MECHANICSBURG, Ohio — Dairy farming is the primary focus at the Ayars Family Farm in Ohio’s Champaign County. But on any given day, there’s at least a half-dozen other things going on.
John and Bonnie Ayars were married in 1972, and have spent the past 40-plus years milking cows, leasing cows, managing small businesses and teaching college and grade school children about farming.
Today, they milk about 150 head of Guernsey and Brown Swiss cows, and farm about 1,000 acres. Another 300 head of cattle are kept in nearby barns that they lease to another farmer.
A big focus for the family is outreach and education. John and Bonnie both have college degrees in education, and Bonnie is in her 40th year as an educator, now as an Ohio State University dairy program specialist.
Their youngest son, Lucas, 31, has a master’s degree in education from Antioch McGregor near Dayton. He works on the farm full-time and also manages the farm’s ice cream business — which uses milk from the Ayars’ dairy and is sold commercially.
The family built and opened an indoor activity center on the farm about a year ago, which they use for meals, ice cream tasting and general purpose meeting space. The building has a mostly-open interior and serves a broad purpose.
“It’s for people to use,” Bonnie Ayars said, whether it’s for a dairy banquet, farm tours or OSU Buckeye football parties.
She and John got the idea for the activity center after they noticed school children, when touring the farm, were spreading a blanket out in the cows’ boxstall barn for treats. The Ayars decided on something better — a separate building just for snacks and meetings.
Over the years, the Ayars have leased cattle to farmers in 31 states and bought and sold more than 300 herds of cattle. They’ve also operated a pizza shop, beauty shop, car business and several rentals.
“We’ve all been crazy-involved in a variety of different things,” Lucas said.
But as his father puts it, “The cows have always been a primary for us.”
And the cows were a “primary” for John’s parents, Jack and Gladys Ayars, as well. They moved to the farm from Kansas in the early 1930s, and set up one of Ohio’s largest dairy farms at the time — milking 350 cows in a modern parlor, using one of the first four-row dairy barns at the time.
John said his father placed a lot of emphasis on the farm’s appearance — and he and his family spent each summer painting board fence and taking care of the buildings. There is less fence to paint today, but they have kept the buildings in good repair and expanded as needed.
John and Bonnie have two other sons, Eli, 38, and Austin, 32. Austin is a veterinarian in Phoenix, Ariz., and Eli is a fitness trainer.Lucas said the reason he decided to stay with the family farm is because he enjoys the diversity and opportunity.
“I think that there’s a growing level of pride in what we do and wanting to keep up with that pride,” he said. “I also appreciate the ability to grow and develop within agriculture. There’s a vast opportunity in so many different places, whether it be with our dairy itself, our crops, the ice cream or this event center. There’s so much opportunity and potential.”He added, “The real challenge is deciding what to focus on.”
With the ice cream business, the family has enough demand to expand production and sales — but it would require hiring an additional employee. They could also grow the herd, but that carries its own set of opportunities and challenges.
John, 70, and Bonnie, 62, are looking for ways to pass responsibilities onto Lucas. But they want him to make his own decisions about what works and where he wants it to go.
“There is no way in the world that I would suggest that Lucas do what I have done,” John said. “If he wants to, that’s fine, but that’s not important. What’s important is for him to find that avenue, that direction or that path that he feels good about.”
Right now, Lucas begins every day on the farm by 5 a.m. and usually doesn’t leave until evening. The farm has a couple full-time employees, including herdsperson Darlene Haas, but for the most part the Ayars do the work themselves.
In addition to the ice cream side of things, Lucas also helps with the show cattle.The farm has had numerous All-American honorees, national show champions, a World Production leader, and a Reserve Supreme Champion at the World Dairy Expo.
The Ayars’ cattle travel to the Ohio State Fair, the Pennsylvania All-American Dairy Show and the North American International Livestock Exposition.
Whatever direction Lucas decides to go with the farm, he will use his parents’ wisdom along the way. They’re both still active with daily chores, and have instilled many good qualities in him.
“I’m so very thankful that my mother and father are both so educated and so involved and just so relentless,” he said. “Their pursuit to be the best or to be better or to work harder is like no one else I’ve ever been around. Hopefully some of those elements can kind of transfer onto me, too.”
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