South of Ferndale, California, the Renner family’s 1,000-acre Diamond R Ranch sprawls across the valley foothills. The Price and Oil Creeks gurgle through the ranch on their way to the Eel River. Robin works the acreage together with two of Robin’s brothers and their families. Their sister, Marilyn, wrangles the organic certification paperwork, a constant and ongoing job. (“Thank goodness for my sister,” Robin says. “I’m not big on paperwork!”) Penny Renner is a registered nurse, and Robin and Penny’s three children are grown and working off-farm these days.
“We all live on the ranch within a mile or so of each other, which is great because family members are here to take care of things when somebody needs a day off.” It’s a true family affair, and it works.
Robin’s part of the business is the ranch’s dairy that consists of 125 registered Jersey cows, a breed that has been part of the ranch’s heritage since Robin’s dad bought the land back in the late 1940s.
A lot of the acreage is steep and wooded, so a sustainable logging operation is part of the ranch income. There are 160 acres of irrigated permanent pasture to manage as well, which consists mostly of clovers and annual and perennial rye grasses. “The main thing we’re careful of is not to overgraze. We make sure to let the pastures rest sufficiently once the cows have been through a paddock,” Robin says. “The second most important pasture management technique is to keep the cows off the pastures when it’s too wet so they don’t tear up the plants so much.”
Robin says the switch to organic seemed like the natural thing to do.
“Our transition to organic really wasn’t a big change for us,” Robin says, “because our grazing practices were right in line with organic. Plus, we weren’t big on chemicals in the first place. It was too expensive.
“Basically, being organic takes the crutches away,” he says. Without the “crutch” of antibiotics, for example, the Renners had to learn new holistic and natural ways to treat illnesses in the herd—which, Robin says, doesn’t happen much now anyway. “When the cows aren’t stressed, there’s far less illness because they’re a lot more comfortable.”
The Renners credit Organic Valley’s fair and stable pay price for their newfound peace of mind, a welcome change from the constant worry of dramatically fluctuating milk prices in the conventional market. “Going organic took stress off the animals and off of us. Because we could count on a fair, stable pay price, we don’t have to stress our animals for production the way we had to before. When we were able to let the cows relax and graze more, we were able to stop pushing so much supplemental grain. And we were able to cut back the herd size, which decreased stress on the pastures.”
All of this care and attention to soil, grass and animals translates to really great milk. “Ultimately,” Robin says, “we’re really proud of our milk quality and we’re glad that it gets to consumers who care about that.”