After 40 years of waking up at 3:15 a.m., “I don’t even set an alarm,” says Tom Jilek. He’s usually in bed by 8, he says, except on nights when, as a member of the local school board, he’s at a particularly long meeting, which occasionally run until 1 a.m. It’s all part of being a contributing member of the community where his maternal ancestors have farmed since before the American Revolution. Although his parents did not have careers in agriculture, Tom has known since he was 10 that farming was his calling, as it was for many generations on his mother’s side. He learned from his mother’s brothers. Uncle Warren Skellie, a former director of Agri-Mark, “He taught me to be a cow man,” says Tom. Another uncle, Richard Skellie, with whom he farmed in partnership for 17 years, “taught me to be a crop person,” Tom adds.
A couple years ago, Tom and a cousin developed two farm businesses on the same property, which are run independently but complement each other. Under T-D-J Farm, Tom owns a milking herd of about 150 registered Holsteins and Jerseys and all the milking equipment. His cousin, Jay Skellie, owns the land and buildings and does the cropping as Hi-Brow Farms. “It has enabled me to focus on the cows,” Tom says, noting that is his true passion. “Every time I have a calf born, it makes me happy,” he says. “I focus on the genetics. That’s what motivates me to stay in the business. Raising that caliber of cow, that’s exciting.”
Tom and his wife, Diane, (the T & D in the farm’s name) have four grown children, one of whom works part-time for his dad. Diane Jilek, a retired teacher who now works in accounting, “makes the best macaroni and cheese going,” Tom says appreciatively. The secret? “Great Cheddar cheese, of course.” Their two daughters work in agricultural stewardship and nature education and the other son is a high-power chef, although he also owns 20 cows. Tom has not encouraged his children to follow in his footsteps and he suspects he might be the last of the long line to milk cows. “Unless you really love it, you’re gonna hate it,” he says.