In the spring of 1999, John Boere decided to transition to organic for the same reason a lot of Organic Valley farmers do: other Organic Valley farmers happened to stop by his farm because they noticed his cows were out on grass. "Tim Griffin and Wayne Peters and Tony Azevedo showed up here one day.
I'd heard about organic dairying prior to that, but I didn't know who to talk to about it. I already had the idea that it would work good for this ranch." John laughs. "It would mean I didn't have to let another fertilizer salesman come down my driveway. I don't care too much for chemicals."
Before he transitioned to organic, he had experiences with chemicals that gave him the creeps. "I remember the fertilizer company said I had to spray for spider mites. I said okay, but they had to hold off a couple of days because I had to irrigate." But the next day he was in the middle of a cornfield checking water lines when the crop duster flew over and sprayed the whole field, him included. "They said it wouldn't hurt me, but that was the last time I let them spray my place." So prevalent were agricultural chemical applications in the farm belt, he remembers driving his kids to church one day when a crop duster flew over the road and sprayed the car. "It was so greasy and thick I couldn't even see out the window. My Dad used to use chemicals a lot, but he had stopped using them the last few years he was still farming. Just didn't see any sense in it."
On the 500 acres John owns and rents, his herd of Holsteins, Ayrshires and cross-bred cows can graze pretty much all year, because he's in one of the best pasture areas in the state. "We can pasture here all year and our grass grows all the time. We have heavy clay soils, but it holds water nicely and grows good grass." His pastures are a nutritious mix of Dallas, Rye and Fescue grasses with clover mixed in. John has engineered the ranch's landscape to accommodate water, whether it's scarce or plentiful. "No water leaves this ranch. We keep it all here and recycle it. If it does rain and the return ponds fill up at the bottom, we pump it back onto the land."
And the ranch accommodates wildlife nicely, as well. "I manage my acreage for habitat. Some folks think I should mow more of the acreage, but you wouldn't believe how many birds we have nesting out there." And when he walks across the rolling hills he likes to see the pheasants and coyotes and raccoons as much as he likes to see his cows grazing.
It's a good thing he does, given that John's family has been chased across California by development his whole life. Four generations of his family have farmed in California, and they were farming in Europe for generations before that. His great grandfather had a farm on what is today the Los Angeles Harbor. Out in Modesto, developers are knocking on John's door again.
John joined Organic Valley as soon as he transitioned and has been with the cooperative ever since, even though he had had bad experiences with co-ops before. "The way the other co-ops were structured, it was their way or the highway. Folks at Organic Valley listen to you and do what they can for you. If you have a problem, they take care of it. If there's a trucking issue, they can get it straightened out. Plus, their standards are high so they provide a good, wholesome product to the consumer. When the public buys our milk, they know the cows have been on pasture and been humanely treated." John feels it's a good thing for dairymen, too, because they can be proud to provide milk for a brand that's trusted nationwide. As for his four children, all in their 20's, "One of the main reasons we went organic is that we figured it would make the dairy last longer in California, and that would mean a better future for my family."