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Local dairy farmers adjust to challenges

Joe Tresch, left, and daughter Lindsay Tresch check on the Holstien heifers in the calving pasture. Tresch Dairy, located on Walker Road, has been family run for more than a century.

John O'hara/ For the Argus-Courier
Published: Friday, January 4, 2013 at 3:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 10:33 a.m.

It's 6 a.m. and still dark. The rain is turning the ground to slippery mud as Lydia Tresch makes her way to the barn to feed the 70 or so calves housed there before she leaves for school. Raised on her family's dairy farm located on Walker Road northwest of Petaluma, she is used to the hours and the hard work that goes on every day.

“I like getting up early and doing the feeding,” says Lydia. “It gives me a chance to observe the calves and make sure they are all healthy.” She returns at 4 p.m. for the second feeding and other chores before she tackles her studies in business administration and management.

This is a small segment of a dairy farmer's daily life, a career that doesn't include long lunches, a cushy office, weekends off or the guarantee that your job — or your farm — will be there tomorrow.

California is at the eye of what has been termed the “perfect storm” that has struck the dairy industry. But their shared predicament has united many of the farmers who have formed associations to present a larger voice and to educate themselves about options for new revenue streams.

Young dairy farmers have grown up in this volatile climate and are used to adapting to change. With a pioneering spirit and boundless energy and enthusiasm, these descendants of the families that settled the land are emerging as the new leaders in the struggle to save it.

The values of the Tresch family forefathers, who settled here in 1905, are echoed in the spirit of its descendants. Lydia and her twin brother Joey, who are 21, and their older sister Lindsay, 26, plan to carry on the family traditions. They tend the land, oversee the livestock, and continue to farm the rolling hills, bringing a fresh perspective on what the farm has to offer.

Over the years, their parents, Joe and Kathy Tresch, expanded the original farm to 2,100 acres and a herd of approximately 700 cows. The land provides pasture for grazing, which helps save on feed costs and provides a healthier environment for the cows — something that is important to the family.

They've also planted more than 10,000 trees and native shrubs on their farm, and Kathy started a heritage apple orchard that produces thousands of apples a year, mostly sold at farmers markets and stands. Joe and Kathy were the Sierra Club's “Environmentalists of the Year” in 1996.

The environmentally friendly approach to farming came naturally to Joe, who had always followed the practices of his parents and grandparents, which were very similar to the organic practices of today.

Recognizing that conventional milk producers were struggling with a myriad of challenges, Joe decided to convert the farm to organic. In 1996 Tresch became the second organic dairy west of the Mississippi, with Petaluma's Straus Family being the first in 1994.

“Other farmers called us crazy but our revenues steadily got better,” said Joe Tresch. The farm became a supplier to Straus Family Creamery, an organic dairy, and has remained a partner ever since. “We have never seen the price of organic milk go down,” said Joe.

But not all Petaluma dairy farmers have been so fortunate. Since the 1970s, dairy farms have been disappearing one by one, victims of the drop-off in milk consumption, the high cost of feed and the tangled skein of government regulations that control the price of milk and corn.

When Straus Family Creamery became the first certified organic dairy in 1994, there was no system in place to distribute and sell their milk, so they launched Straus Family Creamery, which allowed them to develop, create and distribute their own consumer products. Today a small group of dairies supply Straus with organic milk. According to president, Albert Straus, the company is experiencing “double-digit growth,” even in the face of a down economy. Straus has developed a product line that extends beyond just milk and is now riding the wave of enthusiasm for yogurt in all its forms. Another fact he is particularly proud of is that organic farms are growing in number. “Nearly two-thirds of the dairies in the Marin/Sonoma area are now certified organic.”

Straus faced economic problems similar to today's when he took over management of the dairy in 1977, a time when the small family farms were declining and large operations gained dominance. Having tackled those issues early on, he is aware that greater efficiencies and new markets are needed to sustain present-day dairy farmers. “Our parents, and in many cases, three and four generations of family, worked hard all their lives to keep their land agricultural,” he said. “But we're continuing to lose dairy producers and generations of knowledge.”

Straus advocates a stronger relationship between producers and processors, who have often worked at odds, as a means to stabilize prices. He has teamed up with others in the industry to develop innovative practices that can be applied to both organic and conventional dairies. And he, for one, believes that organic can lead the way.

“The organic sector is advancing toward an economic model that can be put in place for all dairy farmers,” he said.

(Contact Dyann Espinosa at argus@arguscourier.com)

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