Lillie Farm: Adversity won’t keep this farm down

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KINSMAN, Ohio — Rows of soybeans and corn line the pastures where Holsteins used to roam on the Lillie Farm in Kinsman, Ohio. It’s just one sign of how the farm has changed since being established in 1811.

Henry Lillie came from Connecticut to make a life for himself. He established the farm with an original 200 acres. Today, the farm has 132 acres.

Jim Lillie, now the fifth generation to own the farm, still resides on a piece of the farm, but the days of milking are gone.

He decided to sell the 80-head Holstein herd two years ago. Now, he runs a couple of beef cattle for his personal freezer and turned the pastures into soybean and corn fields.

Lifetime desire

Lillie took over the farm from his father, Flick Lillie, in 1967 after he returned home from serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Flick died in 1995, but he left life lessons and stories about the farm with Lillie.

Flick had about 15 cows when Jim was growing up, and the younger Lillie knew from an early age he wanted to be a dairy farmer. Lillie said his dad would go on vacation for two or three weeks and leave him to tend to the cattle.

One year when his parents were on vacation, he thought he couldn’t get caught if he took the tractor to get a soda pop at the drug store in town. Of course his dad knew about the incident when he arrived home.

Even as an adult, the cattle and barn were where Lillie wanted to be.

“I preferred to be with the cows when there was a string of rainy days, than being inside,” Lillie said.

Family life

Lillie married his wife Barbara in 1987 and they raised four daughters — Christi, Jaime, Kim and Tracy — and now have 14 grandchildren. They say they wouldn’t trade the farm life for anything.

“It’s a good, solid life,” said Barbara.

Lillie has walked his daughters down the aisle on the farm, held family picnics and enjoyed the softball games and sleeping out under the stars with the family.

He said another special memory was helping his daughters show their calves at the Trumbull County Fair. He said traveling to the fairgrounds twice a day to tend to the calves and seeing the girls show in 4-H has been a special memory for him.

Not always easy

Lillie said the special times on the farm and learning the right lessons along the way has helped the farm survive through tough times and stay in the same family.

“I learned right away not do go into debt,” Lillie said of his 45 years in dairy farming.

He said by not having a lot of debt, his farming operation could make it through the bad years in dairy farming.

Lillie said farmers have to learn the weather is something you can’t control and there have been many years where it required flexibility.

“When you think you witnessed something in weather, it brings you something else without warning,” Lillie said.

He recalls the blizzard of 1976-77 — the worst weather he has seen.

“It went from sweatshirt weather to a blizzard in a couple of hours time,” Lillie said.

Then, just 11 years later, the farm witnessed one of the worst droughts in the farm history.

The drought in 1988 created a hardship for every farm in the Kinsman area. He said 15 farm neighbors baled hay on what was, and is usually, a swamp but that year the canary grass gave the farms something to feed livestock. He said he also had to purchase hay from Idaho in order to make it through the year because his herd was eating any hay he was able to make before the drought went into full swing.

“That was a bad year,” Lillie said.

However, the weather was not the only adversity the farm has endured.

Barn fire

On June 24, 1980, the barn was destroyed by a fire. And for many dairies, it may have been the end.

Lillie said it was a day he will never forget, not because of the damage, but because of the help friends, family and the neighborhood gave him that day.

An electrical fire destroyed the barn in the afternoon without warning.

Lillie said one reason he was able to keep milking was that none of the cows perished in the blaze. They were safe out in the pasture as the fire trucks pulled up to extinguish the flames.

As the news spread and the quiet road where the farm sits filled with vehicles, it was clear to Lillie that he was not alone in the tragedy.

Lillie described it as probably the longest day of his life. But before he could catch his breath or the flames were even out, he had two offers to borrow a barn.

“I was overcome by everyone’s generosity that day,” Lillie said.

Rebuilding

Lillie was loaned a barn with working milking equipment, and before he knew it, volunteers arrived with trailers to load the cattle to move them. Then the loads of hay started arriving. He said he couldn’t believe how people he didn’t even know were willing to bring him hay so that he could keep milking and keep operating.

Lillie said the period right after the fire was difficult. It meant changes in the cattle routine, different milking equipment and the cattle not producing like they did before the fire. However, he didn’t give up and neither did the cattle.

With a low debt, Lillie was able to get restarted. He built a new barn with new milking equipment and eventually the milk production increased to its pre-fire level.
Thinking of farm changes he’s witnessed, one thing he knows for sure is that the Holstein cattle herd is not what it was when he started in 1967 and neither are the crops he continues to plant today.

“The guys have better genetics now. That is for sure,” Lillie said.

Adaptability

Lillie said adaptability is one reason the farm has lasted in the Lillie family so long, and he feels any farm that is willing to change as needed can succeed through the generations.

Lillie said there are no immediate plans for the future of the farm. He is going to keep the soybean and corn rotation on it and the 60 acres he rents. But his biggest hope is that the farm stays a farm and someone with a love of agriculture like Lillie takes over.

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