Third-Generation Dairy Farm Started by the Greatest Generation

Published on October 11, 2016

Farming and family often go hand in hand. That’s especially true for one of our customers who operates a multigenerational dairy farm in California. This is his story.

After World War II, when a war-ravaged economy and a severe housing shortage caused a third of the Dutch population to seriously consider emigration, a wave of 80,000 immigrants came to the United States.

Adam and Pietje Van Exel from Holland were two of them.

In 1954, the couple purchased a farm in Lodi, California, that they started with just 30 cows. Six decades later, the operation has several dairy farm locations, 3,000 cows, 3,500 acres of crops and a team of 40 people that includes three generations of Van Exel family members.

“My parents milked the cows by hand,” says Hank Van Exel, the son of Adam and Pietje. “They did all the work themselves. I think they were one of the greatest generations ever.”

Hank credits his father for the farm’s early adoption of many progressive dairy management practices — including self-locking stanchions, artificial breeding and balancing feed rations by group.

A Family Affair

Hank Van Exel was born and raised on the farm, graduated from high school in 1972 and then went on to study dairy science at California Polytechnic State University. During his fourth year at Cal Poly, he returned to his parents’ farm after his father had a heart attack and could no longer operate the dairy business on his own. A year later, learning herd management through trial by fire, he assumed full responsibility for the cattle while his father focused on the crops.

Today, Van Exel oversees the operation along with his wife, Carolyn. The couple’s grown children, Adam, Jennifer and Sarah, along with their spouses and children, also lend a hand, helping with farm operations and chores as well as showing cattle.

Adam and his wife, Lacey, live on the farm with their children, Madison and Atlee. Jennifer and her husband, Brian, operate a milking systems dealership and have two children, Stella and Bryce. And Sarah is active with the Young Farmer Program and writes for dairy publications including Cowsmopolitan.

But running a multigenerational farm can have its challenges.

“Making everything fair and equitable in the business is always the toughest part,” Hank says. “Fair is not always equal. And equal is not always fair. When you’re doing that, you have to evaluate where everyone is at a certain point. You have to make a business plan with your family involved. That’s the hardest thing for all farmers to figure out. If someone gets a good feel for that, let me know.”

Future Outlook

So is Hank focused on having a fourth-generation farm?

“No,” he says. “I want my children to do what is good right now for themselves. I think that’s the most important thing we’ve got going.”

Speaking of when his parents ran the operation, he says, “I think that in that generation, they could do stuff just by working really hard. But I’m not sure you could do that anymore, the way businesses are run today. I think you have to plan a lot more than they used to because the volatility of dairy prices and our business is so much higher than it used to be.”

Modern Technology Lends Efficiency

Hard work is still at the heart of Van Exel Dairy and Farms, but the operation is now equipped with modern technology and smart equipment that allows the family business to get more done in less time and with fewer resources. Cows are milked by sophisticated automatic milking machines three times a day. The farm’s anaerobic digestion system turns manure into renewable energy and reduces the emissions of greenhouse gases. And three Bobcat S750 skid-steer loaders and a Toolcat utility work machine are used to feed calves, rake beds, move and clean pens, and put fresh sand and dirt in pens.

The Van Exel family knows the meaning of hard work and of honoring the generations that came before them. Bobcat Company is proud to serve this hardworking family dairy farm and hope to be their partner for generations to come.

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