The scenic redwood forests of northern California have been immortalized in American folkways for centuries. The region is a favorite destination for tourists, and a long-time focus of natural preservation efforts. But the redwood region is also home to many family farmers, and many of them have played an important role in the stewardship of these legendary lands.
One of these farm families is Jim and Susan Regli, dairy farmers who make their living running two small, organic, pasture-based dairies. The smaller of the two dairies is dedicated to a herd of 80 cows that produce Organic Valley Grassmilk™. These cows feast only on fresh grasses, and on hay, haylage and sileage during the off season. They do not consume any grain or soy supplementation whatsoever.
Because of the Reglis’ geographical location, it was never economically feasible to rely on trucked in feed sources, so they have always made pasture the main source of forage for their cows. “A few dairies have switched to the confinement method,” says Jim, “but I’ve never believed in that.”
When Jim studied dairy science in college, his teachers promoted this feedlot system. “They almost discouraged pasturing cows,” he remembers. “But when you consider our area, and that we were always a pasture-based dairy, we know that confined animal feedlot operations (CAFOs) won’t work here. That’s one reason why being organic and being able to emphasize our pasture-based operation is what will help us survive. Organic is just a better way to farm, produces a better product and is more sustainable. You’re not using synthetic fertilizers that inhibit microbial activity in the soil and pollute groundwater.”
When the Reglis fully certified their farm organic in 2004, Jim realized that he was working the farm like generations of Reglis did before him. The cows are rotationally grazed year-round, weather permitting, on pastures that consist predominately of perennial rye grass and white clover.
“For us, it made sense to go organic since one of the bedrock principals of organic is having cows on pasture. So we just feed our cows what’s already here and grows easily and naturally. The rye grass and white clover do perfectly well in this climate, and orchard grass grows on some soils. Once you get good pasture established here, it goes on for years as long as you manage it carefully.”
Becoming aware of consumer preference for 100% grass-fed milk, the Reglis, with the help of Organic Valley, decided to make the milk from their 100% grass-fed cows available to the public.
“We’ve always thought there’s a market out there for this milk, and we’d like to see it take hold. We’re motivated to make this work because we’ve seen the studies that prove the CLA [conjugated linoleic acid] and omega-3 content in 100% grass-fed milk is so much higher.”
What makes the farm sustainable for the animals and the land also makes it sustainable for a family. On the Reglis’s farm, the entire family participates in the operation. Well, kids pitch in a little less than usual when school is in session. Susan handles the farm books, pays the bills, and keeps the family on track.
Their oldest is 19 now and studying ag business at California Polytechnic in San Luis Obispo. The next four oldest are in high school and middle school and the remaining two, down to the youngest three year-old, are at home. Susan home-schools all the kids through eighth grade. The role of teacher can be time-consuming but is ultimately rewarding.
At various times of the year, all the kids help out by feeding calves, moving the irrigation system, milking the cows and making hay. Jim thinks possibly some of their children might be interested in farming as a future. “But I would encourage them to attend college and work for other people, and if they have the passion for a career in the dairy business, we will work together to continue our dairy operation. The growing demand for organic products makes the economics of this farm a viable path for their future.”
Working side by side has made the Reglis a close-knit family. “It brings us together,” says Jim. “It’s a great way of life.”
It’s in large part thanks to stable prices for organic dairy that the Reglis have been able to carry on the tradition of this great way of life. “I was raised here on this farm,” says Jim, “and I’ve always wanted to dairy. I’ve always liked cows.”
Today, however, he looks to the future and dreams while doing the one job on the farm that nobody likes: hoeing pesky thistles from the pastures. “It’s kinda peaceful,” Jim says. “You’re out there hoeing away and that’s all you’ve got to worry about for the moment.”