You could say that dairying is in Peter Mahaffy’s blood.
He studied horticulture in college, thinking that he might try planting fruit trees on the dairy farm that had been in his family since the 1930s. After all, he reasoned, the fruits produced around Coos Bay, along with the vegetables, dairy products, fish and timber from the area, had been shipped all the way to San Francisco since back in the days of steamships.
He loved his horticulture professors, but didn’t connect with the other students in the program.
“I didn’t grow up with that type of people,” he said. “The animal science people were more my bag, I guess.” He began taking more animal science classes, eventually meeting Jon Bansen, a dairy farmer in Monmouth who had just joined Organic Valley.
After graduating from college, Peter took a job with Bansen, and after two years had decided to go back to the farm and dedicate himself to the organic dairying practices he had learned on Bansen’s farm.
“A lot of what this particular dairyman did on his farm and what my parents’ farm could do were very compatible,” he remembers thinking. ”My grandfather and my dad had put a lot of work into it and I wanted to make sure that I gave it a shot.”
In 2003, with 60 cows he bought from Bansen, Peter and his wife, Kelly, moved back to the family farm and started River Bend Jerseys. His grandfather had milked cows on the farm in the early days, and there were buildings still standing that could be converted for dairying. And the transition to organic farming wasn’t difficult, because Peter's father hadn’t done much spraying after he took over the dairy from Peter’s grandfather or when he raised beef cattle on the farm after milk prices plummeted in the mid-'90s.
Plus Peter had discovered a secret that would make his pastures ideal for grazing dairy cows.
“The way I got past the need for commercial fertilizers was the fact that I’m able to use crab shells and shrimp husks,” he said with a grin. “I’m able to spread that thin over my pastures and it produces wonderful grass. You get the calcium from the shells and then there’s nitrogen, sulfur and boron. Since I happen to be the closest dairy farm to the processing plants, I get most of it.
“That shrimp and crab waste is what makes this operation go around and allows me to grow lots of really high quality pasture, which is what makes high quality milk which makes tasty dairy products.”
With his land situated just 12 miles from the coast, Peter needed to protect his pastures from the salt water in the bay at the mouth of the river that runs through the farm. He built tide gates that open to allow fresh water that flows down the hills when it rains to escape into the river. This keeps the salt water out but allows fish that live in the river to escape if they get trapped inside the gates.
Over the years, Peter has grown his herd of Jerseys from the original 60. He now milks 120 cows and is able to provide his own replacement cows from their offspring, improving the overall quality of his herd. After that, “it’s just a matter of reducing a lot of the extra layers of stress that you put on cows so that you don’t have to use antibiotics to keep those cows healthy,” he said.
His focus now is making sure the farm is successful so that his three young daughters can continue to farm if they want to.
“I’m trying to make it fun for the next generation to come back to the farm, because I was very close to not coming back,” he said. “But with Organic Valley’s commitment to sustainable milk pay price, and the love that the consumers have for the products, it makes it that much more possible for family farms to stay intact. To me, that’s what it’s all about.”
And he still loves a fresh glass of milk.
“I grew up on it. I think it just tastes absolutely fabulous,” he said. “A cool glass of milk on a hot day—you can’t beat it!”