Dairying has been in the Bansen family since before Dan Bansen’s grandpa emigrated from Denmark in the mid-1800’s. The Bansen forebears came through Ellis Island and headed west to a Danish settlement on the coast of Northern California. He hired out his milking skills until he saved enough money to buy a small farm. When Dan was a kid, his grandpa’s farm was still the classic subsistence farm that was the world’s agricultural model until the mid-1950’s, meaning they raised sheep, ducks, goats, cows, and the crops to feed their animals. They went to town for flour, sugar, and salt and that was about it.
In ’65 Dan Bansen’s father left the home farm in California and moved to Oregon with 35 cows and 6 kids. He went into debt to buy a farm. But like those who came before them, the Bansens worked hard, saved money, added cows and land whenever they could and continued to visit the home farm in California. “All of us kids loved how much fun it was to be on that farm. What I realize now is that my grandpa was an organic farmer. Worldwide there’s a swing back to traditional agriculture that is supported by consumers who are willing to pay for the fact that their food is produced responsibly.”
The Bansens have always milked Jersey cows, and Dan’s herd is no different. In 1994, Organic Valley was looking for quality milk from the Pacific Northwest. When CEO George Siemon was there to recruit, he passed the Bansen family farm outside of McMinville, Oregon, and saw their Jerseys grazing on lush, healthy Oregon pasture. He pulled right in. It was that chance meeting with George that convinced Dan Bansen to transition to organic formally, since the management of their farm was already largely organic. “We didn’t think we knew anything about it,” Dan says. “We told George we would try it for 6 months and see what happened, and it was like falling off a log. So we went for it.”
Since then, Dan says, “There’s a lot less stress on this farm than there used to be when we were so pushed to make ends meet. That’s what organic does. It puts the spotlight on the family and allows the family to stay on the farm. Under a lot of circumstances, you wouldn’t want your kids in a situation where they work themselves into the ground mentally and physically with a huge debt load on top of that, but that’s the case in much of agriculture. You see farms getting bigger, which means there are fewer farmers. But we see organic as something that has allowed us to be a more viable operation. Because of the stable pay price offered by the Organic Valley cooperative system, we know what we’re going to make. It’s been good for the cows and good for the farm, and has made it so we could have a viable business to pass on to the next generation.” Dan says, referring to his daughter, Jamie, who currently manages the daily operations of the dairy.
The next generation is already involved. Dan’s daughter Jamie, 31, has taken over the day-to-day operations of the dairy, along with a young man, Robert, who started working on the farm at age 9. “We have a good system,” Jamie says. She manages the herd health, pregnancy checking, and records, along with the myriad tasks that must be seen to daily. Her dad, Dan, does all the feed buying. Dan laughs, “Basically, I’m in charge of good ideas, but Jamie doesn’t always agree with that.”
Every Monday, Jamie, Robert and Dan meet to review what happened the previous week, make a plan for the coming week, and check long term goals and management strategies. Then it’s up to Jamie and Robert to carry it all out.
Of Dan Bansen’s three daughters, Jamie was the most determined to continue the family farm. “My parents wanted me to experience other things before committing to being here, because it’s a lifetime commitment.” So Jamie got her degree in Dairy Science and Agricultural Business from Oregon State University. “I thought about doing other things when I first started college, because I wasn’t sure what the situation would be here on the farm, whether or not it would be financially viable and whether or not Dad wanted me to be here. I never had that discussion outright with my Dad, but I think it was just understood between us that I wanted to be here.”
After college, she worked for Oregon Dairy Farmers’ Association and the State Department of Agriculture. After four years, however, she made the farm her full-time work. “Those jobs were huge experiences for me, but, by that time, my Dad was hinting at my coming back to the farm full time.”
Jamie was just out of high school when the farm first transitioned to organic, and they were the first organic farm in their part of the state. “My first concept of organic agriculture was that you withhold chemicals. I didn’t realize then the full implications of it, like soil health and whole systems.”
It was after she began to handle the farm’s organic records and annual applications that she really learned what farming organically meant. She started going to organic conferences and events, as well as tapping her Dad’s cousin, Organic Valley producer and grazing proponent Jon Bansen, for advice. “I think grazing is great,” Jamie says. “The cows are happy when they’re out. In the early spring we’ll get a little break in weather in March when we can go ahead and put them out. If we have to bring them in because it starts raining again, they’ll stand by the door, waiting to get back out.” Not that they aren’t pampered when they’re in the barn. All the beds are lined with pasture mats (tubes filled with shredded rubber tires), topped with cushions that are in turn topped by a rubber mat, all of which is topped by bedding.
And when the cows are happy, Jamie’s happy. “I’m really tied to pleasant experiences I’ve had growing up here around the barns and the animals. I’m just kind of wired for it. Being here is really peaceful to me.”