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From one generation to the next

Riley Mason stakes his future on dairying to carry on family operation
Story and photos by: Glen Liford 9/30/2019


Riley Mason, center, worked with AgCentral Farmers Co-op in Athens to install three DeLaval Voluntary Milking Systems in mid-August. AgCentral employees Sam Settles, left, and Glen Allen worked closely with the young dairyman to get the system operating properly.
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Riley Mason’s optimism shines through and his face lights up as he speaks of his future in the industry that has provided a living for his family since 1902.

At 21 years old, Riley is the sixth generation to farm the family’s Niota dairy in the Mt. Harmony community of McMinn County.

“I grew up 50 feet from the milk parlor in my great grandfather’s [Roy] house,” he says with his characteristic smile. “When I woke up every morning, I would run outside to meet our milk truck driver. He always had chocolate milk for me.”

Riley learned to love the way of life by tagging along behind his grandfather, Gary, who died from brain cancer in 2013, and working alongside his father, Matt. Matt eventually took an off-the-farm job at Southeast Bank in Athens, where he now serves as senior vice president, but he still helped out on the dairy as needed, and since Gary passed away has helped mother Janette oversee the operation.

“He [Gary] always told me to do something else,” recalls Riley. “He said I could make more money, go on vacations, and live my life without having something to do all the time. But dairying was what I wanted to do.”

Riley says he spent nearly every spare moment with his granddad — summers, weekends, and many school breaks. He followed in Gary’s footsteps, learning all he could.

“I still see things he taught me,” says Riley. “And I realized I didn’t pay attention as much as I should have. I thought I had time.”

Riley was pursuing a degree in agribusiness and had just completed his sophomore year in 2018 at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville when the dairy operation hit another crossroad. The farm’s overseer experienced health issues, and Riley was forced to step in. It was also about the time that Dean Foods, the company that operates Mayfield Dairy where the Masons sell their milk, informed several local dairies the company would no longer buy their product.

“When Dean Foods started sending out those letters, Dad and I sat down and discussed it,” says the young dairyman. “He said, ‘We either make a commitment and [upgrade the facilities] or sit back and wait for something that may never happen.

“I told him I wanted to do this for the rest of my life, no matter what. I love dairy farming. Milking cows is for me.”

So with Riley’s commitment, Janette and Matt agreed to help.

“Dad said, ‘All we can do is pray and ask God to help us out, and try to do everything correctly,’” recalls Riley.

While today’s environment is tough for family dairy farms, Riley isn’t discouraged. He’s tackling the challenges head-on with an attitude and approach that would make his forefathers proud. The Masons have invested in three robotic milkers and built a tunnel-ventilation barn for the comfort and efficiency of their 180-milk-cow herd. The improvements, Riley says, will allow the dairy to operate more efficiently with less labor and produce an even higher quality product. (Editor’s note: Look for a future story on the Mason’s technological improvements in the June Dairy Month issue of The Cooperator.)

The Masons feel they are in a perfect setting for a dairy operation. The farm is located just eight miles from the Mayfield Dairy where their milk is sold. And, they say, their relationship with AgCentral Farmers Co-op is key to their success. They rely on Rick Barham, the Co-op’s livestock specialist and sales manager, as nutritionist, and purchase feed, seed, fertilizer, and other supplies, including their DeLaval Voluntary Milking Systems, from the local Co-op.

“The dairy industry has its ups and downs,” Riley says. “We felt that we either had to get to this level or get out of the business. Milking in our [previous] facility was not as efficient as it is now with the technology and the robots. Our new facility allows us to fulfill our commitment to provide the quality of the milk that consumers demand and delivers the efficiency of cow care and increase production.”

But with a wisdom beyond his years, Riley is quick to give recognition to the family support that has enabled him to choose this noble profession.

“I couldn’t have done any of this without my dad,” he says. “I’m where I am today because of him. He’s where he is because of my granddad, and obviously my grandma, too.

“Every generation has a different struggle. The dairy has passed down from generation to generation, and I intend to improve it until my time is over. Then, hopefully, I’ll pass it down to the next generation.”

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