When Frank and Bernadette Coelho were approached by Organic Valley farmer-owners Tony Azevedo and Lloyd Stueve in 1996 about transitioning their dairy farm to organic, the idea was both daunting and appealing.
Frank, a third generation dairy farmer, is proud of his family’s farming heritage. His grandfather’s inspiration was a dairy farmer in Portugal’s Azores Islands where Frank still has the family home and pastures. “I wanted to go back to the traditional methods of caring for our cows,” Frank says. When the family immigrated to the United States in 1943, Frank’s father, Frank Sr., started dairying in Los Banos, California. In 1958, Frank Sr moved the dairy north to Modesto, California, which is the present location of both Nature’s Clover Dairy and Coelho’s Clover Dairy.
Although they farmed conventionally in some ways, the Coelhos always pastured their cows. Frank Jr. was always a big part of the dairy, and, at 25, he became a partner in the business. In 1982, Frank Jr. purchased Nature’s Clover Dairy and expanded their operation--ultimately allowing for more pasture land.
Frank and Bernadette met and married in 1985. A few months later, Frank realized that Bernadette wasn’t just an ordinary girl with conventional ideas. “I was always environmentally conscious,” Bernadette says, “and that meant no antibiotics or chemicals. I remember the first time the corn on our farm was cropdusted! I was furious and told Frank they aren‘t going to spray chemicals on this property. I didn‘t want our children exposed to anything like that if I could help it”
It wasn‘t difficult for Frank to go along with the idea. As Chairman of the Board of a Milk Co-op, Frank, didn‘t like what he was seeing. “I didn’t like the antibiotic use either, and I didn’t like the changes I was seeing in the industry.”
With only 5 cows, the Coelhos began dairying organically on Nature’s Clover Dairy in 1999.
“We were given a priceless opportunity to teach our children how to milk and care for our cows,” Frank says. “And we were learning too. There wasn’t a lot of information out there. My biggest concern was treating a cow if she got sick.” Sure enough in that first week, they had their first case of mastitis. Bernadette, familiar with homeopathy, had treated her children with garlic, and herbal remedies for illness and knew it would work. She had Frank put organic garlic oil in sterile water and inject it into the teat The next morning the cow was clear and didn’t have any reoccurring problem. The Coelhos continued to learn and to grow their dairy at Nature’s Clover Dairy where they currently milk 350 cows and manage 500 acres of certified organic land, 300 of which are in permanent pasture.
The Coelho’s have always pastured their cows, but in 2000 they began an "intensive rotational grazing" system. The cows are rotated through a series of small "paddocks" each day to browse on fresh grass. “The Intensive Rotational grazing is a very efficient way to feed. It’s what my father did,” Frank Jr. says. The cows do all the harvesting, saving both labor and fuel (less tractor use), while maintaining the integrity of the land. The cows also distribute manure uniformly across the pastures, recycling soil fertility and minimizing polluting runoff. Rotational grazing also helps to prevent soil erosion, since most of the land is in permanent grass. “Studies show that grass-fed cows produce milk with more Omega-3 fatty acids, which have shown promise at promoting health and preventing some forms of cancer,” Bernadette says. “So not only is grazing healthier for the cows and the land, it's good for milk drinkers too!”
In 2008 the Coelho family started Coelho’s Clover Dairy on the original dairy farm. After graduating from Stanislaus State University in 2009, with a degree in agricultural business, Frank Alexander (Frankie), the oldest of Frank Jr. and Bernadette’s four children, became operational manager of Coelho’s Clover Dairy.
As a Generation Organic farmer, Frankie, now 25, has his own herd of 167 cows to care for. “I’m excited to continue our family’s 65-year dairy legacy here in California as an Organic dairy farmer. I honestly never wanted to be a dairy farmer, but when we went organic, I started looking at the dairy business differently. Our cows were healthy and happy. Their life expectancy went up. I was amazed, and by the time I graduated from high school, I had changed my mind about dairy farming. Our family is better because of our lifestyle change. Organics gave us the opportunity to cut back our herd size, and increase the quality of life for the animals, the land and for ourselves."
Clarissa Coelho has a degree in ag business from Stanislaus State University, and works for the East Stanislaus Resource Conservation District, which provides technical assistance to the NRCS for Stanislaus County. She looks forward to continuing her education in agriculture. Elainna Coelho studies ag business at Stanislaus as well, and is considering a degree in agricultural law with a focus on sustainable agriculture. Chantelle Coelho will study dairy science at California Polytechnic State University.
All the Coelho’s are proud to be members of Organic Valley’s family of farms. They truly believe that they, along with their fellow farmers, are stewards of the land and can make a difference in the world.