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Farm grows from liability to asset

Change is a given, and the agricultural arena is fertile ground for it. So 20 years ago, when Doug and JoAnn Lawrence saw that their Coon Rapids, Minnesota, farm business would be forced into a tight spot by urban development, they executed a pivot and attained a clear shot at a new goal.

Their cattle business began in 1957 when Doug's dad, Ralph, gave Doug a registered Hereford bred cow/calf pair. That was the beginning of Lawrence Herefords.

In 1964, Doug purchased his father's bulk fuel and gasoline delivery business. Then in 1967, Doug planted 5 acres of Kentucky bluegrass, launching a new business called Rocket Turf. He purchased the original farm from his parents in 1975.

Today, the fourth generation is raising and showing cattle. Doug, JoAnn, sons Bryan, 42, and Bradley, 39, their wives, and children form the team. Their successful business model now includes 320 acres of turf in Coon Rapids and Andover.

Both sons graduated from the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s with degrees in agribusiness administration and housing management and finance.

In 1992, as development from the Twin Cities encroached on the farm, the Lawrences purchased a farm 30 miles north, near Princeton. Shortly afterward, they moved their herd there. Today they have a 75-head cow/calf Hereford herd, with a few Black Angus. They sell heifers, bulls, and feeder calves to other cattle breeders.

Bryan and his wife, Marytina, live on the Princeton farm. They're in charge of the cattle and growing 270 acres of alfalfa and corn. Their children are Montana, 14, Wyatt, 13, Wade, 12, and Wynn, 5.

Bradley assists with computer issues, crop and field management, and equipment maintenance, in addition to operating his own contracting business. He and his wife, Brigitte, have two sons, Dawson, 5, and Hutton, 3.

Sprouting a new business

The turf enterprise that sprouted in 1967 extends beyond growing and selling turf to a landscaping and nursery business, managed by Bryan. “We also sell black dirt, landscape rock and mulch, shrubs, and trees,” he says.

They employ seasonal employees who cut, deliver, and install sod, as well as perform planting and landscaping work.

Instead of fighting urban encroachment, the Lawrences incorporated it into their business model.

“We sell wholesale and retail to commercial and residential customers,” Bryan says. “Our biggest accounts are residential home builders.”

Doug is active in the turf business, helping with fieldwork, deliveries, and managing the crew when needed. But most of his time is spent in the fuel and gasoline bulk delivery business.

JoAnn holds down the fort in the office, fulfilling customer service, taking orders, and handling invoicing and payables for all of their businesses.

The Lawrences were recognized as 2010 Farm Family of the Year by the University of Minnesota. “We know the future holds more change and challenge,” JoAnn says.

Their future includes:

• Growing more corn. In 2011, the Lawrences planted corn for the first time in 15 years. They reduced the cow herd by 25. In 2012, they expanded corn acres. “The corn would increase farm revenue far more than growing alfalfa hay,” Doug says. “We plan to increase corn again in 2013.”

• Planning for succession. “Our biggest challenge for the future of our family business is how to make sure it's here for the next generation,” JoAnn says. “The estate tax is a major concern for us. We're also concerned about government regulations.”

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