Conserving Land Creates a New Beginning and Happy Ending
WHEN MATT AND PEGGY CANNON started their dairy farm, Cannon Cattle Ranch, in Johnsonville in 1979, they envisioned one day passing it on to their children. As it turned out, their children had other ideas. “My son currently lives in Oregon with no interest in dairy farming,” says Matt, “And my daughter actually is in the dairy business. Only she’s in it with her husband in Wisconsin.”
As the reality of not having someone to pass the farm onto set in, the Cannons continued to look for ways to keep the operation running successfully. In 2011, they worked with ASA to conserve the farm and 120 acres of support land. They used the funds to implement a robotic milking system and purchase additional nearby cropland. “That conservation effort,” says Matt, “was key to getting us to where we are today.”
Discovering a common interest and vision
In late 2013, as the Cannons were still considering what the future might hold for their 262-herd operation, Matt was introduced to Andy Brizzell.
Raised on a nearby vegetable farm, Andy always intended to be a farmer. “I just didn’t think I’d be a dairy farmer,” he admits. When he met Matt, he had two years under his belt managing crops for another dairy operation.
“My interest was always field crops,” he says. “I went to college and learned all there was to know about how to grow them, get more yield, and on and on. But what I didn’t learn, and never really thought about, was how those crops, and the processes you use to grow them, impact cattle and the land. Suddenly, there was a whole new dynamic to understand. I was just wrapping my mind around that when I met Matt and he introduced me to the idea of strip crops. Adopting practices that preserve the soil and protect the watershed really spoke to me.”
The more time Matt and Andy spent together, the more they realized they were of like minds when it came to farming and they each had something to teach the other. In a matter of weeks, Andy was a full-time employee at Cannon Cattle Ranch. And just two years after that, he and Matt became partners in
the renamed Hickory Hill Dairy, sharing ownership of the cows and equipment—and, more importantly, a vision for the future.
Shaping a future for two families through conservation
As part of the Hickory Hill Dairy business plan, Andy will work into full ownership of the farm which will enable him to purchase the farmland from the Cannons. In March 2021, the Cannons, along with neighboring retired farmer John Marbot, conserved 338 acres through an ASA easement. This conservation effort provides an opportunity for Andy to purchase the land at ag values in the future, which will help move the farm business forward.
“My ability to farm this land in the future is largely dependent upon the easement,” says Andy. “It provides security for the landscape and other natural resources as well as for my business, my family, neighbors and community.”
In addition to maintaining the herd, Andy has his sights set on diversifying into flowers and vegetables. “It’s hard to compete with the 1,000-head operations,” he says, “And, honestly, we don’t have the topography to support that size operation. A move into retail flowers and vegetables will allow us to continue with a slightly larger herd size and generate new income in a way that won’t tax the land.”
As for the Cannons, Matt says the idea of transitioning the farm to Andy brings him joy. “I’m grateful that someone will continue the operation and do it with an eye towards doing what’s right by the land,” says Cannon. “The land conservation efforts we did in 2011 and again in 2021 were both really important steps in making sure that Cannon Cattle and now Hickory Hill remain strong dairy operations for years to come. I can retire happy knowing it’s in good hands.”
"I'm grateful that someone will continue the operation and do it with an eye towards doing what's right by the land." - Matt Cannon
"Knowing the land that my family and I worked for so many years will be kept in active farming is a good feeling." - John Marbot