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Down on the Farm: A special report on agriculture in Humboldt county

[photo of cows in field]


[cover of report]

Farm Bureau
releases special report

AGRICULTURE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT of human activities. Yet in the last century, the business of producing food and other agricultural goods has become increasingly invisible to consumers.

By publishing Food, Fiber & Flowers: A Special Report on Agriculture in Humboldt County, the Humboldt County Farm Bureau hopes to give the nonfarming public a basic understanding of what local farmers and ranchers produce, how they operate and what they contribute to our economy.

The 32-page magazine-style report released this week gives special attention to the future of local agriculture, examining how economic and political trends may affect the viability of farms and ranches and what opportunities exist for increasing local agricultural production.

Four types of agriculture are covered in depth. Three of these -- beef cattle, dairy products and flowers/nursery products -- are the largest in economic terms. The fourth, organic farming, is highlighted because organic growers produce a large supply of seasonal vegetables and fruits for consumers.

Food, Fiber & Flowers also reports on seven smaller agricultural sectors: animals raised for fiber; fruit; goats for dairy products and meat: hay and silage; honey bees; medicinal herbs; and wine grapes.

The special report does not cover aquaculture, timber harvest (except as a part of ranch operations) the gathering of forest products such as mushrooms, herbs and basket plants, and related activities that are sometimes classified as agriculture.

Food, Fiber & Flowers is free. To obtain a copy, send a 9x12 self-addressed envelope with 99 cents postage to Humboldt County Farm Bureau, 5601 S. Broadway, Eureka 95503. Copies will be available at the reference desks of all Humboldt County branch libraries and at chambers of commerce after May 1. Bulk orders are also available for schools; call the Farm Bureau at 443-4844 for more information.

-- Jim Hight


The following report on the dairy industry by Arcata-based free-lance writer Jim Hight, constitutes Chapter 1 of
Food, Fiber
& Flowers published by the Humboldt County Farm Bureau.

IN THE LATE 19TH CENTURY, PEOPLE IN SAN FRANCISCO AND other coastal towns depended heavily on butter and cheese produced in Humboldt County.

As California's population increased, more dairy herds and creameries were established closer to the growing cities, and Humboldt dairy products became less critical. After World War II, better refrigeration and interstate highways allowed dairies to move farther from population centers, and the San Joaquin Valley became the dominant California dairy region. Valley counties are today responsible for about 70 percent of California's annual milk production, which reached $4 billion in 1998.

Humboldt dairies grossed about $40 million in 1998, making dairy the largest agricultural industry in the county. While they produce just 1 percent of the state's milk, Humboldt dairies are very important to the local economy.

Dairies provide jobs for about 400 people and enough raw milk to keep four milk processors going. The largest processor, Humboldt Creamery Association, pays prevailing industrial wages and provides full benefits to its more than 100 employees.

Dairies rely on many goods and services in the community. They create steady business for feed stores, hay shippers and other trades, not to mention viable, long-term careers in agriculture for the families who own them.

But dairies are etched more deeply into Humboldt County's cultural and aesthetic landscape than economic data can convey. The ranches that spread out across the lower Eel River Valley and the Arcata Bottom create images of stirring beauty, with meandering sloughs and cows foraging in fields of grass. These ranches also provide habitat for ducks, geese, egrets and migrating shorebirds and the inspiration for a thousand paintings by artists.

In big cities, dairy products are anonymous commodities with no visible ties to the farms that produce them. In Humboldt County, children can drink milk from the same creamery that fed their great-grandparents, and on their way to school, they can see some of the cows that produced that milk.

Dairy work is demanding and intense, with seven-day weeks of 10- to 14-hour split shifts that start well before dawn. But even busy dairy owners feel the romance of their profession. "Everybody else works all week long to get outside on the weekend. I get to make a living working outside," said Dennis Leonardi of Ferndale. "It's kind of like living the American dream."

Winter rains and floods can make the dairy operator's lot more of a grueling trial than a dream vocation, but Mother Nature's fiercest weather can be less daunting than the hard-edged economic realities of running a dairy business.

[photo of milk carton machine] Milk from 78 Humboldt dairies is processed at Humboldt Creamery.


Dairy dollars unpredictable

Dairy profit lies in the balance between feed costs and milk prices.

"Sometimes a great year for milk prices will be offset by a year when feed is expensive. Sometimes the reverse happens, and dairies have an unusually good year," said Dave Jackson of Pacific Coast Farm Credit. "The worst thing that can happen is when high feed prices coincide with low milk prices."

Dairy operators seek to meet these unstable market conditions by getting bigger and more efficient. In 1950 the average California dairy herd numbered 40 cows; by 1998 it was 650, according to figures from U.C. Davis and the Dairy Herd Improvement Association. Through breeding and feeding more concentrates, milk production per cow increased from 7,710 pounds a year to 22,000 in that same period. (These increases were also facilitated by improvements in milking machines, refrigeration and transportation.)

In the San Joaquin Valley and other major dairy regions, dairies with 2,000 cows or more are common. These large dairies confine their animals in mechanized barns where all feed and water is conveyed to the cows. Humboldt County's dairies are smaller, typically running herds of 200 to 400 head; and dairies keep their animals on pasture most of the year.

Local dairy ranchers feel the same pressures to increase productivity and efficiency, however. Leonardi, a fourth-generation dairy owner, took over his family's dairy near Ferndale in 1977. He has about 300 cows and four employees, but he plans to expand so that the next generation can continue operating the dairy.

"We're working toward setting the operation up so it has a sustainable process. A dairy farm has to be big enough and efficient enough to meet future business cycles," said Leonardi. "It has to be profitable. You can't ask anyone to do anything if it's not profitable."

Manure resource, pollutant

When dairy cows gather around milking barns twice a day, or when they're confined in a barn for several months during winter, their waste must be managed.

Dairy operators use cow manure as fertilizer, tilling it in before planting grass or feed-corn or spreading it thinly on mature grass. Some mix manure with water and pump it through pipes to giant sprinkler guns that spread it over fields in dry months.

With help from U.S. Department of Agriculture farm service agencies, Humboldt County Resource Conservation District and the California Coastal Conservancy, many dairies have invested in larger, more sophisticated manure storage ponds and distribution systems. They've also started spreading their manure on larger acreages, even leasing neighboring land just for that purpose. These practices maximize the nutrient value on the land and protect water quality.

But some dairies may be required to upgrade their manure management systems. "The main line of effort is to get voluntary compliance," said John Hannum of the Regional Water Quality Control Board. "If that doesn't work you have to go in and require a more focused regulation in which they're required to submit technical reports on their manure management, file reports of waste discharge and pay some filing fees. That's considered a semipunitive tier of enforcement.

"For the ones who can't get their act together that way, we go to formal enforcement. ... We've issued cleanup and abatement orders to seven dairies in Sonoma County in the 1990s. We've never had that happen in Humboldt County, but it might be coming." As part of a statewide dairy quality assurance program, the water board has hired an agricultural engineer to reach out to Humboldt County dairy operators with a questionnaire and follow-up inspections.

Many dairy operators feel they have the challenge of manure management well in hand. "We had to build better holding lagoons," said Ferndale dairy operator Jim Regli. "We'll be in compliance. I'm more worried about the price of milk crashing than I am about regulations."

Others fear that the capital costs for new manure handling systems will force them to quit the dairy business. "The only thing that will put me out of business would be if the environmental regulations get more stringent about manure management," said one dairy operator. "There's not enough profit in this to fight it that much."

Four local processors

Most milk in California is pooled for valuation, a procedure that allows dairy operators to share in the value of all types of products: yogurt, fluid milk, ice cream, butter, powdered milk and cheese.

[photo of calves] Photo by Katherine Ziemer

Four processors buy milk from Humboldt dairies: Humboldt Creamery in Fernbridge, Rumiano Cheese Co. in Crescent City, Parmillano Cheese Co. in Fortuna and Loleta Cheese Co. in Loleta.

Rumiano gets about half of its milk from 29 Humboldt County dairies. The company produces Monterey jack and cheddar, including varieties with jalapeños, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and olives. Half of its cheese is marketed under its own label, half to private-label customers like supermarket chains.

Loleta Cheese was started in 1982 by former Eureka High School agriculture teacher Bob Laffranchi and his wife Carol. Like Rumiano, Loleta Cheese produces a variety of cheeses for sale under its own label as well as private-label store brands.

Parmillano is owned by New Jersey-based Chianti. It draws milk from six dairies and produces hard romano cheese which goes into Paul Newman's salad dressings.

Seventy-eight dairy producers sell their milk to the cooperatively owned Humboldt Creamery. Humboldt Creamery sells fluid milk on the North Coast and in Southwestern Oregon under its own label. It manufactures nonfat and whole-milk powder which is sold all over the world under different brand names and in the United States as Milkman Milk.

Humboldt Creamery's ice cream plant is geared toward contract manufacturing -- producing ice cream for the private label brands of chain stores. One of the creamery's biggest accounts is Costco, for which it makes Kirkland Signature "super-premium" vanilla ice cream.

Wanted: More milk

At the close of the millennium, demand for milk by the four regional processors is exceeding supply, and some processors are looking outside the county for more milk.

"We have excess production capacity, and the markets we've been serving and the demand for our products have grown," said Rich Ghilarducci, CEO of Humboldt Creamery. "We're looking at developing some dairies outside our region." New dairies may be asked to join as members of the creamery association or as non-member vendors.

Ghilarducci attributes the strong demand to the marketing successes of local milk processors. "All four processors have developed good, growing markets for the milk in this region."

"There is a need for more milk in Humboldt County based on the needs of the processors that are here," echoed Laffranchi. "The question is, can it be produced at a price that will allow dairymen to make money? We're in a much more volatile dairy commodities market than we've ever been in before."

To help ensure their own long-term supply, the Laffranchis' recently raised capital from small investors to create a limited-partnership dairy with 300 cows.

One Dairy Morning

[photo of Darrell Hamden with cows]by JIM HIGHT

IT WAS A DARK AND MISTY NIGHT ON THE ARCATA BOTTOM, several hours before dawn, when Darrell Harnden began his day.

His 160 white-and-black holsteins were gathered in a restive crowd inside the milking barn. Harnden let the cows through the gate one at a time, and they trotted quickly to one of the open stanchions, lowering their heads to piles of grain while a steel bar locked them in place for milking.

After being drained of two to three gallons of milk, the cows seemed to expect a second serving of feed. "I'd like to feed them all they could eat, but I wouldn't make any money," said Harnden over the hydraulic rattle and hum of milking and feeding machines. "They get most of their bulk from grass, but this feed is a high percentage of their mineral package." The feed was a concentrated mix of corn, soy and seed-oils that Harnden purchases in bulk by the ton.

To convince the cows that breakfast was over, Harnden and his employee, John, used gestures, pushes and swats to back them out of the stanchion and guide them outdoors. Full-grown holsteins weigh between 1,200 and 1,400 pounds, and they command respect.

"I've raised most of these cows from calves. It really helps if they're raised with some gentleness. They're not nearly as jumpy," said Harnden.

When it comes to hiring help, Harnden says he tries to find people who like animals. "Fortunately, my last five or six employees have not been mean to animals, so the cows have gotten gentler. Although you don't want them too tame or you can't herd them.

"Our daughters have their pet calves every year, and those animals tend to be the hardest to deal with when they get older."

Harnden, 42, got into the dairy business after he married Kathy Laursen in 1988. He worked for his father-in-law, Lee Laursen, from 1992 to 1994, then bought the business in 1995. Kathy's grandfather, Herb Laursen, ran the ranch as early as 1919. "When this ranch first started, they hand-milked 90 cows on a redwood deck. Our home was a bunkhouse where nine people lived," said Harnden.

With 20 mechanized milking stanchions, Harnden and one employee handled nearly twice as many cows in three hours. But they still tasted the labor of the old days. Before hooking up the milking cups, they hand-stripped each cow's four teats to stimulate lactation. And this morning Harnden milked by hand one cow whose teats were distressed by her recent calving.

The charcoal shroud of night had given way to a gray liquid dawn by the time the cows began their trek back to pasture. Harnden led the herd in a battered old pickup north on Mad River Road, while John brought up the rear. A dog kept the cows off the neighbors' driveways.

"There used to be five dairies on the right side of the road here," Harnden said, pointing to quiet barns and still fields. "It's doubtful there will ever be any in the future." The cost of building a new dairy to current standards is very high, he said. "The concrete alone would be more than you could justify."

After the last Holstein entered the pasture and the gate was secured, the milking ritual was complete. It was 7:30 a.m. Harnden had chores to do and a second worker to supervise, but it was fall, a slower time of year, so he planned to get in a nap before the afternoon milking. "If this were spring I'd be overwhelmed with getting equipment ready to make hay, calving, trying to recover from floods."

"When I helped run a sawmill, it was okay to shut down for maintenance. But not dairies. They run all the time," he said.



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