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A Breed Apart

Margie Pensak

They spend the bulk of their waking hours on the family cattle farms in Pennsylvania, but the Gutmans would never consider living outside an established Torah hub — a lesson in priorities as deeply ingrained as the family's multi-generational affinity for cattle dealing. Four generations after Max Gutman first found a foothold in York County, his Jewish values and uncompromising convictions still drive the family business

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

shiur

They navigate halachic queries about cattle feed and firstborn calves as they steer their tractors through the family farm, but the Gutmans know that davening from the heart is the best way to make a deal (PHOTOS: Esky Cook)

Gutman Brothers Dairy Cattle│York County and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania│Established 1942

Abe Gutman was still a kid when he realized how much time his father spent commuting from their Baltimore home to his livestock farm in Pennsylvania. “Why don’t we move out to the farm already?” he asked. 

He’d never forget Ernst Gutman’s response. “You’ve got to live in a makom Torah,” the German immigrant told his son. 

The Gutman family continues to do that. Just as Abe’s father and grandfather managed the long commute when they started catering to America’s dairymen in 1942, Abe and his sons hit the road every morning for their daily trip from Baltimore’s Torah-observant hub to the pastoral farmland of Pennsylvania. 

Identical twins, Binyomin and Doniel, started helping out their father at age ten, and are now seasoned cattle dealers. All three make a daily commute of about an hour to the family’s four farms in York County, Pennsylvania, totaling 450 acres. Then there’s their Lancaster County farm, just “down the road a piece” — a 50-minute drive. 

The Gutmans sell about 25,000–30,000 heads of cattle per year, and milk between 200–500 cows every day, the number fluctuating with the day’s sales and the amount of calves that are born. The turnover is constant, with hundreds of cows constantly being traded and transported. But Ernst Gutman’s dictum remains as powerful today as it was when it was first spoken. “As much as we feel at home on the farm, we would never be here for Shabbos,” says Doniel. “You just don’t mix those two. You go a hundred miles an hour every day, every week, and then when Shabbos comes, it’s like a switch, where nothing else matters. And then you make Havdalah and it matters a lot again. You’re back on your phone, back on the job.” 

Winds of Change

 The Gutmans’ York County farm is just a 50-minute ride from Baltimore, but it feels like a different world. The air is country-fresh, and the ambiance is different, too. Photographer Esky Cook and I are greeted by Abe, whose work attire includes a plaid shirt, large insulated vest, faded jeans, suspenders, work boots, and a baseball cap. Amid the symphony of chirping birds and ear-tagged mooing cows, he reassures us that we can safely leave our valuables in the car. 

“This is my Park Avenue office!” Abe announces, holding open his office door. The interior is dusty, as to be expected on a farm, and the decor a bit outdated — a beige linoleum floor; assorted sizes of green, rusty steel cabinets; an old-fashioned pencil sharpener on the wall; a black refrigerator covered with magnets; a small cabinet with drawers marked with “Meat” and “Dairy” signs; and an old wooden desk graced by a huge copy machine, piles of paperwork, and a corded telephone.

"My father would always tell us it's not our smarts that make us successful." Now a seasoned cattle dealer who's seen Divine fingerprints guiding his success, Doniel Gutman credits his father Abe for the best business lessons

As we walk to the adjacent feeding barn, built by Abe’s sons, he tells us that as early as the mid-1960s, he could see indications of change in the industry. “The white people no longer want to work in York County — the only help I can get is from Mexicans,” he says, before we enter the barn to find one of the workers administering sonograms to determine if the cows are pregnant. 

Four employees currently work on the farm here in York County; eight work on the Gutmans’ Lancaster farm. “As early as the 70s, we stopped milking our cattle in York County and opened up the Lancaster facility in 2005. In Lancaster County, you have the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Mexicans who are willing and eager to work. When the cows are ready to give birth, they’re sent to our Lancaster County farms, where there’s no shortage of skilled hands available to help them out.” 

That’s not the only change he’s seen over the years. “My father sold cows to farmers and financed them, charging them interest,” continues Abe. “Back then, you never heard the word ‘bankruptcy’ in the countryside. If you signed a note saying that you owed somebody money and then you couldn’t pay, you called and said, ‘I’m short this month and I can’t pay. Can we work it out somehow?’ But I saw in the mid-60s that the country was changing.”

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