Dairy Farmers of America’s (DFA) Members of Distinction program honored members who embody the cooperative’s core values and excel on their operations, in their communities and in the industry. Each year, one member farm from each of DFA’s seven regional Areas is honored.

Its 2023 Members of Distinction honorees are: Central Area

Lee Holtmeier, Linn Willow Creek Dairy — Linn, Kan. Lee Holtmeier’s primary mission is to take care of his employees and the cows. Unlike most dairy farmers, Lee had never milked a cow until he was 40 years old, when he became manager and part-owner of Linn Willow Creek Dairy. Today, Linn Willow Creek Dairy might not be a generational Holtmeier family business, but the operation definitely has a family feel, with Lee’s more than 30 employees, which he says are integral to the dairy’s success.

According to Lee, “Employees run any business, and without the constant dedication and passion for what they do, the dairy would not be where it’s at.” Milking more than 2,000 Holstein cows, Lee makes cow care and comfort a top priority. In 2022, a new four-row free stall barn was built, and curtains were added on the back of the cows’ stalls for warmth in the winter. Adds Lee, “If you don’t take care of the cows, they don’t take care of you.”

Mideast Area

The de Groot family, Sunshine Dairy — Andrews, Ind. The importance of milk and how it’s made is deeply rooted in Johan and DJ de Groot’s lives. The couple both grew up on family farms and hope to pass their farm onto the next generation, which is why the de Groots are constantly looking for new practices and technologies to advance their operation like robotic milkers and systems to measure the cows’ activity. To the de Groots, the practices they use to improve their operation support their ultimate goal: a happy, healthy herd.

“I just want to make sure that the cows are healthy and happy,” DJ says. “They’re part of our life. While they are our revenue, they’re also part of who we are as a family.” Mountain Area The Byl family, Dutch Cowboy Dairy — Paragonah, Utah Dutch Cowboy Dairy was started by two humble and hardworking brothers, Steve and Paul Byl, from the Netherlands chasing the American dream. Starting in Dublin, Texas, the brothers began milking around 40 cows and eventually grew to milk nearly 800 cows. A few years later, Steve and Paul wanted to continue growing their dairy in a more moderate climate and settled on Paragonah, Utah, where they began to build again from the ground up with a 74-cow rotary barn. Today, they milk 5,500 Holstein cows in the same rotary and run the cows in dry lots, with the help of 25 employees. With a continued focus on evolution, Steve’s son, Matt, is taking on more day-to-day responsibilities with future plans to lease land and install 1,200 acres of solar panels.

“It’s a tough industry to get into. You need to have the capital, the passion and the dedication to survive. But it’s very rewarding to look back and see how far we’ve come,” Steve says.

Northeast Area

The Morin and Hermonot families, Fairholm Farm — Woodstock, Conn. Fairholm Farm in Woodstock, Conn., has been around for more than 100 years, and mother and daughter duo, Diane Morin and Erica Hermonot, and the generations of men and women who preceded them, know firsthand that you must rely on family and your community to prosper. Today, the family farm is co-owned by Diane and her husband Todd, along with their daughter Erica and Erica’s husband Jon. To help connect their farm with the local community, Fairholm Farm hosts a four-week farm camp for local children, where they learn about everything from tending the land to cow care. The farm is also embracing technology with and activity monitors to help track individual cow movements and six robotic milkers.

“You’re using your time more efficiently with the robotic milkers and getting better results,” Diane says. “And the cows are quieter, happier and healthier. It’s been a win-win for our farm.”

Southeast Area

The Graft family, Leatherbrook Holsteins — Americus, Ga. As a child, Adam Graft looked forward to spending summers and vacations on his grandfather’s dairy farm. After earning his doctor of veterinary medicine degree at the University of Georgia, Adam worked as a veterinarian in California, but always had a dream of owning his own dairy. In 2004, he moved back to Georgia and began building his own dairy, Leatherbrook Holsteins, from the ground up. With cow care as a top priority, Adam has invested in several amenities, like fans, misters and sand beds to help keep the cows comfortable and cool, as well as building a totally enclosed feed center. In addition to providing clean, comfortable spaces for the cows, Adam also prioritizes taking care of the land and the environment by recycling sand, water and manure. In 2020, the farm added an anaerobic digester in partnership with Vanguard Renewables and Dominion Energy. 

“We want to minimize the effects of our hot Georgia summers and take care of the land for generations of cows and owners to come,” Adam says.

Southwest Area

The Vieth family, Scott Vieth Dairy — Windthorst, Texas As a third-generation dairy farmer, Scott Vieth takes pride in continuing his family’s legacy with a focus on innovation, technology and an eye for the future. A 100,000-square-foot, temperature-controlled tunnel vent barn with nine milking robots allows the cows to choose when they get milked, no matter where they are in the barn.

“Because the cows come and go as they please, it’s stress-free for them, which means they can make more milk,” Scott says. Besides the milking robots, Scott also has an automated feed pusher, manure scraper and uses cow rumination collars, which gives him real-time data and insights about each cow. “The way the industry is changing, you’re either in or you’re out,” Scott says. “It’s key to be innovative and progressive.”

Western Area

The Vander Eyk family, Robert Vander Eyk & Sons Dairy — Pixley, Calif. With more than 40 years of experience dairy farming, Bob Vander Eyk has two main priorities: his family and the planet. Bob began dairying with his father in 1982 with 320 cows. Today, he and his wife, Arlene, along with two of their sons, Derek and Brian, milk 2,800 cows.

“Farming with my sons is what I’m most proud of,” says Bob. “It’s been rewarding to watch them grow up dairy farming, and now I get to see them run our farm and continue the legacy.”

The Vander Eyks also take sustainability seriously. In 2016, the family installed a one-megawatt solar farm on the dairy, which powers half of the dairy’s electricity. They also added an anaerobic digester that breaks down the herds’ manure into usable energy that not only generates profits, but also reduces the dairy’s carbon footprint. With Derek and Brian taking on more responsibilities each day, Bob is confident that the future is bright for Robert Vander Eyk & Sons Dairy, as he’s confident family farm is in good hands.