The Family Farm

Jun 1, 2024 | Toolbox

Small independent businesses offer a unique set of values, experiences, and traditions. But are they on the brink of disappearing?

By Jake Nawrocki

Not that long ago in rural Wisconsin, the countryside was covered in small family dairy farms. Literally, most every square mile on the map had at least one, if not two or three, small family farms. These farms were operated by mom, dad and the kids, and were often handed down from grandpa or even great-grandpa. I know of a few that are still going that have been in the same family since the land was homesteaded from the government generations ago. These farms were a great place to grow up. At the center were good moral values (usually Christian, but not always), work ethic that was second to none, and an extremely strong sense of duty to community and country.

I grew up during a time when that was still the way of life around here. Countless times I have witnessed neighbors lending time and equipment when needed. If Farmer Brown was sick, you could be sure that Farmer Jones sent some of his boys over to make sure Brown’s chores got done. This was normal. This way of life bled into all areas of the community, and it is one of, if not the reason, people look back at small town USA with such a strong sense of longing to have it back. The small farm and it’s values are at the very core of what has made this country great, and the reason so many want to come here.

The problem is, these small farms are rapidly disappearing, not only here in Wisconsin but all across the country. I was recently talking with my brother in-law, we’ll call him Tim, because that’s his name. He operates a farm supply business that sells and delivers the various products that a dairy farm needs. Year after year, he sees farms closing, and every time that happens he loses a customer. To make things worse, many of the customers he still has, are in a business climate that is not good for their business at all, and the effects of that trickle down to the people who rely on them for their own business, such as farm supply dealers, implement dealers, and even banks, feel the pinch.

Many of us, both large and small operations, are multi-generational, handed down by those who worked so hard to create something from nothing.

It reminds me a lot of our own industry. For starters, many auto recyclers are a small family business. At our very core is a sense of value, work ethic, and tradition. Many operations, both large and small, are multi-generational, handed down by those who worked so hard to create something from nothing. Just like the farms, many of the larger auto recyclers started out as smaller ones, and many of us are striving toward the goal of being a larger business.

Just like Tim’s farm supply business that feels the effects of a waning small farm climate, so too are we feeling that. How many of us rely on auto body shops and independent repair shops? Would most of us not agree that the very best shops to have for customers are small, and often run by an older individual with a lot of experience? This guy understands that a 20-year-old door is going to require some cleanup. He understands that a used engine should get new seals and gaskets. These guys usually know what they are about and are a real pleasure to do business with. I have known many like that, but the days are numbered for the small independents.

EPA regulations are making it very difficult for the small body shop to remain economically viable. Rather than make the big investment required to stay compliant, many say, “forget this,” and just hang it up. Some are able to sell to an employee, but many just go away. Repair shops are feeling the same pressures as vehicles become more and more technologically advanced, and finding techs to keep up with it all is not happening easily. So in both cases, the void is filled by the corporately-owned chains, new car dealer shops, or the consolidated chain of repair shops.

Now as auto recyclers we hate to see that happen, but it is the new way of things. We can just sell to the dealerships and chain shops, right? Sure we can, but something is lost.

Corporate shops seem to prefer purchasing parts from consolidated recyclers. That makes it hard for the independent recycler. What those of us in small business find universally true is that we are able to offer a better price, better quality and care, and better service than our consolidated competitors. In spite of that, we still see the big ticket item that we quoted being purchased from the consolidated yard, even though the service was not as fast, and the price not any better. What gives? This is something that I have spent a great deal of time on, but have yet to completely figure out.

I think what it mainly boils down to is human nature, and the perception of value, even if it is a flawed perception. Have you ever gone out to eat, say, at a brand name nice restaurant that advertises on television. Their service was marginal, the food not what you anticipated, and you decide that you didn’t care for it and you don’t think you’ll be back. Yet a few weeks later you find yourself back in the same place getting the same thing you did before, while a block away is a run-down little mom and pop restaurant. You have heard that the food there is really good, the service is good, but you can’t make yourself go there because when you drive by, the outside looks run down, or it isn’t crowded and has loud blaring music or sports channels on in every corner.

Since we make that assessment about other businesses, it should be easy for us to look inward, and figure out how we are perceived by others. That is over simplified, but it is a start. I believe that being involved in ARA and our state associations will be vital to our future success. If we want to thrive in a rapidly changing business climate, we are going to have to evolve better and faster than is natural. I leave you with the words of Helen Keller, “a bend in the road is not the end of the road, unless you fail to make the turn.”

So keep on turnin’. 

Jake Nawrocki, with sister Katy Joles, own and operate Rocki Top Auto Recyclers in Glen Flora, Wisconsin. The company was formed in 1988, and Jake and Katy took over operations in 2009. Since that time, they have been working both in and on the company, in a region that is economically challenged. “Our goal is to make Rocki Top Auto a destination.” Contact Jake at 715-322-5774 or rockitopauto.com.

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