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Family appreciates what partnership offers

It’s been said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

On the Heritage Hill dairy farm near New Dundee, Ont., breakfast serves another important purpose. It eases tension between family members and business partners.

Mary Ann Doré, her husband, Joe, and her brother, Graham Johnston, eat breakfast every day inside the office attached to their dairy barn. The time together each morning over cereal, oatmeal or toast fosters a successful business relationship and builds strong family ties.

“After our morning milking chores are done, we’ll stop for breakfast…. Everybody is happier on a full stomach,” said Graham.

“You can start planning for the day, the week and talk about different things.”

Graham and Mary Ann grew up on a dairy farm near Brampton, Ont., run by their parents, James and Frances.

They each had an interest in taking over the family farm and both studied agriculture at the University of Guelph. Mary Ann, who studied animal science, realized that the Brampton operation wasn’t large enough to support two siblings.

“I assumed that I would move on to a sales position (in agriculture) or something in research,” said Mary Ann.

But a career in agricultural research stopped being a priority after Mary Ann made a personal discovery.

“I really enjoyed it but I also realized that … my lack of (attention) to detail would make me a terrible researcher.”

Following graduation, Mary Ann took a job as a herdsperson at another dairy farm in Ontario. Her brother was already working with his parents at the farm near Brampton, which has been in the Johnston family since 1842.

Graham planned to continue the Johnston tradition of farming in southern Ontario but urban sprawl was beginning to encircle their land.

Mary Ann remained interested in returning to the family farm so the Johnstons sold their Brampton operation and bought land around New Dundee in 2010. They now have about 550 acres of land, used for silage and crop production.

“We knew if we, both my brother and I, wanted to farm, that we would have to move,” Mary Ann said.

Graham and his wife, Amanda, along with Mary Ann and Joe, had many discussions before they built a dairy barn at their new farm.

James and Frances were also part of the planning because they are partners in the new operation, but they have backed away from the day-to-day operation of the dairy.

They still have cropland at the old farm and split time between Brampton and New Dundee.

On her list of must-haves for the new farm, Mary Ann wanted a larger office at the barn with room for a kitchenette. The decision has been a blessing because it has become the place to build family and business unity.

“You hear plenty of stories of families who can’t work together,” Mary Ann said.

“It (the kitchenette) has been a huge benefit because we can … go over numbers and talk about stuff…. We have these mini-meetings all the time.”

Graham said there are times when an issue isn’t resolved over breakfast but grievances rarely persist.

“If there is something that can’t be agreed on, you have a couple of hours to think things over,” he said.

“Then usually by lunch time everyone has kind of thought it through…. We keep a mentality that everyone has to be willing to make a sacrifice…. We believe in (doing) everything for the good of the farm, not for the individual.”

In addition to the kitchenette, Mary Ann was hoping to have a free-stall dairy herd. The family had a tie-stall barn near Brampton but she wanted to modify their production practices.

“We wanted to make sure we made the move right and made the (right) decisions for future (generations),” she said. “Cow welfare was definitely (priority) number one.”

They don’t have a robotic milking machine with their free-stall system because Mary Ann prefers a herringbone milking parlour.

“I like the routine of milking,” she said. “I like the idea of you milk the cows and it’s done. Whereas the robots are sort of calling you all the time and you never know when you’re done.”

The switch to a free stall system has been a success, but another experiment wasn’t a winner. Heritage Hill Farms was one of the first dairies in Ontario that produced livestock bedding from composted manure.

They had to abandon the system because many cows contracted mastitis during wet periods of the year.

“We found it was a struggle in the early spring,” Mary Ann said. “It was a great theory, (but) we just couldn’t make it work.”

They have since installed dual chamber waterbeds in their stalls. The waterbed is basically a durable mattress with two separate compartments filled with water.

“Each stall has these two pillows that the cows lay down on,” Mary Ann said.

“When they lay down, they’re sort of floating on this … pillow of water.”

New challenges will likely pop up because that’s the nature of life and farming, but Mary Ann is content with her decision to farm in a partnership.

Mary Ann and Joe like raising their four-year-old daughter, Nadine, on the farm.

“What I really enjoy is I can spend my days outside with my husband and my daughter and my family,” Mary Ann said.

“(Nadine) has this close connection with her grandparents and her aunt and uncle and it’s really cool to work together.”

Graham and Amanda know how good they have it now.

For seven years, Amanda commuted to Toronto, where she worked as an X-ray technician.

“The commute … and all the drama that can happen in any workplace …. all that reminds me how great it is that I get along … with my family and my co-workers.”

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