Moving, and moving on

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GROVE CITY, Pa. – Fifteen years ago, when John and Judy Ligo were setting themselves up to farm in Mercer County, Pa., they were already thinking how to get out of it.
It wasn’t that they disliked cows, or milking, or planting crops or living in the country.
They just knew, deep inside, dairying wasn’t what they wanted to do forever.
But agriculture was.
* * *
John’s memories are vivid: 1963 side-opener milking stanchions, dim lighting and the dingy parlor’s pit. John’s eyes teared and his throat burned from the ammonia’s pungent stench inside that barn.
It was his prison. He milked beside his father twice a day every day, working “from dark to dark,” finishing every night at 20 minutes ’til 9. On the horizon, all he could see was this life for him. Forever.
His eyes kept burning, and so did the fire inside him.
* * *
Ligo admits he’s always had this urgency burning inside, a go-go-go sense of time’s fleeting. It’s shown in some peculiar ways.
He crisscrossed the United States on a 15,000-mile motorcycle trip in 50 days, and jetted to Italy to study agriculture for a year.
Somehow, on his knees in the European dirt, he realized the depth and importance of agriculture. He came home with a clear and broader picture of the world and a firmer commitment to farming.
But he knew if he was ever going to make a real impact, to get anywhere and have choices in life, he needed something more. College.
He earned a degree in agricultural business management from Penn State. Choosing his major was no struggle.
“Agronomy or animal science knowledge will change over time. Accounting, economics, statistics and management … what I learned would hold.”
* * *
In 1980, he and his father bought out his grandfather and John joined the dairy full-time.
Four years later, John had tired of the way he was living. He vowed to give the arrangement 365 more days or bust.
Not long after, his father fell ill and John found himself plowing, milking and paying the farm’s bills. Something more had to give.
Lightning struck on Day 365, his absolute last chance. The Ligos’ Farm Credit loan officer stopped by to bid farewell. He had accepted a new position elsewhere. Did John know of anyone who might fill the opening?
On Feb. 19, 1985, John Ligo became the county’s newest Farm Credit loan officer.
* * *
John calls his Farm Credit experience “no light bulb flashes, just a bit of osmosis.”
He learned from the good farmers, but watched almost helplessly as others made horrible mistakes. Things he thought couldn’t possibly happen did, and they altered farms and families forever. Even at home: John’s father was diagnosed with cancer.
By August 1986, the elder Ligos had paid off their debt, then turned around and sold their 100 purebred Holsteins.
John felt a weight had been lifted, taking the milking equation out of his life. The family still had the farm. Things could only get better.
* * *
Just before Thanksgiving 1986, the Farm Credit receptionist patched a phone call through to John’s desk. On the other end was Judy Harding, an agricultural leasing agent for Telmark.
She invited John to dinner, hoping to recruit him to take her job so she could relocate and accept another position.
Judy’s scheme didn’t work out as planned. Instead, she married John in October 1987.
* * *
Just months into their marriage, John and Judy got bad news: His father’s cancer was terminal.
In March of 1988, the newlyweds bought the farm with its equipment, inventory and cattle. Their purchase price became his mother’s insurance policy, his father’s nest egg.
It’s the same 410-acre farmstead where John began his agricultural career: part of the farm his grandfather had purchased, he and his father had bought, and now he and Judy were buying it again.
He was determined not to buy that same farm a fourth time. Ever.
This time it would take planning, a real business approach, analysis and management.
They made the minimum down payment, paid for the house in full and borrowed the rest. They followed the mental notes he’d taken as a loan officer.
No refinancing, no missed payments, no half-hearted purchases. He turned the tables in his favor.
“You learn pretty quick that you live and die every day by cash flow. You have to set things up to work for you, not against you,” Ligo said.
* * *
John pulled from his bachelor’s degree and Judy’s childhood on a dairy to get the farm up and running. The newlyweds boarded dairy heifers and grew and sold crops.
“We realized we’d be OK, but not make a lot of money. We were determined to go up a couple levels financially, though,” Ligo said.
They realized the heifers they were raising, fed with the corn and silage they grew, were worth more to them than they were paid.
On April 1, 1989, with 300 credit accounts, an expanded business acumen and his own farm to operate, John resigned from Farm Credit.
The next day, he visited a 300-cow dairy in New York, came home with plenty of ideas, and penciled out plans for his own 200-cow dairy.
* * *
John and Judy can look back on their beginnings as a farm couple with satisfaction.
Judy didn’t want to farm, but John sold her on a 20-year plan. His idea? Pay for the farm in 10 years and bank profits for 10 years. In Year 20, they could re-evaluate and renew or pick up and go. It wasn’t an indefinite commitment to farm ’til death.
Instead, it was an opportunity to work while they were still young and transition into “recreational farming” with plenty of youth and time to enjoy themselves.
The Ligos laugh when they think of parlor and freestall salesmen’s pitches to them when they were getting back into dairying: “Your sons and grandsons will be able to use this equipment!” they’d say.
The Ligos said no thanks to those claims of longevity.
“In 20 years, we wanted to finish milking, put the cows out, slam the door and hope the whole thing falls down,” John Ligo said.
* * *
Today, still shy of the 20-year mark, the Ligos are already re-evaluating. Their unorthodox plan surpassed even their own expectations.
They’ve expanded to 1,100 acres, crop additional rented land and are looking at buying another 1,000 acres of grazing land.
They spend time with a herd of beef cows, plus their hobby herd of prize-winning Scottish Highlands.
As for their dairy farm? The cows have been sold in partnership to a Dutch immigrant and are milked and housed on the same farm where they’ve been for nearly 20 years.
At the end of the partnership agreement with that young man, the Ligos may sell property to him, or offer him a lease on their facilities.
The hard numbers of their plan are enough to raise eyebrows. The couple estimates their initial investment was nearly $250,000 in cows alone; in 15 years, they’ve sold $900,000 in cattle and $6.7 million in milk.
It’s farm management at its profitability high point. Not bad for the couple, both still in their 40s.
Their plan also frees them to do other things. John can play cowboy with his beef cows or ride motorcycles all day. Judy can devote time to her Highlands.
“That’s the beauty of this whole plan. We’re not paralyzed by debt,” Ligo said.
* * *
LiTerra, translated “Land of Ligo,” carries the tagline “for profit and pleasure.”
The farm has brought both tenfold.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel. But farming is no fun if there’s no endgame,” Ligo said.
“We have choices now, and we created them. We’ll be doing this for years to come, unless we get tired or decide to go riding instead, which is all we really want to do anyhow.”
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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