If there is one Culver’s restaurant owner who can identify with the company’s “Thank You Farmers” program a bit more than others, it is likely Eugene Smith.
Smith grew up on his family’s farm near Janesville and milked cows until he was 50, when he sold his dairy herd, machinery and farm and invested in a Culver’s restaurant in Idaho. It was a leap of faith that he is now happy he took.
“It really was scary,” Smith said of leaving Wisconsin and moving to Idaho. “It was hard for my wife (Shawn) and I to leave our family. My family has been in Janesville since Janesville was founded — everyone and everything I knew was there. I was 50 years old and I was bawling my eyes out as I drove out of the state. You invest everything in this and hope it works.”
It has worked out beyond Smith’s expectations. He and his family have three Culver’s restaurants in Idaho and a fourth one in Iowa. His daughter who runs the restaurant in Hiawatha, Iowa, is moving to Idaho to run one of the restaurants there soon.
Why Idaho? Smith said he and his wife looked at every state between Wisconsin and Idaho, trying to decide where to build their first restaurant.
“Idaho gave us the room to grow and expand with more than one Culver’s,” he said. “All of our children said they would not be interested in moving to Idaho with us, but now three of our four kids are involved in Culver’s restaurants. It has definitely worked out for us.”
Smith said he got kicked by a cow in 2008, breaking his knee, during a time of low milk prices. It was shortly after that that his son, who had gone to college to study dairy husbandry, said he didn’t want to farm because he couldn’t take the stress of staying ahead of the farm bills.
“We realized none of our children were going to take over, and when the leg didn’t heal properly, we knew it wasn’t going to get any easier on the farm,” Smith said. “We were land locked — we had grown our herd from 40 cows to 220 cows in 30 years but we couldn’t get any bigger. We decided maybe it was time to do something else in life.”
Over an eight-month period, the Smiths sold their cattle, machinery and the farm. The farm was sold to a cousin, who converted the dairy to a crop farm.
Smith worked in the Beloit Culver’s restaurant and then took management training classes at Culver’s Prairie du Sac headquarters before building the first Idaho Culver’s. The restaurant opened in May 2014.
“I was on the board of directors of Swiss Valley Farms for quite a long time, and one of my friends told me that with the way the milk prices are today, I might be the only smart one out of the bunch,” he said. “I’m definitely not sorry we did it.”
Smith said he was in San Francisco for a National Milk Producers Federation meeting a few years back and had a conversation with a young woman who got him thinking about telling agriculture’s story.
“She asked us what we were doing there and we told her we were dairy farmers from Wisconsin,” Smith said. “She said it was great that we were trying to keep the tradition alive, but in her case, she could just go to the grocery store and buy milk. I realized we need to get out there and do more to teach these kids about where their food comes from.”
Smith said in his Culver’s restaurants in Twin Falls, Idaho Falls and Meridian, he does all he can to support the local FFA chapters as part of the Thank You Farmers program.
“We do fundraisers for different FFA chapters,” he said. “The Jerome FFA chapter brings in a petting zoo and they have made butter outside the restaurant. One chapter brought in an aquarium and one of the chapters came in with horses and wagons to give people hayrides through town.
“We do whatever the FFA needs. They all know if they have students that can’t afford a blue jacket, we will get them one. And when they have the state FFA leadership conference and 1,800 kids come together, we make sure all the kids get free custard and as much as they want.”
Smith was honored at the National Association of Agriculture Educators conference in December, with the western region award for influential supporters.
“Everyone in the western region knows Eugene and how much he supports FFA,” Culver’s Senior Marketing Manager Jessie Kreke said.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Smith said of working with the FFA.
The Smiths’ daughter, Carey Fetting, and her husband, Alex, now run the Culver’s in Twin Falls, while their son, Steven, manages the Meridian restaurant. Their daughter, Holley Anderson, is currently running the Culver’s in Hiawatha, Iowa, but has plans to move to the Boise area soon.
Eugene and Shawn Smith run the restaurant in Idaho Falls.