Title: 2005 Ag-Environmental: Larson Dairy
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
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, in turn, to buy a dairy cow whose milk he bottled and sold to neighbors for ten cents a quart. Sixty-five plus 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 million pounds of milk each year.
John Louis Larson, Grandson: He didn’t have much to start with and he came from very little and just moved his way up. 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-60s, Larson owned four farms in South Florida.
Red Larson, President, Larson Dairy, Inc.: 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. And in 1964 we built our first dairy farm over here in Highlands County adjacent to Okeechobee 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.
Red Larson: It was a good time to move. 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 a number of the Larson clan, many of whom play a role in the dairy’s operations, including Larson’s wife, Rita. Their two sons, Woody and John, who each have farms of their own, and a pair of grandsons who operate two of the corporation’s farms.
Travis Larson, Grandson, Barn 8 Manager, Larson Dairy, Inc.: I always saw him as a leader in our community, very sharp, intelligent businessman that’s always on top of things. And a lot of high moral fiber there in the family and I think he started all that.
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.
John Larson, Son, Second Vice President, Larson Dairy, Inc.: One of the things that makes him unique is he has not been afraid to adapt to change. From the late 1940s when he started out and through the 1990s 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 the milking of cows have undergone significant changes since he began, and Red Larson has been at the forefront of many of those changes.
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 semis 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.
Running the business requires his attention, and as a hands-on dairyman, he visits the farms, trouble shooting and advising his grandsons.
Red Larson: I enjoy watching my young people, sons and grandsons, make an achievement on their own and do things on their own. I want to continue to be active as much as I’m comfortable with. 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.
Jacob Larson, Grandson, Barn 5 Manager, Larson Dairy, Inc.: We have a name to uphold and a reputation that stands behind it. And 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.
Woody Larson, Son, Vice President, Larson Dairy, Inc.: I guess every boy probably looks up to their dad, but my dad, he’s special, he’s kind of my hero, always has been. And I’ve watched him work when I was little, he would work, work, work, work; and he has built a very successful business and I was glad to be a part of that building.