Larson Dairy, Inc.
Every morning Red Larson walks in his Okeechobee neighborhood, a routine that helps him prepare for the day ahead. It harkens back to an earlier time when, as a boy, he would deliver newspapers through his Broward County neighborhood, planning for his future. While most other boys spent their earnings on candy and the like, he patiently saved his money with a bigger goal in mind.
With a business savvy uncommon in children, Larson took his savings and bought a pony that he later sold at a profit. He used that money to buy a dairy cow whose milk he bottled and sold to neighbors for 10 cents a quart. More than sixty-five years and a few business deals later, Louis E. “Red” Larson now owns three dairy farms in Okeechobee County with over 6,000 head of milking cows producing over 100,000,000 pounds of milk each year.
“He didn’t have much to start with and he came from very little and just moved his way up,” said his grandson, John Louis Larson. “He’s very patient and he was very determined to have a big dairy someday.”
Since his beginnings in the dairy business in 1940, Red Larson has always been willing to take chances. Larson bought and sold property in Miami, Davie, Dania and Delray Beach, with each purchase and sale providing a new opportunity for growth. By the mid-1960s, Larson owned four farms in South Florida.
“In the meantime, realizing what was happening with urban sprawl and the rapid growth of the population after the end of World War II, we began to buy property in the Okeechobee area,” Larson said. “And in 1964 we built our first dairy farm in Highlands County.”
Over the next decade, Larson began other farms and ranches in the Okeechobee area. A man with strong family ties, Larson moved his family to Okeechobee in 1971.
“It was a good time to move,” Larson said. “And we have been very thankful that we moved when we did because it pulled all of our farms and our family all together into one place again.”
Today, Okeechobee is home to many of the Larson clan, and the dairy operation includes Larson’s two sons, who each have farms of their own, and a pair of grandsons who operate two of the corporation’s farms.
“I always saw him as a leader in our community, very sharp, intelligent businessman that’s always on top of things,” said his grandson, Travis Larson. “And a lot of high moral fiber there in the family and I think he started all that. Sum it up in a word or two and I’d say he’s a brilliant businessman.”
Red Larson has been a source of knowledge and experience. One of the most respected dairy leaders in Florida, he was called to serve on the USDA’s Dairy Advisory Committee during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, where he was instrumental in developing present-day milk marketing techniques that benefit both the industry and the consumer. From his early days on the Miami farm to developing his Okeechobee operations, Larson has pioneered many innovative methods.
“He has not been afraid to adapt to change,” son John said. “And I think that’s really been one of his big secrets to success in business is his being able to adapt to change. From the late 40s when he started out, through the 90s when we started changing our operations and facilities until today, we’ve changed through people as well as machinery and created efficiencies that were beyond his dreams. And I don’t think he’s ever been scared not to take that step.”
Waste management, feeding, housing, improving genetics and even the milking of cows have undergone significant changes since he began, and Red Larson has been at the forefront of many of those innovations.
When Larson started in the dairy business, milking cows was done by hand, and the milk was collected in buckets and delivered in quart bottles. During his lifetime, milking has progressed from a pastoral chore to a hi-tech industry. The labor-intensive, hands-on approach to milking has been replaced by computerized machines that can sense when milking is complete. Flat barns gave way to milking parlors; buckets were displaced by pipeline milking. And today, stainless steel semi-tractors carry more product in one tank than a fleet of old delivery trucks loaded with 10-gallon cans.
Milking isn’t the only area to see progress at Larson’s dairies. Cows, once kept in open pastures, are now housed in barns where their comfort is assured using giant fans, water misters and lined stalls. The cows are under less stress, which translates into better health and greater milk yield.
As the science of nutrition developed, feeding has also evolved. Originally, cows were fed by bucket or shovel; today Larson Dairy uses nutritionists to balance the rations and match feedings to the cow’s body condition and production level.
One of the first to install a lagoon system to control wastewater, Larson has stayed ahead of the curve in waste management. Now, controlled by a carefully engineered process, the dairy’s waste management uses a closed system to hold and recycle nutrients. Solids are separated from the wastewater before entering the lagoon, and are later used to make compost. Water, filtered as it passes through the three-stages, is pumped to the fields where it is sprayed through center-pivot irrigation. Nutrients in the treated water are absorbed by the crops, which are harvested and fed to the cows, completing the cycle.
Larson has implemented many changes over the years, and is up to the challenges that face dairy farming in Florida in the 21st century. Recognizing that the state’s increasing population calls for more locally produced food, Larson Dairy has recently constructed three state-of-the-art, total-confinement barns that can each house 600 cows.
While running the business requires his attention at the corporation’s headquarters, this hands-on dairyman still regularly visits the farms to troubleshoot and advise his grandsons.
“I want to continue to be active as much as I’m comfortable with,” Larson said. “But as you get older you need to slow down a little bit and let the young fellows have the reins a little bit and let them see what they can do. So I enjoy watching my young people, sons and grandsons, make an achievement on their own and do things on their own.”
“We have a name to uphold and a reputation that stands behind it,” said his grandson, Jacob Larson. “I think that just lifted me up and allowed me to do more as a young man when I knew that I had a reputation to live up to.”
Said son Woody Larson: “Every boy looks up to their dad, but my dad, he’s special; he’s kind of my hero, always has been. I’ve watched him work when I was little, he would work, work, work, work. He has built a very successful business, and I was glad to be a part of that building.”