Wally Holmgren was planning a nice, quiet retirement when he sold the liquor stores he owned in Los Angeles and bought an old dairy farm in Oregon’s Coquille Valley in 1997.
“I was going to put in vineyards, watch the grapes grow and drink the wine,” he said.
The problem was that the farm was in a little valley that was socked in with coastal fog all summer long, which meant there wasn’t enough sunlight for the grapes to grow. There were lots of dairy farms in the area, however, and Wally’s son Mike had taken to spending time on a neighbor’s farm, helping milk their cows. Mike admits that one reason for his sudden interest in dairying might have been the neighbors’ daughter, Gail, who would eventually become his wife.
Wally laughs when he recalls their initial naïveté about livestock.
“The first time we ever saw cows they were coming up to look at us,” he said. “We were running thinking it was a bunch of bulls coming to gore us.”
They’d torn out all the old dairy equipment when they first bought the farm, thinking that they’d turn the former milking parlor into the fermentation room for the new winery. When they realized that winemaking wasn’t in their future, they bought 10 cows from a neighbor’s farm and put back all the dairy equipment.
Wally admits that at first they had no idea what they were doing and didn’t know that using antibiotics, herbicides and pesticides was common practice in the dairy business.
“We just couldn’t see any reason to use them,” he said. “It fit into our philosophy: Just grow grass, let the cows eat it and let Mother Nature take care of her thing.”
It was about that time that Organic Valley was recruiting dairy farmers in the area, and nine months later Holmgren Dairy joined the co-op.
“We’d already been doing organic practices because we kind of believed in them,” Wally said about the process of becoming a certified organic dairy, “so it was simple enough to do.”
Back in 2000, though, it was difficult to find organic hay to feed the cattle during the winter, so Wally and Mike bought a hay farm in eastern Oregon near Burns. It also became the place where they raised their calves when it got too wet and muddy at their coastal dairy.
“Once they get about six months old we bring them over to eastern Oregon, where it’s a drier climate,” Mike said. “On the coast in the wintertime it’s more cold and muddy, and that stresses out the animals, and they do fine over here in the dry cold.”
Mike, who now lives on the hay farm with his family, said that although it’s now much easier to purchase organic hay, growing their own hay is more cost-effective.
While Mike runs the hay farm, Wally drives the truck full of hay from eastern Oregon to the dairy in Coos Bay, and they’re currently working on a way to transport dried manure from the dairy back to the hay farm, which would solve the problem of driving an empty truck the nearly 400 miles back to Burns.
And since they’re already using the liquid extracted from the manure to fertilize the pastures at the dairy, the dried manure would be more useful helping to enrich the fields of hay and close the transportation loop. It would also solve the problem of having to store the dried manure at the dairy through the wet winter months when it can’t be spread on the fields.
With Mike managing the haying operation and Wally driving the truck, they needed someone to run the dairy, which had by this time grown to 350 cows. They found the perfect person in Mike’s brother-in-law, Joe Spencer. He and his wife Karen, Mike’s sister-in-law, had run beef cattle in the past, but Joe had been logging when the economy went into recession in 2008.
“He couldn’t do logging any more, and that was right about the time I was going to come over here,” Mike said. “They needed a job, and it keeps it in the family. He jumped right in and it’s been working out great.”
Wally, who, in addition to driving the truck, sometimes helps out at the dairy, shakes his head and adds, “Yeah, I’m supposed to be retired but it seems like I work every day.”