It’s nearing the end of the workday at Milking R dairy farm in Okeechobee. Kris Rucks has wrapped up her office paperwork and made sure all is well with the calves, while husband Sutton wished for more hours in the day to care for their 1,200 milking cows. As evening shadows stretch along the free- stall barns, the two climb into Sutton’s gray pickup for a drive across their 1,200-acre farm, discussing the day’s accomplishments and making notes of what next needs their attention.
That professional teamwork has created a winning partnership in both their business and personal lives. With each growing up in dairy farming families, their relationship is steeped in a good stock of respect and understanding.
“We both understand the industry and how demanding it can be,” Kris says. “When we are driving out of the driveway to go to dinner and a movie, and there is a cow in labor that needs assistance, we both understand what has to come first because it has been that way most of our lives.”
As with the stories of many Florida dairy farmers, the Rucks’ family connections to past and present milk producers are many. Sutton, 47, a native of Okeechobee, worked alongside his father and uncle for years; Kris, 46, who moved to Okeechobee from Wisconsin when she was 8, helped out at her family’s Florida farm. Her uncle, too, was a dairyman in Wisconsin.
In addition to the large number of Rucks in the Florida dairy business, other family members still working in the industry include Kris’ sister, Janet, who is married to Perry Bishop of P.W. Bishop Dairy in Okeechobee. Sutton’s niece, Trisha, is married to Johan Heijkoop of Milk-A-Way Dairy in Webster.
They started their own family story when they married in 1988, having known each other while attending school in Okeechobee.
“I always swore I wouldn’t marry a dairy farmer just because of how demanding it was. ‘Never say never’ is the lesson there,” Kris says. But watching Sutton “work side by side with our children since they were young and him instilling the values of honesty, strong work ethic, and responsibility to the world and environment makes me know that I chose the right one.”
Daughter, Lindsey, 26, and son, Garrett, 23, still live and help out at the farm and one day may take it over, just as their father did. Garrett oversees the crops, beef herd and most of the outside work. Lindsey helps with bull selections for Milking R’s herd and manages young stock from birth to 2 years old.
“Nothing beats getting to take your kids to work with you every day,” Kris says. “We have employees who still work for us who were here when our children were born. It is really neat to watch our kids work with and learn from them as adults. They watch out for them like they were their own.”
She and Sutton agree on the importance of working hard and learning.
“Living on a dairy farm is a great experience. It exposes you to so much. The idea that hard work pays off still works in our house,” says Sutton, who is an officer and director for Florida Dairy Farmers, the Altamonte Springs-based promotions group for the more than 130 dairy farms. “I think the main thing about living or working on a dairy farm is that it instills a strong work ethic in you for life.”
Yet the challenges of nurturing a marriage and raising two kids while running a profitable business are not lost on them. At times, it is difficult to separate their family life from the farm life.
“We both work on the farm, and we live on the farm. It is our livelihood, and it operates 24/7, 365 days of the year,” Kris says. “Modern technology, as well as having a great group of employees, has helped enable us to separate ourselves from the business at times. But it is always on your mind.”
But at the end of the day, as they pull back up to the house after their truck ride across the farm, they know one thing for certain: What they – and other dairy farmers throughout Florida – accomplish day in and day out cannot be overstated.
Sutton says, “It’s great to know that all this hard work is worth it because we produce one of the most perfect foods every day of the year for people to enjoy.”
To which Kris adds, “Knowing that you are helping to feed the world and protecting the environment always makes me proud to be a dairy farmer.”
Sutton and Kris Rucks are winners of the 2014 Florida Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award, which recognizes agricultural operations that take the lead in developing and adopting environmentally innovative farming practices.