Agriculture, Farm Operation February 01, 2023
Then and Now: Jer-Lindy Farms
You Can Make Plans
But you better be flexible.
Clean-up from their annual Curd Fest was done, and the team was settling in with some slow-cooked barbecue and cold beverages.
I asked Jerry Jennissen—the patriarch of Jer-Lindy Farms and Redhead Creamery in Stearns County, Minn.—if he could have ever imagined having nearly 1,000 people on his farm in one day, now two years in a row.
His immediate answer was no. Then, his eyes welled up with emotion. The long answer was actually more of a yes.
Getting started. Jerry and Linda Jennissen bought and moved onto what is now Jer-Lindy Farms north of Brooten, Minn., in the early 1980s. It had been a farm for quite some time but needed some upgrades before they could move in with their family of redheaded little girls and herd of registered Holstein cows. For starters, the house needed indoor plumbing.
"At the time, we were just focused on making it on our own," Linda says. "Our goal when we got married in 1979 was to both farm."
Both Jerry and Linda were raised on farms and wanted that life for themselves. When it was obvious the young couple would not be able to join one of their families' farms, they found their own and never looked back.
Starting out in the 1980s was not for the faint of heart. One of the two needed to have an off-farm job from two months after buying the farm almost straight through until the youngest of their four girls was in high school.
Shifting goals. In the mid 2000s, the farm hosted a methane digester research project that brought people in and out on a constant basis, along with many headaches. They had also expanded the herd, built a new freestall barn, and were hiring more consistent and full-time help by then.
"Arturo was our first main employee. He came in the evenings and soon brought his wife and son, too. Suddenly, I had my evenings free. It was great," Linda reflects. She quickly follows up with the fact that she never went to bed before all the cars were gone from the barn each night, just in case.
That's when the shift started. "The farm went from being 'ours,' meaning Linda's and mine with the girls, to being 'ours,' meaning others had a sense of ownership, too," says Jerry, as both pride and angst show in his face.
"In the beginning, Linda and I would talk about the respect we were earning by working so hard to build our dream farm. That was our pep talk to get through the 80s," Jerry says. "But now that our employees respect and feel ownership in what we've built enough to call it 'theirs' is really rewarding. Farming is a gift only a few people have, and the fact we get to give it to others is important, even our responsibility."
That respect and pride did not come overnight. Jerry and Linda have consciously worked hard to develop an environment with an understood hierarchy and clear expectations. Along the way their focus changed from building the farm to supporting people.
More ownership. Jennissens' third daughter, Alise Sjostrom, moved her family back to the farm in 2012 and started a new enterprise—Redhead Creamery, making cheese with their own milk.
"By the time Alise pitched her idea, we were ready for it. We always thought our farmstead could work for agritourism, and we were excited our daughter wanted to come home and continue what we'd started," Jerry says.
A decade later, the creamery has blossomed into a nationally regarded brand with an on-farm shop. They give farm tours every week and host regular events, including the annual Curd Fest. And they are developing more enterprises including a distillery using the creamery's whey byproduct and a cider apple orchard.
Jennissens' open mindset may be their most valuable skill. They started with a plan (that didn't include employees) but have allowed nature to take its course. Opportunities and success have come because they adjust and broaden their perspectives to move forward with every step.
In just four decades they have gone from the goal of "just making it" to wanting "the business to be an ESOP for all the employees," says Jerry, with many more goals rolling through his mind. ‡
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