When Matt Eldridge and his wife Robyn purchased a run-down, 30-acre dairy farm in Whatcom County, Washington, he didn't envision a state-of-the-art organic dairy in his future.
Matt grew up amidst the dairies of Petaluma in Northern California, and with most of his friends hailing from farm families, he was no stranger to cows. He got his first real job in 7th grade, working in a dairy, and stayed with it until he graduated from high school in 1991. That experience, Matt says, gave him his taste for farming.
For the next several years, however, Matt didn't think much about cows. He played football at the University of Idaho, fought fires as a smokejumper, traveled, and guided trips for hunters and fishermen. He also met his future wife Robyn, and eventually, as he says, he got the "party and travel bug" out of his system. While home for the holidays one year, Matt re-connected with a friend who was breeding cows for a living.
Feeling an urge (and encouragement from Robyn) to stop living out of a suitcase, Matt decided to take a job breeding cows in Ferndale. Here among the lush pastures, Matt was exposed to organic farming for the first time. He learned about small farms that utilized intensive grazing and "let cows be cows."
In 2000, after a couple years of cow breeding work, Matt decided to head up to Whatcom County, Washington start his own breeding operation. He and Robyn purchased a long-dormant, 13-cow dairy on a small plot of land at the foothills of Mt. Baker, a stone's throw from the Canadian border. Matt's breeding business was a financial success, but after a few years he felt that something was missing. He had developed a hankering for his own working dairy.
Matt's time in the breeding business had afforded him the opportunity to visit a range of operations, from intensive conventional systems and 5,000-cow dairies, to more "laid back" farms with 50 or 100 cows, even small operations with as few as 10 cows. He observed what seemed work well, and what could be done without. Does the expensive fan system work? How about the computer system? After raising heifers for his neighbor's organic operation down the road, he decided to make his operation organic as well.
Matt's initial plans were to purchase a big dairy and start from scratch, but he realized he could make more money with fewer cows if he just stayed put and made it work on his modest family farm. He spent the next couple years scrounging used equipment, buying cows, and pursuing creative financing in order to build a brand new, modern operation that can house 80-100 cows. He was barely past 30 years old when he completed his very own, self-designed organic dairy. He earned his organic certification in due time, and joined Organic Valley in 2006.
"The organic market has been a real blessing—it's more fulfilling and family-oriented than breeding cows," says Matt, who is now the father of two young sons. "When I joined Organic Valley, I met people who think outside the box. They had a vision to create a market where small farmers could fulfill their dreams. That part enticed me—you can stay small and be solvent. You don't have to be big to make a living."