It was by the grace of God that Joe and Astrid found their 276 acres nestled in a foothill valley of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, according to Astrid, wife of organic dairy farmer Joe Doornenbal.
“I had no experience as a grass farmer when we got into this,” Joe says. “As a little boy, my dad still had some pasture, but he tore that out when I was about eight. In high school I worked for two other dairymen. One farmed conventionally, like I grew up doing, and I spent most of my time in the milking barn. The other guy intensively managed his pastures for grazing, and I saw the value of that. It looked right. It is right.”
Many years later, Joe went to Australia to investigate rotary parlors for the family operation in California. “There I was, watching those rotary parlors go around, but I was also looking out in the fields at all the cows grazing. The farmers would bring the cows in and milk them and send them right back to the pasture. I remembered working for that grass farmer during my high school years, and I thought cool. After the trip I told Astrid that if we ever have the kind of place where grazing would be feasible, I would want to farm like that. Somewhere along the way that idea got shuffled to the back of my mind, but Astrid remembered, so when we found this place in Oregon, she knew it was the spot to do it.”
“God’s hand guided us to this organic grazing dairy in Oregon. For five years we looked at various dairies in various states that were conventional and not suited for grazing, but the doors to all those other dairies just kept closing on us. This was the only place we looked at in Oregon and within a week it was ours,” adds Astrid. Joe agrees.
Eight years later, Thomas Valley Farm is a welcome sight for sore eyes, with its herd of 160 Jersey and Jersey/Holstein crosses spread across pastures that are managed by intensive rotational grazing, meaning that the cows are moved to fresh forages twice a day.
“When we decided to be an organic, grass-based dairy, I wondered how I was going to deal with this or that problem. Ultimately I found that by giving cattle an appropriate amount of space and fresh air and natural diet, many of the problems that confinement dairies have tended to go away. Also, in conventional operations they vaccinate for everything under the sun. On our farm I do my herd work in the morning while the cows eat and they never try to kick me. Doing the same work on our previous conventional farm, some animals would try to kick me as I walked by because they associated my presence with getting a shot of some kind, with feeling pain. Organic management also means that our cows are not constantly exposed to the high bacteria loads found in crowded conditions. That doesn’t mean that I never vaccinate. But certainly much less than I did on the conventional dairy.”
Joes also points out that, as an organic farmer with a low cow-to-acre ratio, he has fewer of the environmental worries that often plague conventional farmers. “Too many animals on too little acreage means that a farmer has to export manure. That’s expensive and potentially leads to over-application of manure on land, which potentially leads to runoff. Environmentally, our system is much safer.”
“People pay a premium for organic milk not just because they feel it’s better for them, but because the farmers who produce organic milk manage their land and their animals in a way that consumers feel is just as important to the overall health of their environment. Our farming practices are respected. And we earn that extra premium for our milk not just because we think it’s better, but because of the economics of organic dairying: smaller dairies (often family farms) have higher feed and operating costs.”
“One of the things we love about being members of Organic Valley is that it has done a great job of letting consumers know how we operate. Being a cooperative is something that garners more respect from the general public and I like that. We enjoy making a difference as members of a co-op in which the farmer has a say and a vote about what goes on. We talk to George Siemon [Organic Valley CEO]. He knows us and everybody else.”
The four Doornenbal children were young when they arrived at Thomas Valley Farm all those years ago. Teenagers now, Johan, Reuben, Donata, and David feel great about organic farming and they’re proud of it.
As Joe looks around, he says, “One of our sons wants to take over some day. We have something pretty special here and we want to take care of it. We want to keep it special for the following generations.”