Home to a gorgeous stretch of northern California coastline, Humboldt County is densely forested, mountainous, and rural. The Coast Range forms a formidable spine up and down the County. Periodically, rivers punch through the cordillera and make their tumbling ways to the Pacific Ocean, creating coastal plains that are many feet deep in fertile, alluvial soil.
The proximity of mountains to ocean also creates a microclimate in which nutrient-dense, cool weather grasses and protein rich legumes, like clover and alfalfa, thrive. Temperatures vary from the 40s in winter to the low 70s in summer. Not surprisingly, cows also thrive in climates that are hospitable to cows’ favorite foods, grasses and legumes.
Sounds like synchronicity when you’re talking about family dairies that specialize in producing milk from cows who feed on 100% pasture with no grain supplementation. However, the families who have dairy-ed here for generations knew what they were doing when they chose the land.
Johanna Petersen-Helzer’s great grandfather certainly knew it. In 1869 he started the family’s original dairy on Cock Robin Island, a small island that creates one last braid in the Eel River before it joins the Pacific Ocean. The wooden plank bridge from the mainland was pulled out in winter, and islanders were left to get to the mainland for school or to deliver precious cans of milk by boat.
The Petersens still own the farm on the island and use it to grow hay and raise the young stock that will come into the milking herd when they’re old enough. But Johanna’s grandfather, Robert, moved the family to the mainland near Loleta in 1953, and their main operation on 200 acres is there today, run predominately by Johanna’s dad, David, and her husband, Andy Helzer.
David and Andy manage the pastures carefully by rotating the cows to fresh grass as soon as they’re ready but before they have a chance to graze plants down to the nubbin. Graziers in many parts of the country envy the natural, self-sustaining sward of perennial rye grass and clover that grows so easily in the coastal California climate. Though it doesn’t rain much in summer, Andy says they get plenty of “fog rain” to keep the plants moist and the water table is very close to the surface, so irrigation is minimal.
The most important factor in the longevity and prosperity of the farm is, David feels, the determination to live within their means, and this is important when it comes to the health of the land and the animals that depend on it.
“We’ve always been pasture-based,” David Petersen says, “and we’ve always been careful not to overstock the pastures. I milk the same way my father did, but with a few updates to the equipment. We never did use much grain to supplement. When Cynthia and I transitioned to organic back in 2001, there really wasn’t much difference from how we operated before.”
When the family talked about going to 100% grass-fed for Organic Valley Grassmilk, they knew that wouldn’t be a problem.
“We talked a lot about what consumers want,” Johanna says, “about the elevated CLA and Omega-3 in milk from 100% grass-fed cows. Since we were already so close to that, the transition would be easy. There’s a lot of concern about making sure the cows don’t suffer energy-wise when they’re 100% grass-fed. But our cows were already managed that way, so we’re right on track for production. The cows are healthy and our whole herd produces for Organic Valley Grassmilk now. Dad and Mom first took the farm organic, and now we’re taking it a step further, but almost back in time in terms of how we farm. Being in on the ground floor of Grassmilk is very exciting. There’s nothing like it for quality in the marketplace.”
Johanna was drawn back to the farm after college because of the family connection. “It was important to me to see that my grandfather saw his legacy continued before he passed away. It’s a hard life, but it’s definitely rewarding. She feels lucky that Andy, who grew up in the city enjoys the lifestyle too.
Our farm’s been around a long time. As my dad says, we’ve never outgrown what we could provide. That was the example set by my great grandfather and my grandfather, and my dad has stayed true to that. It’s not about making a lot of money. It’s about living within your means. When Andy and I talked to my parents about becoming a partner in the farm, Dad said ‘You’re not going to get rich, but you’ll have an active and satisfying life.’”
It matters to Johanna and Andy to carry on as the 4th generation. So they’re very supportive of any one of their niece or nephews who show interest in being the 5th generation of Petersen’s to work the fertile soils of Humboldt County.