michael turley is the fourth generation to operate his family's dairy farm. photo by virginia harold

What I Do: Michael Turley of Rolling Lawns Farm

In another life, Michael Turley spent his days in boardrooms as CEO of Osborn Barr, a booming marketing and communications agency in downtown St. Louis. Today, he spends his days in pastures with 120 Holstein cows on his family’s dairy farm in Greenville, Illinois. 

Turley had no misguided notions about an idyllic retirement in the country when he took over Rolling Lawns Farm in 2015. Larger dairy operations regularly swallow smaller ones, and milk’s profit margins continue to dwindle. He couldn’t stick to business as usual, so Turley pivoted from retail-focused co-ops to supplying area restaurants like Vicia and Grace Meat + Three and building a social media presence. 

Here’s why this ad man returned to the family farm and how he plans to help it thrive for the next 100 years.

Every morning and every night, we’ve milked cows on that farm for 109 years. If nothing else, we know how to persevere. My great-grandfather founded the farm, and I’m fourth-generation. This is an era where there’s a lot of those family operations that do have well over 100 years of history, and there’s a lot of us having to consider whether we can keep it going or not.”

I had some stuff to prove, and it felt like we were in a good position to do it. I had the marketing expertise – I use that term loosely – but I knew what was going on and felt like I needed to do it.”

I can’t tell you how good it feels to walk out of a kitchen. … When I deliver to Vicia on a Tuesday and everybody in there treats me like some kind of hero guy, like they do all the farmers they’re working with. … They walk the walk. They’ve been out there. They’ve had a crew of 30 people visit our farm on their day off. We were literally milking a cow by hand, putting it in a little glass pint jar, and then we passed it around and drank it. That was fun for them and fun for me.”

Farmers are a humble lot, typically. They just want to keep their heads down and work and produce food, and hope people appreciate that, but our social scene today has people wanting to know who the people are behind the food, so there are new interests. There’s a concern for animal care.”

We have 15 animals of this one cow family on the farm now, and we can trace the family back to 1882. … We know more about this cow family than I do my own. We’ve got a 12-by-20-foot long wall [at the farm]. I'm going to put this cow family tree on there, and I'm going to take it back all the way to when she came over from the Netherlands, which is where [Holsteins] came from. There are 32 generations, and we’ve got lots of pictures. It really is ancestry.com for cows.”

In terms of creating a destination where people can come out to find serenity, there is nothing like walking through a pasture with a bunch of cows. It's just quiet and they’re happy.”

I am on the field. I am in the game. My ass is on the line. I want that. I want people to expect a lot from us. I want the moment of truth every time they open [a bottle], whether it’s a James Beard-nominated chef or a food lover at home. I want it to be a high expectation. When I was in the agency business, we were just cheerleaders. We were on the sidelines. … Not to discredit it, it was a great career for me, and there's so much creativity that comes from great agencies, but I needed to be in the game.”

Catherine Klene is managing editor, digital at Sauce Magazine. 

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