Current Progressive Cattle digital edition

Yon Family Farms: If you build it, they will come

Progressive Cattleman Editor Cassidy Woolsey Published on 21 July 2017
 Drake, Corbin, Lydia and Kevin Yon; and Sally and Reid Harrison.

Going back to the family farm may be a dream for some, but that doesn’t make it a reality.

When Sally, Drake and Corbin Yon decided to return to their family’s reputable seedstock and row-crop business in Ridge Spring, South Carolina, the legwork had already been done.

Not knowing if all three or even one of their children would come back to the family operation, Kevin and Lydia Yon made the choice years ago to build a business that would support their children if they were ever interested.

But it wasn’t exactly what you would call a free ride.

To give a little background, Kevin and Lydia took the plunge with Yon Family Farms in 1996, shortly after the business owner they were working for chose to end his cattle operation. Jobless, homeless and almost hopeless, these young cattle enthusiasts set out looking for a place they could call their own.

In an unlikely turn of events, and a story in and of itself, Kevin and Lydia stumbled across an opportunity to purchase 100 acres and a run-down home from a local farmer, who financed the purchase himself.

Yon Family Farms Angus

With a growing Angus herd they established while at their previous job, they started their new adventure in what some would call “South Carolina’s best-kept secret” – Ridge Spring.

It wasn’t long before others in their small community noticed what they were doing and approached them with opportunities – one being the chance to manage a commercial cow herd, which allowed them to expand their purebred herd by putting embryos in those cows.

Lydia says, “After a while, the business really started to grow, and it got to the point where we said, ‘Well, we can either do this on a big scale and hire outside help, or we can keep it contained where it is – just our family supplying the labor source.’” You can guess what they chose.

With their young family and their future in mind, they pursued the route of expansion. They decided hiring outside help would allow them to be more involved in the industry and with their family, even if their kids never decided to come back.

The Yons pride themselves on being grass farmers and have bred cattle that are suited for their environment.

“We wanted the base to be there,” Kevin says. “If any one of our three children wanted to, they could come back – at least the base would be there, and we could expand from there. We didn’t want to turn anyone away. This way, we had something to offer them.”

Interestingly enough, all three of the Yon children decided to come back to the family operation – with the youngest returning last year. As planned, the base is there and is set up to provide for the next generation.

Today, the Yons have grown to 1,000 head of registered broodcows and 400 commercial cows, with a spring and fall production sale held each year. They sell around 400 bulls and 200 females, and retain ownership on their calves from their commercial herd.

They also manage more than 3,000 acres of pasture, corn, hay, small grains and their newly added pecan business.

Reid Harrison joined the Yon family in May, and he is what they call a “walking cattle encyclopedia.”

Q. What are two pieces of advice you would give parents who may have children wanting to come back to the family operation?

Lydia: Encourage them to get experience. One of the rules we set for our kids was if they wanted to come back, they had to bring something to the table – that meant they had to leave for a minimum of four years after they finished high school. They could count college, but they couldn’t come back here for the summer and work.

Kevin: Don’t treat them like a hired hand. Usually it’s the ol’ daddy who messes things up; he doesn’t want to lose control or listen to new ideas. I think it’s important they get responsibility, and we all make mistakes, and we learn from those.

Q. Looking back, what were some things you did early on, maybe without even knowing it, that helped your kids prepare for a management role?

Kevin: Growing up, they had to work, and we always paid them. The farm paid them an hourly wage or a salary wage, however they wanted to do it. But when it came time to buy their vehicles or the things they wanted, they always bought them with their own money. They also learned to think on their feet and were given responsibility early on.

Lydia: When they were young, we went through the Farm Service Agency; they have a youth loan program, and they had to buy their own show lambs, and they bought two heifers when they got older. It was a limited program, but it taught them about borrowing money, which is really important even at a young age.

It turned into small herds of cattle they owned, so when it came time for them to go to college, they used their cattle money and scholarships to pay their own way.

Kevin: And when they had their own herd, it wasn’t like they got to “freeload.” If they sold a bull in the sale, they would only get 25 percent of it. The other 75 percent went to the cost of feeding and breeding them.

Q. Since their return, what has changed for the betterment of the operation?

Kevin: We have a staff meeting every morning. This is how we as a team divide up what we are going to do for the day. That way others know what everybody is doing, even though they might not be doing it. It can be a bit laborious at times, and it can take up some man-hours, but we think it’s worth it.

We have also discouraged individual ownership of cattle. We’re all back as one family and one big herd of cattle. We feel it’s important we all work together on one herd.

Q. If you could go back and raise your kids knowing what you know now, would you do anything different?

Kevin: Looking back, it probably would have been better, even after college, to have them go get a job for two years. Selfishly, we wanted the help back, and we didn’t want to risk them going somewhere and doing really well or marrying someone, and then you never get them back.

So we hedged our bets there and said four years rather than six. If we knew they would have come back after six years, we would have asked that.

Q. What things are you doing now to improve how you work together and treat each other as a family?

Lydia: We have already started succession planning. The kids said, ‘We don’t want to be morbid, but what if you guys die in a plane crash?’ Those are really the conversations you need to have but don’t want to have. We have met with an estate planner and an attorney. It works in phases; we are done with phase one out of three.

Kevin: We also have family meetings as needed. That’s usually if we are making a big decision, like the pecan business. We have a son-in-law who is a very big part of our operation and a daughter-in-law who is involved in our new pecan business.

We want to include spouses as well, and while they may not have a vote, we want them to be aware so they don’t have to hear it from their spouse. They can sit at the table and ask questions and be a part of it. Each child has a collective vote per couple.

Although the Yons are only in the middle of this transition, others can find value in knowing what has and hasn’t worked for them. And according to the second generation, these tips may not be perfect, but it has allowed their dreams to become a reality.  end mark

Click here to read about the second-generation perspective.

PHOTO 1: From left to right: Drake, Corbin, Lydia and Kevin Yon; and Sally and Reid Harrison.

PHOTO 2: Yon Family Farms Angus

PHOTO 3: The Yons pride themselves on being grass farmers and have bred cattle that are suited for their environment. 

PHOTO 4: Reid Harrison joined the Yon family in May, and he is what they call a “walking cattle encyclopedia.” Photos by Cassidy Woolsey.

Cassidy Woolsey
  • Cassidy Woolsey

  • Editor
  • Progressive Forage
  • Email Cassidy Woolsey