A Family Affair
Arkansas, like most states, has experienced a dramatic decrease in the number of dairies in recent years. Similar to other farming operations, family dairies have had to look to economies of scale to survive.
According to Peter Vitaliano, chief economist for the National Milk Producers Federation, the number of small family-owned dairies around the United States has been steadily dropping for years. Since 1986, every year that number has dropped by between 5 and around 9 percent.
In Arkansas, from 2006 to 2016, the number of licensed dairies dropped from 130 to 110. However, in the same period, the number of cows increased from 173,000 to 196,000, and the average size farm increased from 1,331 acres to 1,782 acres.
One Arkansas dairy that stands out above the statistics is the Simon Brothers Dairy in Conway, Ark. The 950-acre dairy literally sits on the eastern city limits of the Conway, Ark.
Simon Brothers Dairy is owned and operated by Mike Simon, his wife Mary Joe, and three of their seven sons, Frederic, Matt and Jason. Mike and Mary Joe certainly instilled the need for education in all their children: all seven brothers have college degrees, three of the non-farm brothers have medical degrees (as do two of the sisters-in-law).
Reflecting a well-organized business model, Mike and each one of the sons working on the farm has specific areas they work in. Frederic would be considered the chief financial officer, Matt manages construction projects on the farm, and Matt oversees the crops and doubles with mechanical duties. Mike, of course, is the patriarch that holds it all together, along with Mary Joe, of course.
Simon Brothers Dairy didn’t start out as dairy. During the Great Depression, Mike’s father owned a grocery store in downtown Conway. As locals began to feel the financial pressures of the Depression, some came to Mr. Simon in hopes he would buy their land so they could move west to greener pastures. It was in that time period Mr. Simon began putting the farm together. The farm operated as a beef cattle farm until 1993 when the Simons switched to the dairy business.
“We have seen some challenging times in the dairy business since we entered it 25 years ago,” Frederic said. “We’ve seen many of our neighbors get out of the business. We have been fortunate and blessed that we had hard work, education, and family values instilled in all us by our parents and grandparents.”
The Simons raise all their own feed of corn and silage for the dairy. Oats are also grown as a rotational crop and natural soil nutrient for the corn crops. There are about 200 acres of hay ground on the farm.
The Simons are constantly looking for ways to improve their dairy operation. The Simons currently milk between 170 and 200 Holstein cows and being located in a low lying area, winter and spring rains contributed to extremely muddy pasture and feeding areas. With Matt’s construction savvy, six years ago the Simon’s built a large covered freestall facility themselves.
“Building that free stall livestock feeding barn was one of the best investments we could have made on the farm,” Frederic said. “We saved a lot of money building it ourselves, saved a lot of feed, and it is certainly less stressful on the cows.
The Simons have also begun cross breeding Swedish Red bulls with their Holsteins. This is expected to boost milk quality and help improve longevity of the cows.
The dairy is constantly playing host to various church and civic groups, and foreign exchange students. One recent visit from some Russian farmers provided a telling anecdote.
“At the time of the Russian’s visit, we had a tanker truck loading milk to take to Highland Dairy,” Frederic explained. “They could not understand how the system worked. It was hard for them to comprehend we had a contract for a truck to be here on certain days, at certain times, to pick up a load of milk and deliver it to a specified point. They were amazed. It certainly didn’t work that way in Russia.”
In addition to being named Farm Family of the Year in 2007, Simon Brothers Dairy is a wealth of information and knowledge for various state and local media. The Simons are active in many community and civic activities as evidenced by Frederic’s involvement serving on the Arkansas Milk Stabilization Board, Arkansas Department of Agriculture, past president of the Faulkner County 4-H, and chairperson of St. Joe Parrish Capital Improvement Campaign.
It appears that Simon Brothers Dairy will be in good hands for some time. According to Mike, all 13 grandkids (the fourth generation) have expressed some degree of interest in the farm operation.
“Of course we are emphasizing education first,” Mike said. “That’s the most important. Then we’ll see how things are going on the farm.”