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Producing Excellence

Lee and Pat Kayhart

Addison, VT

Products: Dairy

Size of Operation: 700 head

In Business Since: 1979

Farm Credit Partner: Yankee Farm Credit

Working with Farm Credit Since: 1983

Being a dairy farmer is hard work: cows need to be milked and cared for, fields need to be tended, machinery needs to be repaired. With all that needs to be done in the best of circumstances, it would seem impossible to do it without the use of two arms. But when dairyman Lee Karhart lost both his arms in a farming accident 30 years ago, there was no question in his mind about leaving his farm: “I never considered not farming. I loved what I was doing, and I was a young man with lots of dreams and desires yet,” says Lee.

With his wife, Pat, Lee started his own operation in Addison,Vermont after working with his father and brothers for 10 years in Waltham Vermont after moving from New Jersey. Although his parents hoped all four of their sons would work together to take over this family farm, Lee and Pat had other ideas and set out on their own. “Working side-by-side with Pat and being business people in charge of our own destiny was the best decision we ever made,” says Lee. “I love the challenges – the animals, the people, the problem solving.”

After the accident that took his arms, Lee had to change how he approached these challenges. “It was time to farm more with my head than my body,” he says. After a 3-month hospital recuperation, with his farm being managed by a good friend, Lee returned with a new approach: he didn’t work any less, but for the hands-on work, he modified equipment so he could continue operating it and relied on hired help when needed. “I had to be a better manager and a better farmer than anyone,” Lee says, “and we had to lower our cost of production so we were able to make a profit.”

This turned out to be a good move because supporting the paid labor required him to grow his operation, from the 80 milk cows he started with to 700 head today. That positioned the farm well to be taken over by his two sons, who he and Pat had not anticipated wanting to farm. “When we bought the farm, we had no intentions of starting any kind of family farm,” says Lee. Then in 1992 his elder son, Steve, asked if there was a place for him on the farm, and later son Tim joined them as well. Already looking ahead and planning for retirement, Lee and Pat worked with a Farm Credit consultant to create and implement a long-term succession plan. “It was a 15 year process of slowly giving up responsibilities and reducing debt so we could afford to do the generational transfer and still have enough capital for us to retire, and for our sons not to be overburdened with debt,” says Lee.

That transfer happened three years ago, and since then, Lee has taken on challenges that would daunt most people: skydiving, for one; a coast-to-coast bicycle trip with Pat another. And when he’s back in Vermont, he continues to help his sons, operating equipment or running errands.

“At this point in my life, I hope to be an example to people,” says Lee. “You can have obstacles in life, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still have a good life and live your dreams.”

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