors leave, but it’s a good opportunity for us.”
Likewise, the Byingtons enjoyed having the Thompsons as their neighbors before they moved West with over 200 of their cows to pursue buying a larger dairy farm closer to family.
“We have enjoyed doing business with the Thompsons from the moment we arrived to Lewiston,” said Parker Byington about his family who moved to the area from Washington in 2015. “They were extremely good to us not only in a business way but in a neighbor way. They took care of us.”
Expansion has been on the Thompsons’ minds since Mitch started his dairy farming career on the family farm after graduating from high school in 2004. Their original dairy site sits in a valley without much room to add on to buildings or build new ones.
“We’ve always talked about having more cows,” Mitch said. “But we had to figure out how do we get more and how can we feasibly afford to do it with needing to build a different facility somewhere else to house more cows and more land to do it.”
So, when the Byingtons approached the Thompsons in December 2020 about buying their dairy, it made the pieces of the Thompsons’ dairy expansion puzzle fall into place.
“At first we asked if we could do it or should we do it,” Mitch said
But it did not take long for the family to be on board.
“It was almost like how do you not do it,” Cliff said. “You wouldn’t want to drive by the rest of your life and say we should have bought it.”
“When this opportunity came up, it answered our land question, our permitting question, our cow question. Everything was answered in purchasing this,” he said. “We could expand with a signature and just take over.”
The friends and neighbors worked together from December until April 8 to make the transition seamless.
The location of the Thompsons’ new dairy made it a great addition to their farm.
“You can see my house from the end of the freestall barn,” Mitch said. “And I drove by it every day (before we bought it) to get to our other dairy.”
The farm sits in between the family’s two other farm sites. One is where they raise heifers where Mitch and Hilary live. The other, where Cliff and Cindy live, is home to their original milking site with a freestall barn and double-8 parallel parlor for milking cows. Cows will be freshened and bred at the new dairy and then will move to the original Thompson dairy site once confirmed pregnant and through most of the dry period.
Before the Thompsons bought the dairy, they were already managing the land through their custom business, Thompson Family Harvesting, which they created as another revenue source after Mitch joined the farm.
“Now everything we run is basically one big block,” Mitch said.
The close proximity of the two dairies is partly what would have made expansion difficult if the Byingtons had stayed. They, too, had thoughts of expansion.
“If we would have expanded, it would have put tight pressure in that area for feed and land,” Byington said “Instead of two families trying to eek it out, I think one family will do very well and be successful with the resources in the area.”
Plus, the Byingtons knew the Thompsons would likely continue dairying into future generations.
“The likelihood that one of my kids is going to want to farm is pretty high,” Mitch said about his three children, Dylan, 10, Sophia, 8, and Cullen, 5.
Plus, there are many nieces and nephews who spend a lot of time at the Thompsons’ dairy and may be interested as well.
“Given we weren’t from the area and had other goals, it made sense to bow out and surrender the land and rent in order for one farm to successfully continue,” Byington said.
Perhaps one of the biggest underlying reasons both the Thompsons and Byingtons were holding out on expanding was the 1,500-animal unit cap in Winona County, which has been a topic of heated debate in the area for many years.
“Winona County should take a harder look at what the animal unit cap really means,” Byington said. “The county is part of a national and global dairy market that depends on competition or producing milk at a low cost in order to produce it, and by not allowing the larger farms to grow does not mean that you’re supporting or fostering the survival of the smaller farms.”
While the Byingtons said they received a lot of attention for leaving, they also felt like they had the opportunity to choose another place to continue their dairying dream because they did not have several generations tied to the land.
“The people who are most negatively affected in that (animal unit cap) rule is not us,” Byington said. “It is the multigeneration dairy farms in Winona County that know that land for several generations, would like to continue it and are not able to. Those families are not going to choose to move their farms to another state or county. They will simply sell the cows and be done. That is a loss for those families, tradition, the heritage of dairying, and it’s an even greater loss for Winona County.”
Byington said his family would have looked more closely at a future in Winona County if they would have been able to add more cows to their dairy, which has reached the animal unit cap.
“The silent stories are the dairies that have had to sell out or deny family members from returning to the farm because they’re not able to expand,” Byington said. “Many 300-, 400-cow dairies sold since we’ve been here. It’s an issue Winona County should own. It’s the No. 2 dairy county in the state, and they’re not acting like it or giving the dairies in the county the positive attention they should get.”
While the Byingtons did not get to continue their farming future in the county, the Thompsons are happy to take the opportunity to buy another dairy for the future of their farm.
“It means a lot to be able to expand,” Cliff said. “I get kind of emotional. This is my legacy.”