Dairy farm brings, and holds, family together




SUFFIELD, Ohio – Little knees thump, thump, thump across the hardwood kitchen floor.

“Hurry up,” cries 4-year-old Bailey as he pushes a toy tractor to the living room. His younger cousin Cole crawls faster in front of him, pushing his own toy tractor the whole way.

The rug by the front door marks the field they just got done “planting.”

Now they’re off to the “lake” – also known as the sofa – to fish and celebrate the end of planting.

Merrymaking. On the same day the two young boys get done in their “fields,” so does their Uncle Kenny. After a marathon corn-planting spree – 1,100 acres in just over a week – Kenny Rufener Jr. finishes just before the rain starts.

As a minicelebration, the entire family, including the two boys who had to be pulled in from the “lake,” went out for lunch – a rare relief from their long hours as dairy farmers in Suffield, Ohio.

Around the table at a small diner specializing in homemade pies sits parents Kenny and Linda Rufener, their children Kenny Jr., Christie, Mike, and daughter-in-law Carol, and their grandchildren, Bailey, Cole and Molly.

Remain standing. Congress Lake Farm is one of the few dairies left in Portage County, and it has lasted, succeeded and expanded only because of family involvement.

“It’s the backbone of our farm,” Linda says, “and what makes it all worth it.”

After working on his grandfather’s farm, Kenny Rufener, now 59, started Congress Lake Farm in 1966. Years later, after a childhood filled with cattle and corn, Rufener’s sons, Mike and Kenny Jr., joined the farm full time.

Rufener started milking in 1979 with 180 cows in a double-10 parlor, but he and his sons now have a milking herd of 465 Holsteins.

After buying 928 acres last year, the family now farms 2,400 acres of corn, beans, alfalfa, wheat and oats.

Lore of the family. It’s not all about acreage and herd size; the family thinks the memories mean just as much.

Life’s little ups and downs checker the past of any farm, but through the years, these are quickly forgotten. But the stories are not.

Certain tales have a way of lasting longer than one might like. For example, when Mike was just 11 or 12 and driving around the manure pit on his three-wheeler. For some reason, one that Mike doesn’t even remember, he ended up driving straight into the manure.

“I looked around the corner and didn’t see him. Then he came up, dripping with manure,” his father laughs.

High regard. It’s not all laughs. There’s a lot of admiration, too.

Rufener’s sons are doing what he taught them and not only enjoying it, but also succeeding.

“[Part of the pride] is because I taught them what they’re doing and let them learn from their mistakes and try new things, even if it wasn’t the way we’d always farmed,” Rufener said.

He’s proud of his son, Kenny Jr., for putting in 14-hour days, day after day, in the field and having their corn in the ground in record time.

He’s proud of his son, Mike, who took over the breeding two years ago, for having such high artificial insemination percentages. In his first group, 81 percent were bred.

“Every family wants their kids to be a part of the farm, but that doesn’t mean they will,” Rufener said.

“But it’s a blessing that ours wanted to be a part of it,” Linda said.

“It’s [an accomplishment] to have grown kids who are happy and productive because of the farm,” Linda continued.

The admiration is a two-way street.

“If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be in the position we are today,” said Rufener’s youngest son, Kenny Jr., 23. “I respect the things my dad does every day and the things he’s done every day in the past.”

Different duties. Having Mike and Kenny Jr. a part of the farm has changed Rufener’s life in other ways, too.

While he used to do everything on the farm, from milking to planting, Rufener now takes on more of a managing role.

“It also means I don’t have to work as hard,” Rufener joked.

Another reason Rufener’s been able to concentrate on management, is because he has dependable labor, much of which is family.

His brother, Jim, has worked at the farm for 30 years, another brother hauls the milk and three nephews and one cousin also work at the farm.

Evolving. Rufener’s new role isn’t the only thing that has changed through the years at Congress Lake Farm.

In recent years, the family has attempted to be more mechanized and less labor intensive. By erring on the side of bigger equipment – for example, two 30-foot discs and a 12-row corn planter – they can get more done in a shorter amount of time.

Just like at many farms, conservation issues are also reasons for changing farm practices. Rufener says he’s doing less tillage and has stopped plowing.

And to keep urban sprawl at bay, the Rufeners try to buy any land near them that is for sale.

As for the future: “You’ve got to be flexible,” Rufener said. “Things change. Times change.”

Yet, tentative plans include increasing the herd by 100 head.

Spreading the news. Another recent change is that Congress Lake Farm, known for hosting field trips, stopped inviting groups to the farm because of biosecurity concerns.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t make an exception and take the farm to the students.

In May, the Rufeners’ grandson Bailey was thrilled because his grandpa took him to preschool on a tractor for show-and-tell and his grandma brought a calf.

Teaching agriculture to students is nothing new to the Rufeners. Kenny and Linda have been dairy 4-H advisers for 21 years, even letting members who don’t have livestock take cows from their farm.

Worth it. Sometimes – when it’s pouring on the already-flooded fields and the outlook for milk prices is just as gloomy – working side-by-side with family makes it worth the worry.

It’s being able to come inside at noon, kick off the dirty boots, plan the day and eat lunch together at the kitchen table as a family.

And it’s little Cole being able to trail his dad, Mike, around the farm for hours at a time – just like Mike and Kenny eagerly did years ago with their father.

“That’s something about farming,” Kenny Jr. said. ” You work long hours and lots of time, but you don’t miss out on family time because they’re all right here.”

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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