Progressive Farmer — Mid-February 2015
A New Path
Becky Mills

Hard work and a little luck helped the Yons find a way to live out their dreams

Kevin and Lydia Yon will never forget October 1995. On one day that month, the owner of Congaree Farms called the young couple into his office and told them the cattle needed to be gone in six months—and so did they. It was not a good day.

The couple had built the Angus operation at this Columbia, S.C., farm into a thriving, performance-based herd. Now, it was all about to be gone.

“It was a huge surprise,” Lydia says. “We were devastated.”

Managing the herd at Congaree was the beginning of a dream the two had begun talking about while they were still students at Clemson University (CU). One day, they hoped to have their own farm with their own herd. It was a dream they both had nurtured since childhood.

Lydia grew up on a commercial cattle farm and had showed heifers and steers from the time she was 9 years old. Kevin’s parents didn’t farm, so he had to look back a generation and to nonfamily members to get experience. At 13, he started farming, growing soybeans and small grains, on 30 acres of his grandmother’s farm. He traded labor for the use of a neighbor’s equipment. When he was a sophomore in high school, he bought a 30-cow commercial herd from his great-uncle’s estate, financed by his great-aunt. In college, he worked at the CU beef unit while getting his animal science degree.

All of that experience meant the Yons both knew what it took To be successful in the cattle business. And both of the 27-year-olds knew when they had that sit-down with the owner, telling them Congaree was done, that it just wasn’t the time to start something on their own. They had saved every penny possible while working there, but they had no land, no cattle and three children to support—Sally, 5, Drake, 3, and Corbin, 1.

FATE STEPS IN. As Christmas approached one foggy Sunday afternoon, Kevin asked Lydia if she and the children wanted to take a ride to the tiny community of Ridge Spring, S.C., where he had delivered bulls to Congaree customers. The antique Christmas lights were up, and it looked like a postcard, Lydia recalls. She says the quaint little ag town is one of the best-kept secrets in South Carolina. The drive was a wonderful distraction from the worry and sadness they’d been dealing with since October.

As they drove around, Drake announced he had to go to the bathroom. So they made an unplanned stop at Ridge Spring’s convenience store, where they saw one of their Congaree bull customers. It was then that fate stepped into the young couple’s path.

“He asked what we were doing here, and I told him we were just riding around,” Kevin recalls. “He told us he knew we were happy where we were, but if we ever got ready to move, to let him know. He said we would fit in good in Ridge Spring.”

Kevin told him they were leaving Congaree, and that night, the farmer called and offered to sell them 100 acres, financing it himself.

Soon, the Yons found themselves in possession of a former peach orchard and a couple of permanent pastures. Most of the land wasn’t fenced, but there was a dilapidated tenant house on the property. They worked on the house weekends. During the week, they helped get the Congaree cattle sold off.

STARTING SMALL. When half of the 200-head cow herd sold, the Yons received some equity (something they had agreed to in lieu of a part of their salary), which, along with their savings, allowed them to buy the other 100 head. They were on their way. In February 1997, they held their first bull sale, offering 14 head in a silent auction. The average sale price came in at $2,518 per head.

With bills to pay and a 100-head herd to feed, the Yons applied for a beginning farmer loan from the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA). This helped them with living and operating expenses. Kevin and Lydia, always looking for a way to keep expenses low, swapped their labor in haymaking and cattle chores with neighbors for the use of equipment. While the young couple built their operation, their new neighbors watched.

“After they saw how we looked after things, they were and are comfortable leasing us their places as they get ready to slow down or retire,” Kevin says. “They ask us to manage their cows, or they sell them to us with owner financing.”

The Yons’ operation started small, but it has grown steadily based on relationships and community. Today, the family markets about 400 bulls each year to commercial cattlemen all across the Southeast.

Their bull sales take place at the farm twice a year, in November and February. People can bid online via a satellite connection if they can’t be there in person. They also market 150 to 200 females at those same sales. In addition, they retain ownership on two loads of steers from their commercial herd.

The cattle run on 3,000 acres of pasture, a combination of leased and owned ground. The Yons now have support from eight full-time employees and two part-time student workers.

Their goal is to continue to expand, as needed, so their children can work for the operation if they choose. Drake, now 22, is a full-time member of Yon Family Farms and has financed his first piece of land. Sally, 24, is finishing a master’s degree in ag communications at Oklahoma State University and says she is still undecided about whether she wants to work on the farm. Corbin, 20, plans to join the family business when he graduates from Clemson in two years.

Recalling that difficult month of October 1995, Kevin says, “At the time, we didn’t realize it, but it was the best thing that could have happened to us.”

Beating the Odds:

While Kevin and Lydia Yon were short on capital, land and cattle, they built a purebred cattle operation from the ground up. American Angus Association regional manager David Gazda says the average life span of an Angus operation is only seven years. So how did the Yons beat the odds?

EXPERIENCE AS TEACHER. Travis Jordan, loan officer for Alabama Ag Credit, says the first question he asks loan applicants is what kind of experience they have farming. While managing Congaree Farms, Kevin says they learned to balance the books, and they had to show a profit.

ALTERNATIVE FINANCING. Owner financing and leases, both with cattle and land, were a major part of the reason the Yons were able to build an operation. Jordan agrees, adding the biggest hump for young people is usually collateral. If the owner will finance even a portion of the purchase, it may be a good way to go, he says. He adds the Farm Service Agency (FSA) has a good beginning farmer loan program with flexible payment structures and loan rates.

VIRTUE COUNTS. The Yons were patient and had a business plan to build their operation gradually. The couple and their three children lived in the tiny, three-bedroom, one-bath tenant house that came with their first piece of land until 2011. While they will borrow money, they didn’t and don’t add new facilities or equipment until they are able to see a reasonably fast return on the investment.

WILLINGNESS TO WORK. “When young folks come see me to apply for a loan, I want to get a sense of a strong work ethic,” Jordan says. That was established early with the Yons.

“When I was little, I thought the cattle work was fun,” Lydia says. “But those rows of butter beans were 2 miles long.” Like Kevin, she hasn’t been without a job since childhood. The younger Yons work, as well. They’ve paid their way through college and have a work ethic that started with laying hen projects when they were still toddlers. “Our children have accused us of being slave drivers,” Lydia says, “but as they get older, I think they appreciate their strong work ethic.”

RELY ON HELP AND EXPERTISE. The Yons have found they get optimum results by leaving some tasks, such as embryo transfers and ultrasounds, to the specialists.

“We’ve also got cheerleaders and supporters and advisers,” Lydia notes. Kevin’s parents moved to Ridge Spring to babysit so Kevin and Lydia could concentrate on building fences, tending cows and baling hay.

Saluda County Extension agent Phil Perry, now retired, rode in the semi hauling their cows to the new operation. He climbed aboard, not just for the first trip but for all three.

When 500 acres of farmland, complete with a center-pivot irrigation system, was offered for sale across from the Yons’ headquarters, they knew they couldn’t afford it. A group of townspeople formed an LLC and bought the land, which the Yons use under a lease/purchase agreement.

“One of the reasons they succeeded is because they have a community that believes in them and wants them to succeed as much as they want to succeed,” Gazda says

INTEGRITY MATTERS. The Yons believe in keeping their word.

“That’s what helped us get started. Hard work, not giving up and being fair and ethical,” Lydia says. “When the product you sell is a living, breathing animal, things are going to go wrong. We try to live by the golden rule. We not only have a bull-selling business, we have a customer-service department.”

LOVE WHAT YOU DO. “You have to have a product you believe in,” Lydia says. “We knew Angus was the best breed of cattle to do this with. You have to love it, be passionate about it and believe in it. Because there are easier ways to make a living.”

For More Information:

To learn about Yon Family Farms or find dates for upcoming sales, visit www.yonfamilyfarms.com.

Editor’s Note: Do you know of any cattle operations with unique or interesting pasts that we might feature?

Email victoria.myers@dtn.com and tell us about them.
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