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WLI ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: Ben Butler (Class IX)

Ben Butler

Ben Butler, Class IX, is our second alumni to highlight in the

WLI ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT!


Ben serves as the Vice President of Butler Oaks Farm, Inc., a dairy farm in Lorida, FL.

Ben lives in Lorida, FL with his wife, April and 7-year-old daughter, Hannah.  In addition to being all-around Wedgworthy alumni members, Ben and April Butler serve as the Secretary Couple for the 2017 Young Cooperator Advisory Council for the National Milk Producers Federation.

The Butler family has been dairy farming for more than 80 years. Today, the operation exists in Highlands County, 70 miles south of Orlando and 70 miles from either coast, directly on the Kissimmee River.  Ben’s parents, Robert and Pam, own Butler Oaks Farm.  For the past 12 years, Ben has served as a manager alongside his younger brother Will.  They manage the 1,100 cow milking herd, which is housed in a free-stall management system.  Butler Oaks milks mainly Holstein cows, with a few Brown Swiss and Jersey-Crosses.  Along with raising all replacement heifers on site, they also grow all of our forage needs.  The family also has a beef cow calf operation.

Ben was nice enough to allow me (Valerie McKee, Alumni Coordinator) to interview him on none other than on the first day of National Dairy Month for our second

WLI ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT:


Describe what fuels your passion for what you do as a dairy farmer.  What keeps you motivated and going?

“I grew up on the farm; it’s what I know how to do.  I’m a fourth generation dairy farmer.  My great-grandfather started the business, and I was born and raised right here on the farm.  As a kid I grew up doing chores around the farm, right down to milking cows when that was needed, you know, over summer break and that kind of thing.  I just enjoy the work.  That’s the one thing about dairy farming, there’s always SOMETHING that needs to be done, there’s just varying degrees of when it has to be done.  Any dairy farmer, they do it because they enjoy doing it.  I enjoy working with the cows.  I enjoy working with the people, the people that I work with here on the farm, the employees, and my family as well as the other people associated with the dairy business, whether it be through our marketing cooperative or marketing agency or promotion agency or the people in sales.  When I look around at the dairy industry, at least in south Florida, it’s hard to find any bad apples.  All the dairy farmers we have down here are are good people and they do it because they like doing it, and I like being around people like that.

What fuels the passion?  Everyday there’s something going on at the farm.  When you wake up in the morning you know you got something to go and do.  It’s not like a business where there are times when you just have to go and sit to watch paint dry.  We are always milking cows, we are always feeding cows, breeding cows, always looking after cows.  And, at the end of the day, I believe milk is probably the most perfect food.  I believe in our product and I’m proud of it!  It takes a lot of work to look after the cows and to get a clean, safe product to deliver it to our customers.  It’s satisfying to go into the grocery store and pick up a gallon of milk and know that milk could be ours.  I enjoy the work, I enjoy the cows, and I enjoy the people.”


We know that 97% of U.S. Farms are family-owned, your family farm being one of them.  What do you think it takes to be successful at managing a family farm business?

“Well, I think the most important thing is to like your family. (Laughs) I mean, there are families out there who don’t like each other.  I enjoy getting to work every day with my mom and dad and my brother.  It’s not always easy; there are times where you got to take your “son hat” or your “brother hat” and put on your dairy business hat.  And, you know, we got our share of disagreements.  But, it’s something special to know that at the end of the day you can all sit around a table and eat dinner together…and enjoy a glass of milk!

First, you’ve got to like your family.  I’ve been fortunate to bring April [Ben’s wife] into our family.  April grew up in the city, grew up in Tallahassee.  It’s been neat to see April embrace the farm life, and the little things I take for granted, whether it be a calf being born or milking the cows or an evening of riding the pastures and checking on fence.  Those are things I take for granted, but for April from the city, you know, she just thoroughly enjoyed getting out and doing those types of things.  It’s all new for her.

And with Hannah [Ben’s 7-year-old daughter] coming of age, Hannah can now help push cows in the cow pens or give her a shovel and have her move some dirt or clean a stall out.  With Hannah getting involved in 4-H, it’s neat to see her begin to develop her passion for working with animals and caring for animals.  To get to share these experiences with my wife and now with my own daughter, to share the things that I did growing up, it’s pretty special.”


Tell me about your Wedgworth experience.  Why did you go through the program and what did you get out of it?

“I did not know much about the Wedgworth Leadership Program before I applied.  I knew that Chad Rucks (Class V) had been through the program years ago, John Williams (Class III) had gone through a class as well.  Clay Archey (Class VII) was probably my first real exposure to the program when he was selected for Class VII.  We were in the YF&R Leadership Program together. Clay began to share some the experiences he had with his class, and I began to look at it as an opportunity for a new challenge, a way to better myself, and I had thought about applying.  I also was wondering about the days away from the farm; you know those 55 days over two years, you start thinking ‘How in the world can I be away for that long over that period of time?’  It just overwhelmed me a bit.  I had gotten involved with the Highlands County Natural Resource Advisory Commission.  Ray Royce (Class VII) always attended those meetings in an advisory type role.  Ray was the one who ultimately pushed me and said, ‘Hey Ben, you need to apply.’  And ultimately I did.  Then, when I show up to selection seminar and I got a couple of friends there who are also applying, and then we end up in the class together, well, that was neat.

What did I get out of it?  Was it worth it?  Oh, absolutely!  Through the selection seminar, you had several alumni tell you this is a serious deal and you get out of it what you put into it.  It’s a committee you sign up for and you show up to every seminar with an open mind.  In regards to spending time with my class, I thought I knew a lot of people, but going into it, I probably only knew of less than 10 of my classmates of the 29-person class.  So, to me, that was eye-opening, the amount of quality people involved in agriculture and natural resources industries that were passionate about our industry.  That opened my eyes to the people you begin to meet in seminars: alumni, our alumni.  Now, I can pick up the phone and call Mike Joyner in the Commissioner’s office and introduce myself as a Wedgworth graduate and then have a conversation to lead in to what we need to take about.  The friendships I made with my classmates and then some of the exposure to other kinds of people were some of the major things I got out of the program, not discounting some of the other stuff.  I enjoyed everything about the program.”


What’s your favorite WLI class memory?

“There were some great experiences, but one that I know I won’t forget is standing in South Dakota in the home of a rancher who, him and his wife, had lost exactly a year before over two-thirds of their cow herd to an early blizzard.  And, to hear him tell his story of the loss of the cows and how they as a family and ranching business have had to work to pull out of that.  That was a sobering experience, to hear them tell their story.  That’s just something I won’t forget.  That’s not a favorite memory, but it’s a memory I won’t forget.

The after session discussions, I always enjoyed those, and there were a lot of memories made there.  Now, the Homestead motor speedway, that was probably one of my favorite, selfishly favorite memories there.  Getting to ride around the track and then talking to the marketer for Homestead motor speedway and hearing how they work with the city of Homestead and how they market the Nascar race, that was pretty neat.”


What has been your most challenging leadership opportunity post-Wedgworth?  How might you have used what you got from WLI to take on the challenge?

“Since Wedgworth, I’ve served as President of the Okeechobee Youth Livestock Show committee.  That has probably been one of the most challenging positions I’ve been in since the program. I’ve had to work with parents who fortunately are all there for the same reason, to put a good show on for the kids.  But, in that situation, you’re going to have some different ideas, and majority rules.  Most of the committees I serve on are farmer-oriented committees, and not everyone who works with the Livestock Show is farmer-oriented, they’ve all got different backgrounds.  In agriculture, we have a way we do things, but [the show committee] has been one of the most diverse committees I’ve served with.  I like the diversity, I think it brings a lot of good ideas out of the diversity.  I appreciate those ideas, and I think that the Wedgworth taught me the importance of getting different ideas and different perspectives.  You may not agree, but it keeps that discussion going and then you really can take a little bit from this person and take a little bit from that person and tweak things to make some pretty good changes.  It’s no fun when everyone at the table thinks the same way.   I really learned to embrace different thoughts, and I think that is one of the things I attribute to Wedgworth training, being open to other thoughts, other ways, other ideas, and understanding that at the end of the day they aren’t wrong.  Everybody is right in their own eyes, and there are a lot of times where some of those different ideas that are different than mine, are the right ideas.


What do you see are the benefits of being a WLI alumni member beyond your Wedgworth experience?

“I’m a new alumni member, so I think that getting to know my class, knowing Class IX, and knowing how passionate they are, it gives me comfort and excitement knowing that the alumni who have been through similar experiences as I have are there for the same reasons that I am.  I think that we don’t have that many events.  It’s hard to get off the farm.  We have the annual alumni gathering.  But, getting to know other alumni members is what the alumni is for.  Getting to know them and realizing they have the same passion that the classmates that I know have, it makes me excited to meet all the alumni and to learn from them just like I have learned from my classmates.

It’s a responsibility, it’s my responsibility to put myself in those situations where I can interact with the alumni.  That’s the only way you can get anything out of it is to actually choose to interact.  It’s easy to stay in my shell, but being a part of the alumni association, it’s not like going through a seminar together and you’re required to be there.  It’s optional to be there, you got to be willing to continue to grow, to put the time in, to meet more people and learn from their experiences and knowledge.


What advice would you give to someone either going through the Wedgworth program or considering going through the program?

“Have an open mind.  Listen.  And…. listen some more.  And, with your class, don’t be afraid to listen and then speak up to speak your mind.  When you’re’ at the seminars, listen to the other people but actively listen.  Ask questions, learn more.  When you get back to your class discussions, your reflection time, don’t’ be afraid to question things.  It’s all a part of formulating your own opinion.  Most important thing for an upcoming class is to be open to new ideas, listen to them, gather the facts, and then create your own opinion, but don’t’ be tied down to that opinion, don’t be afraid to learn more and change it, to continue to listen.  Listening is the most important thing.”


If you could envision a better future for Wedgworth—for the program and for the Alumni Association—what would you like to see?

“Ultimately, we are all in this together, and we all have to know what each other is doing.  At the end of the day we all use the land as part of our livelihood and we’ve got to continue to foster and provide through the alumni association opportunities for our alumni to network.  The alumni association is doing that now, and I would like to see that continue to provide possibly more opportunities to get together, to learn what’s happening on their operations, so that when we do experience challenges, if nothing else, we know the people on the phone to call somebody.  I would like to see us continue to evolve as a family type affair.  There’s a lot of things you can talk about with family that you can’t talk about with anyone else, that other people wouldn’t understand.  I would like to see the alumni association continue to become more of a family.  That’s what I would like to see.”