Joe Ficher has been around dairying his whole life, which you might not expect from the son of a Portuguese journalist.
His parents immigrated to the U.S., sponsored by his father’s uncle, who owned a dairy in California. By the time Joe was born, his father was working for his uncle and had become a dairyman himself.
Because he grew up in a family that only spoke Portuguese, he went to school not knowing how to speak English. He learned quickly, and, like many children of immigrants, became his father’s translator when he needed to purchase supplies in town such as parts for the tractor.
Joe also remembers rising early in the morning before school to help his father on the dairy.
“I’d get up in the morning and feed the calves and help him finish milking,” he said. “Then I‘d go in and shower to get ready for school and he’d drop me off just in the nick of time for class.”
Because he was needed on the farm, he didn’t have time for extracurricular activities.
“He just worked on the farm, both because he had to and because he wanted to,” said Amy Peters, his girlfriend and Livestock Extension Agent for the Oregon State University Extension Service. “It’s his fun and his work and pretty much his whole life all combined in one.”
Joe laughed when he heard her say this, adding, “I sound pretty boring, don’t I?”
But, boring or not, his dedication has paid off. After graduating from high school he worked for his older brother for 11 years, gradually accumulating a herd of his own with the goal of owning his own dairy. With the discovery that he most enjoyed grazing-based dairying, he found an opportunity to dairy on the southwest coast of Oregon, its maritime climate ideal for cows and grass growth.
After dairying in Oregon for four years, he had the opportunity to buy out a neighboring dairy farm, which had been the first certified organic dairy on the West Coast. The organic milk market was more stable than the conventional market, making the decision to purchase the farm a good option. Other dairy producers in the area told him that Organic Valley really supported its dairymen, another factor in his decision to sell to Organic Valley.
His calves are raised in polydomes, or individual plastic huts, from the time they are 24 hours old to three months of age. Hand-raising them in the outdoor, ventilated domes is healthier and less stressful for the calves.
“They’re out in the environment in the fresh air instead of being confined in a barn where the airflow isn’t as good,” he said. “They’re out in the open and the breeze blows through and keeps the air fresh.”
One of the unique practices he has adopted is keeping calves together in the same groups all through their lives. At three months they go into group pens of 10 or 15 calves and, Ficher said, “They’re kept in that same group from when they are young all the way until they go into the milk string. This helps reduce stress caused by changes in the social order of the animals.”
He’s also proud that the pastures on his dairy are able to support his current herd of 400 cows for the seven months of the year they graze, and also provide enough silage to feed them through the winter months. And, like most organic farmers, he keeps his pastures in top shape by spreading the cow manure on his fields, the main source of fertilization.
Perhaps it’s due to being a second generation American, but Joe has been single-minded about his future.
“My goal has always been to own my own dairy farm,” he said. “And I was able to reach my goal of owning my own place. I’ve been working toward improving the dairy ever since.”
Luckily Amy shares his love for the land and the animals in their care.
“It’s part of my passion as well, so it’s great having this kind of a work/personal relationship,” she said. “My job is research and education, but on weekends and nights, y’know, we may have a cow hauling date or something like that.”
“You have to remember, I’m boring,” Joe responded with a laugh. “I don’t have any hobbies so she has to tag along. Otherwise she doesn’t get to see me.”