Joel Van Ravenswaay: Dairyman

9 November 2010: Joel Van Ravenswaay: Newberry Farms

Rensselaer, Indiana. I arrive at Newberry Farms at 730a on a crisp, clear morning. I pull up to the first building off the main entrance, a small office with a truck scale alongside. Other than a new Ford pickup, the scene is quiet. Out the front door steps a man in sunglasses and a hunting cap. By the manner in which he zeroes in on me, I presume that this is in fact Mr. Ravenswaay and that the dairy probably doesn’t get too many visitors. Or at least the kind with cameras. After a brief greeting, we drive on to the property for a discussion of my photo project. It seems this will need corroboration before any photographs are taken, and I can’t blame him. I’ve been reminded too many times while on location with Dirty Jobs that every agricultural operation or ‘farm’ is, for starters, under the scrutiny of the FDA on one end– while at the other end, the various animal rights groups that monitor ethical infractions is a reality that every farmer has to accept, if not particularly embrace.

We discuss the nobler preoccupations of my intent to photograph a man and his business, to tell a story through images of a skilled tradesman in today’s economic landscape. Sounds good, so we get started.

While the dairy is a 24-hour operation, the day for Joel began at 530a. He meets with his morning crew in the very room we’re talking for a briefing on the previous day’s work, and a review on problem areas that require attention to keep the operation running smoothly. The space is partial office, partial break room, partial dressing room accommodating a PC workstation and printers, a fridge, and boxes of latex gloves and rubber boots. Joel spends much of his day alone here at the computer, running numbers and conducting analysis on the 3,000 head of dairy cows he manages. A database tracks the health and production of each individual cow, and from this data it is decided when an animal should be culled for slaughter.

In Joel’s pickup, we conduct the daily rounds of the farm. As manager of the dairy, this is the time when attention is paid to the general operation of the facility, and to the cows encountered along the way. From things like a faulty hinge on a gate, to the larger-than-normal udder on a passing cow, to the moisture content in the corn silage, notes are made which will eventually be transcribed into the computer back at the barn.

We visit the newborns. A farm of this size yields a half dozen babies per day. After the young find their legs, they are housed in the sun until they can regulate their own body temperature, and are fed an electrolyte supplement to boost their immune system. While Joel is a quiet man, he is also a directed one. Every task he performs, he performs in a matter-of-fact way, the motion of which is informed by efficiency. Behold the difference between nursing a calf and feeding one.

Begun in 2000, the dairy employs 32 full-time workers to milk and manage the cows, and to facilitate the operation of the farm. 2,600 acres provides 60% of the feed needed on-site, and consists of soybean, wheat, corn, and alfalfa. Many of the farm’s employees are hispanic-americans, sharing the Van Ravenswaay’s dairy roots in Barstow, California. Some of them are immigrants from Mexico, and bring with them a life of animal husbandry that Joel values as much as he does his growing command of the Spanish language.

As we complete my tour in the milking room, I ask Joel what challenges he and other dairymen face in this economic time and ahead. “Regulation,” he says. “That’s the one thing you can count on, and it’s not a bad thing. But it certainly makes the job of the dairymen a more difficult one, as our bar is always raised, never lowered.” And what advice would you give a young dairyman? He laughs. “Get a good wife!”

Intrigued and wanting to explore that theme, I invite myself over to Joel’s house. We set up a time in the afternoon, one not to interfere with a ‘meeting’ he has scheduled. He eventually comes clean to reveal a his-and-hers workout session at the gym, a part of the Van Ravenswaay daily regimen designed by his wife. Considering the possible implications, I agree that he shouldn’t miss such an appointment and we resolve to talk later.

Shelayne answers the door with a wide smile and a firm handshake. She is a gracious woman radiating charm and a welcoming attitude. The house is neat, and despite her urging to ‘never mind,’ I take my boots off at the door. After all, I’ve been walking around a dairy farm the better part of the day. Joel is freshly showered, sitting in his reading chair by a large window with a view of the backyard. The morning newspaper is on his lap, no doubt some ten hours after it was delivered: a compromise necessitated by Joel’s early start time.

We chat. Shelayne recalls the commitment they made in the beginning, back when they started their first dairy in Barstow with 500 cows. For the first two years, the new family lived on Shelayne’s income as a schoolteacher, while any income from the dairy was re-invested in the business. What little extra capital this amounted to was just enough to get the business through the troubled economy of the early 90’s. By 2000, when an investment opportunity allowed for the opening of a 3,000 head start-up in Indiana, that discipline had paid off. And it is what today allows Newberry Farms to navigate the tight margins of the current economy.

Joel poses the same question I’d asked earlier, this time time to Shelayne. His phrasing suggests a topic made familiar by previous discussions, with a wry smile for emphasis: “What would advice would you give a young dairyman?”

She rocks back in her seat, considering the question only briefly …. “You’re always going, non-stop, so you better love it before you commit. Wouldn’t you say?”

Joel is nodding. He adds to the sentiment: “You better love it. The whole lifestyle. It’s very demanding, and you can never shut down. Because you’re on 24/7, you better be following your passion.”

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