John Mattos says he talked more than he worked as a young kid growing up on his dad's farm. Nowadays, John works more than he talks, tending to his 450 cows on the rolling hills of his Diamond M Dairy in Sonoma County, California.
John was born and raised on his family's farm, where his grandparents raised and grazed cows starting in 1944. He began working for his Dad fresh out of high school and broke out on his own at the age of 24. Today, his wife Joni and son Nick help him run the operation.
In 2001, when a neighboring farmer earned organic certification, John began asking questions. He wanted to know what it took to become organic—the challenges, the rewards, the costs. His farming methods weren't that far removed from organic farms, but he says it took him a bit to gather up his confidence. When he had a number of young animals in his herd, he figured the timing was right to make the official transition to organic.
The Mattos' land was certifiable right away. Most of the land was pasture, so the soil hadn't even been plowed. Weeds had been successfully managed by mowing or wind-rowing—no pesticides—and they had always used (organic-appropriate) cow manure for fertilizer.
Although John has always farmed close to organic, being certified has caused him to hone his management skills, and he finds himself "more on top of things." This attention to the details helps his cows at the same time it helps his bottom line.
"The longer I farm organically, the fewer problems I have," John says. "My animals are healthier. It's interesting to watch how it just gets better and better." He credits the increased range of homeopathic and natural treatments available to farmers today for making life easier for organic farmers. Breeding cows with an eye toward health and longevity also eases a lot of farmers' worries, as tendencies for illness decrease and the lifespan of the herd extends. And proper pasture management-allowing cows the forage they are naturally inclined to eat-simply makes for healthier, happier cows.
"I love my cows! Anyone who visits our farm can see that," John says. "I like to give them choices—of what fields they want to graze in, or what kind of hay they might prefer. Cows have to have a choice. You have to, in a sense, put yourself in the cow's position."
When Organic Valley approached John as a prospective milk producer, he was drawn to its cooperative model. He joined the Organic Valley truck in 2005, and has fed off the support and sharing of information amongst members. "I feel like I have a say in the co-op about things that are important to me such as quality of milk and getting information about farmers out to consumers," John explains. "I like the idea of giving consumers a look into our lives, so they can get a little taste of what it is like to be a farmer."