Guy and Gage Stueve got their start in farming at an early age. "I was probably 9 and Gage was 10," says Guy, "when we started a small beef herd. We've been in business together pretty much ever since."
Today, they work alongside their father Lloyd, farming a stretch of land not far from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite National Park. It's land that's steeped in the American traditions of conservation and farming, traditions that the brothers take seriously.
"Basically I grew up on a horse," Gage says, "raising stock and milking before and after school. So I've had a very fortunate upbringing." After high school, the boys went off to college—Guy to study animal science and Gage to learn business.
"Then there comes a day when you've got to make a decision: Do you come back to the farm?" says Guy. "My brother and I, we both chose to come back. So we had a little farm, my dad and us, and we're trying to figure out how we can keep our farm and all be farmers together."
With several generations of dairy farming behind them, the Stueves built a dairy barn and began to build a herd of organic cows. They also joined the Organic Valley co-op, now one of the nation's largest, back when organic was no sure thing. "I remember talking to my dad and saying, 'What is organic?' It was a new thing for me," remembers Guy. "And there's this little co-op back in Wisconsin? I'm like, 'How is this going to work?'"
The economics of joining the co-op made good sense then, and still do. Unlike most milk co-ops, where prices can fluctuate depending on the whims of the market, Organic Valley sets an annual price designed to provide a fair return for farmer's labor. That, along with the co-op's commitment to pasture-raised animals, was enough to convince the Stueves. They became one of the first California families to join the Organic Valley co-op, and they brought some neighboring families along with them. "We figured we can get enough dairy cows together, we can all get on board and transition over together. We just have to figure out how to make a tanker load of milk," Guy recalls.
Organic may have been a new word and a new market back then, but, as Guy says, "We were organic before there was the official seal. It's in our blood. My family is very health conscious. Plus, we were already grazing cows. We know firsthand that cows do well on grass. That's the way God made cows."
A decade later, the two brothers and their father together milk 1,000 cows, making it the largest operation in the Organic Valley co-op. To keep that many animals grazing on pasture requires nearly 8,500 acres of certified organic pastureland—carefully cultivated, lush, nutrient-rich grassland that supplies virtually all their cows' needs.
By managing the herds with rotational grazing practices, the Stueves ensure their milk is of the highest quality. Cows like the Stueves' that live on open pasture live longer and give healthier milk that is higher in nutrients like vitamin E and Omega-3 fatty acids.
"It takes a fair amount of planning," says Guy. "We run milk cows and dry cows and young stock, and we also run a Black Angus beef herd, and of course there are the calves and heifers and spares. Since our growing season is long, we basically graze different types of animals every day of the year." The health of the pastures is a critical factor. "We work really hard on the pastures to keep them as high quality as possible."
Guy takes the lead on managing the animals and pastureland. Gage handles the finances. "That business degree is another tool for my toolbox—not that I love it," Gage says, "but it's an important skill for the farm. And my brother doesn't get pulled away when the red tape comes down."
Every day on the farm the family, along with a hired staff, work hand in hand to get the work done. It's a team effort and every day is a new day of rewards and challenges. Gage's business acumen also helps the co-op as a whole. Farmers like Gage with useful business skills often lend a helping hand with business strategy and to promote the co-op and the Organic Valley brand that all the farmer members own. The most important thing is to take ownership of something and then commit to making it work. Pooling resources like this is the key to what makes a successful co-op, Gage says. "At the end of the day, we all have a big stake in making this venture successful. Because I tell you what, I don't want to have to try to sell all this milk on my own. I know what's involved."
By pooling their resources with the co-op, the Stueves, like hundreds of other family farmers, free their time to focus on managing their herd to ensure the health of the animals and the milk they produce.
It's always been a family affair at the Stueves farm. It's more true now than ever, as the brothers have started their own families. Between the two of them, they've got five little ones. "We spend a lot of time as a family on the farm," Guy says. "The kids love it—especially when the calves are born. They're fascinated by the births."
Even though the oldest of the children is just five years old, they already have their farm chores. Grandpa Lloyd keeps a flock of 30 chickens on the pastures, and it's the kids' job to collect the eggs. "They love it. They have their special baskets and hats, and they go out collecting."
Transfer of knowledge from farm parents to their children has been a part of farming for all of American history. In the Stueve family, it stretches back at least three generations. Now, a fourth generation is beginning to learn how to live with nature and harvest its bounty. With any luck, they in turn will raise their own children in the tradition of stewardship, hard work, and conservation that forms the heart of the Stueve farm.