Western innovator: Dairyman always on the move

Carol Ryan Dumas/Capital Press. Longtime dairyman John Reitsma, second from right, shares the levity with his partners Carl Sklavos, left, Dirk Reitsma and office manager Connie Kincheloe. The successful businessman says he's never had a business plan and has never taken out a loan.

Serial entrepreneur worked at many dairies across West

By CAROL RYAN DUMAS

Capital Press

John Reitsma has owned five dairies during his 30 years in the business, but milking cows was not his intent when he left his parents' 40-cow dairy in Holland at the age of 19.

But he admits he's never really had a plan, which has befuddled many people over the years, given his success.

"The catch is you do good, you do something with it," he said.

And he has, without ever having taken out a loan.

In 1967, he took off with a friend to Edmonton, Alberta, and never wanting to see a cow again.

"That lasted about six weeks," he said.

He didn't like city life, so he went to work for a wheat farmer who had a few cows in Donalda, a town in central Alberta. But that didn't last long, either.

Six months later, he was living in the bunkhouse on a dairy in Glendora, Calif., washing cows by hand before they were milked.

That lasted a year and a half until he got a better job, clipping cows as an independent contractor, which kept him busy fall through spring. In the summers, he found work bucking hay and loading trucks.

"In 1976, I started buying calves and found my calling," he said. He bought day-old calves and sold them the same day to calf ranches.

"I like to deal. I'm still doing a little bit," he said.

The day did come, however, when he'd own dairy cattle for more than a few hours. After having visited a friend in Idaho, he started an 80-cow dairy in Jerome in 1984, trying to double the herd every year.

"I'm not smart enough to do something else," he said. "I made money, I bought another cow."

Five years later, he sold that dairy and built a 1,200-cow dairy in Jerome. He then sold that dairy and built a 2,800-cow dairy in Wendell in 1994.

"It's still the most efficient dairy in the valley. I haven't been able to replicate it," he said.

That dairy has a flat herringbone parlor. He built a new dairy in Hollister in 1999 and sold the Wendell dairy to a former milker, who turned manager, then partner.

He now leases out the 4,000-cow Hollister dairy. But he jumped back into the business in 2007 in partnership with his stepson Sean Mallett, who was interested in organic dairying south of Twin Falls.

"He likes that life, not me," he said. "Too many rules."

But the 1,100-cow dairy is doing well, he said.

While operating his dairy in Hollister, Reitsma looked for a solution to lagoon odor and found a product that has been used for years in municipal sewage treatment plants. He bought the rights to it for agricultural applications.

After reformulating and improving the product, he now sells Unlok to fellow dairymen through his Agrakey Solutions company in Jerome.

Reitsma is a calculated risk-taker, said Carl Sklavos, a partner in AgraKey.

"He likes to shoot from the hip. His success speaks for itself," he said.

At 65, Reitsma said he's done owning more dairies. His two partners, his son Dirk and Sklavos, handle a lot of the day-to-day AgraKey business.

Western innovator

John Reitsma

Age: 65

Home: Twin Falls, Idaho

Businesses: AgraKey Solutions, Nature's Harmony Organic Dairy

Family: Wife Susan, stepsons Sean Mallet and Ryan Mallett, son Dirk Reitsma, and daughter Heidi Bernhard, three grandchildren.

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