Tucked into the head of a canyon not 2 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Spring Valley Farms is surrounded by the big hills of Oregon’s Coast Range. The Johnston’s can’t see the ocean, but they can smell the salt air, and, Devin says, “We can hear the waves pounding when a storm comes in from the Pacific.” The hills surrounding them are heavily forested with hemlock, spruce, fir, alder, and cedar. A spring fed creek runs right through the farm, and the springs provide water for both the people and the animals who call this 240 acres home. “We’re very blessed,” Devin says.
The farm has been in the family for seventy-one years. Devin’s grandpa came from Gaston, Oregon, about halfway between Portland and Tillamook, where the family lived on a small hobby farm that provided most of the food for the family. His father was a blacksmith. But Grandpa Johnston wanted to farm on a bigger scale, and he wanted to milk cows. Spring Valley Farms looked like just the right place to do that. Devin’s dad took over from his dad, and Devin took over from him in 2006. Devin’s parents live only a mile away now, and Devin’s dad, thought pretty much retired, still helps out whenever he can.
Today the Johnstons milk about sixty cows and they have no desire to get bigger. “We’ve even talked about going smaller,” Devin says. They milked Holsteins until around 1997 when they got interested in what was going on with the grass-based dairy industry in New Zealand. Since pasture is the jewel in the crown of Spring Valley Farms, the connection made sense. “We started integrating New Zealand genetics, Friesians and Jerseys, into our herd. We liked the smaller cows and we liked the increased butterfat. We’ve kinda evolved more to Jerseys now. Little by little we’ll probably go back to pure Jerseys.”
Transitioning to organic was hardly a blink for the Johnstons. “Prior to certification, our mindset was already organic,” Devin says. “In fact, my dad started using organic practices in the 80s. We were technically still conventional because we weren’t certified, but we rarely used antibiotics and we always pastured our cows. When it came to the decision to get the farm certified, my dad and I were in lockstep. When he turned the farm over to me and Elena in 2006, he said ‘If you want to get it certified, that’s fine by me.’”
When transitioning to organic, many farmers have a steep learning curve when it comes to alternative treatments for sick cows, but even that didn’t present a problem to the Johnstons. They’d been learning from older farmers for decades about simple solutions like cider vinegar and garlic.
Their pastures were in great shape to begin with. The fields are a mix of orchard grass, fescues, alice white clover, and perennial rye grass, a plant graziers in other parts of the country would love to keep in their pastures but cannot for lack of moisture. The white clover provides excellent protein for the cows, and fixes nitrogen in the soil as it grows, fertilizing the rest of the plants. It grows well in the typically acidic soils of the region and, most importantly, is especially responsive to the cool, moist conditions of the Pacific Northwest.
The cows are on fresh pasture from April through November, another bonus many graziers would love to be able to take advantage of. Over winter months when the grass doesn’t grow quite so readily, the cows are supplemented with alfalfa and grass/legume silage. They don’t eat any processed grains whatsoever. The cows don’t produce as much milk on an all grass diet, but that’s okay with the Johnston’s. “If we feed grain and production goes up, we’d get enough additional milk to pay for the grain. Grain is expensive and the cows don’t even like it. Why bother?”
All the Johnstons help out on the farm. “Elena is truly my right hand,” Devin says. Elena raises and feeds the calves, bales and milks. “We all do everything, basically. We have a big garden and we raise chickens, turkeys and eggs. Elena’s a beekeeper, too, so we have plenty of the sweet stuff on hand.”
Elena always knew she wanted to marry a farmer. When she was growing up, her family had horses. Through Future Farmers of America, she spent an exchange year in Germany milking cows. By the time she met and married Devin when she was 20, she already knew what she was doing.
Elena and Devin have five children, ages sixteen to seven. “We haven’t really talked to any of them seriously about the next generation farming. Right now, they’re just busy with school and enjoying the farm.”
But their oldest daughter, Ruth, is involved in FFA just as her Mom was, and she helps out milking quite a lot. “She’s really good with the cows,” Devin says. “We call her ‘the head milker.’”