When I first met Becky Ropp, I was but a wee freshman in college. Becky was a senior, an ag communications major, president of 4-H House, well-liked, well-respected and pretty much everything you'd want in a person you'd look up to.
Over the years, our lives have intersected in various and interesting ways, not the least of which include my marrying a young man from her hometown, whom she'd gone to school with since kindergarten. And somewhere during my college career, I held an internship with Growmark, where I pretty much worked for Becky all summer long. It was great. (Becky is now manager of career development for Growmark.)
It is no surprise that one of my clearest lessons throughout college came not in class but in an incident at 4-H House one evening, involving Becky. I was a freshman, studying for something in the dining room. Becky and two other girls, Mindy and Jane, came through and announced they were going on a drive – roadtrip! – and said I needed to come along. I protested; I had this quiz to study for…or something. Mindy said – and I recall this as clearly as if it were yesterday – "In 10 years, what will you remember? This roadtrip with your friends or this quiz?" And Becky stood right by her, nodding, "Yeah, it's true."
So I went. And they were absolutely right. We drove. We talked. I picked up on a lot. Lesson number one in college: don't let your studies get in the way of learning.
So to recap: Becky knows stuff.
Today, she and her husband, Ken, are parents to Leah, 9. Located just outside Bloomington-Normal, they raise corn, beans and alfalfa and perhaps most importantly, Jersey dairy cows, with Ken's parents, Ray and Carol. And those dairy cows? They paved the way for Ropp Jersey Cheese, born in 2006.
Ken uses milk from the farm and makes a variety of specialty cheeses, right there on the farm. They sell their cheese from a store front, located right on the farm, and in various outlets throughout Central Illinois. In short, they are a vertically integrated, value-added family farm.
"We promote our cheese products as farm-made, all-natural products from our family to yours," Becky says.
Ken uses milk from the farm and makes a variety of specialty cheeses, right there on the farm. They sell their cheese from a store front, located right on the farm, and in various outlets throughout Central Illinois. In short, they are a vertically integrated, value-added family farm. "We promote our cheese products as farm-made, all-natural products from our family to yours," Becky says.
At one point, the Ropps offered farm tours, opening their doors to school groups so they could see the cows, see how the cheese was made and learn about a real family farm.
But a cat scratch changed all that. During a tour, a farm cat scratched a boy. His family sued the Ropps. They had to pay. They lost insurance from that company and had to quit offering school tours.
It comes, then, as little surprise that liability and litigation are number two on their list of concerns. Number one? That's right…regulation!
"Most regulations are rooted with good intentions," Becky explains, "but the implementation and the acceleration of those regulations have exploded to where it’s almost impossible to run your business."
And a farm is a business, no matter the size. Becky acknowledges that the movement to support local farms or family farms or organic farm or whatever is rooted in good intentions.
"They think they are supporting an idea that sounds good, but they have no idea of the reality. Every operation is a business no matter what the size or ownership structure. Every farm is owned and made up of people with families," she adds.
And those farm families need to eat, too. Which means their business needs to be profitable. One of the first rules of sustainability is profitability; the two are not mutually exclusive terms.
The Ropps may be one of the best examples I know of a farm family that's taken what they have and made the most of it. They didn’t expand the herd; they learned to make cheese and add value to what they already have. They even tried to make their farm a center for learning and agricultural education.
"We constantly have city visitors on our farm," Becky says. "We try to convey that this is a real working farm with fresh, all-natural products made on site. We welcome them to join us to see how fine-quality, fresh products are made but to understand that there are precautions you have to take when visiting a working farm with animals."
30 Days of Farm & Families
Day 1: The Webels
Day 2: The Mies Family
Day 3: The Thomases
Day 4: The Stewarts
Day 5: The Weavers
Day 6: The Hawkinsons
Day 7: The Kortes
Day 8: The Walters
Day 9: The Schillings
Day 10: The Martins
Day 11: The Pratts
Day 12: The Bowmans
Day 13: The Pollards
Day 14: The Wachtels
Day 15: The Strodes
Day 16: The Buntings
Day 17: The Andras Family
Day 18: The Liefers
Day 19: The Purvis Family
Day 20: The Jones Family
Day 21: The Smith Family
Day 22: The Buhrows
Day 23: The Elmores
Day 24: The O'Briens
Day 25: Sean Arians
Day 26: The Bremmers
Day 27: The Halpins