CLEMSON — Kevin and Lydia Yon had three children under the age of 6 when they took a leap of faith and bought 100 acres in rural Ridge Spring, South Carolina.

Yon family at farm

Kevin Yon has been named the South Carolina winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Pictured from left are: son-in-law Reid Harrison, daughter Sally Yon Harrison, wife Lydia Yon, Kevin Yon and sons Drake and Corbin Yon.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Not that the kids were the most useful farmhands back then.

“The day Lydia and I dug the first fence post hole, we had a borrowed tractor and an auger from the folks we bought the farm from,” Kevin said. “We were digging the fence post hole and looked back, and (youngest son) Corbin was filling up all the holes before the posts went in.”

But, as the Yon children grew — they are now all Clemson University graduates, like their parents — the family farm grew with them. What began with 100 head of cattle and borrowed equipment today is listed among the country’s 25 largest purebred operations by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).

As a result of the success of Yon Family Farms, Kevin Yon has been named the South Carolina winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other individual winners as finalists for the overall award that will be announced in October at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Georgia.

Registered Angus bulls and females are the primary product marketed by Yon Family Farms, which has gone from offering 14 bulls in its first year to two live auctions annually — one in February and another in October — where 375 bulls and 150 females are sold.

Perhaps even more meaningful, the operation has become large enough to support multiple families — Kevin and Lydia’s children, Sally, Drake and Corbin, all play vital roles in the business, which also sustains 10 employees and their families. The operation now boasts 1,200 registered cattle, 590 commercial cattle and 90 fed cattle.

To say cattle farming was a lifelong dream for Kevin wouldn’t be much of a stretch. He was 12 when his parents loaned him the money to buy his first steer and heifer. By high school, Kevin had purchased a small crossbred herd he kept in a leased pasture in Anderson County, close enough to care for when he left for Clemson to pursue a degree in animal science.

Kevin met Lydia, who had grown up on her family’s farm in Starr and took part in 4-H projects and shows involving cows and horses, at the Clemson University Block and Bridle Club. The cattle barn at Clemson’s Garrison Arena often played host to the club’s social events, but it became a meaningful spot to the Yons for a different reason.

“There’s a wash rack on the west end of it, and that’s where I proposed — the wash rack at the bull test station,” Kevin said.

“He proposed at the wash rack, it’s true,” Lydia said. “I said ‘yes,’ so it wasn’t such a bad thing.”

After the Yons graduated — Lydia with a master’s degree — they landed what they considered a “dream job” at Congaree Farms in Richland County managing a small Angus herd, which became the foundation of the herd they still work with today.

But, when the owner decided to discontinue his cattle operation seven years later, the Yons were left without jobs and wondering what to do next. And it was still unclear when Kevin, Lydia and their young children took a Sunday drive to Saluda County, where Kevin had once sold bulls.

“I said, ‘I had no idea there was a town like this in South Carolina. This is beautiful,’” Lydia said. “I said, ‘We should look for land here,’ but there were no for-sale signs on anything. Kevin said, ‘That’s the problem. Nobody ever sells anything here.’”

A quick pit stop on the way out of town led to a chance encounter with a former customer who knew of the Yons’ cattle expertise. As fate would have it, the man and his brother had a house and about 100 acres they wanted to sell.

The rest is history. The little white house the Yons purchased is where they raised their children. Kevin said he’s never had a second thought of taking his operation anywhere but Ridge Spring since that day.

“We never missed a beat,” he added. “We’d had six bull sales in Richland County. We just came here and had the seventh.”

The Yons give much credit to Clemson Cooperative Extension — specifically, now-retired Saluda County agent Phil Perry — for helping them get their operation up and running.

“Phil was very out-and-about and visible, so we knew him, and he really championed us and recruited us to come to his county,” Kevin said. “Ever since, we have been very involved with Clemson Extension.”

His children were all active in 4-H — the youth development arm of Clemson Extension — and Kevin calls the Saluda County program “one of the best in the state.”

The Yon family’s connection with Clemson goes even deeper, however, as all three children — Sally, now 27; Drake, 25; and Corbin, 24 — are also graduates of the university. And while all three have chosen to come back to the family farm to pursue their careers, Sally said they arrived at that decision on their own terms, not due to a sense of obligation or convenience.

“I always knew I wanted to do something in agriculture, but I didn’t necessarily know if it was production agriculture — like hands-on, day-to-day work on the farm — but I’m glad I came home,” Sally said.

“We just have a really good hometown community,” she added. “We have friends here who are more like family.”

Now, Sally’s husband, Reid Harrison, also works at the farm — as does Drake’s wife, Nicole.

But coming back to work on the farm wasn’t a birthright. Kevin and Lydia had a rule that if the kids wanted to make a career at the farm, they needed to go work elsewhere for four years, whether that be the Army, another job or college and internships.

Drake’s summer internships during college took him to a feed lot in Kansas, an Angus farm in Montana and a commercial cattle farm in Florida. And while he said he learned a great deal about the industry at each, he never felt as invested as he did at his family’s farm.

“We always say that we grew up on the farm, but we kind of grew up with the farm, too,” Drake said.

And as the business diversified, it allowed each of the children to fill their own niche within the operation. Corbin manages the family’s latest venture, Yon Family Orchards & The Nut House and Country Market, alongside his brother’s wife, Nicole.

“It’s still the family’s thing, but there’s opportunity with the expansions that it’s not like we’re just coming home and following right in our parents’ footsteps,” Corbin said. “Each of us has been allowed to use our talents where they are best suited.”

Matthew Burns, Clemson Extension beef specialist, said the Yons are still active and supportive of the 4-H program in Saluda County and the agriculture industry in South Carolina in general.

“They have been outstanding partners and supporters of Clemson Extension,” Burns said. “And anytime any local group or school district wants to come out to the farm to learn, they roll out the red carpet. They are just major advocates for agriculture in this state.”

The Yons received the 2009 National Environmental Stewardship Award from the NCBA for the practices they have employed to protect the environment. They have also worked to foster the agriculture industry in Saluda County and beyond by continuing to host interns and students who have an interest in agriculture, regardless of experience level.

And the respect the Yons have earned in the agricultural community doesn’t come just from Clemson Extension, but also from their customers.

“I think the world of all of them. You get the whole truth, the good and the bad, when you deal with them,” said Joe Davis, of J. Davis Cattle in Westminster. “They are very, very humble people — but they know the cattle business and will tactfully share that knowledge.”

And while Travis Mitchell, Extension area livestock and forages agent in Saluda County, was not in his current role the day they put in those first fence posts, he says he’s had a relationship with the Yons for many years.

“There has never been a corner cut on their operation,” he said. “Every decision that is made is made with great attention to detail; a lot of thought goes into it. They manage this operation that way, they manage everything they do that way, and they’ve raised their children in a way that would have to be respected by anyone.

“Everything they do is done with a great deal of passion,” Mitchell added, “and it shows in their operations and in the success of their children.”