“March 8, 2012,” recalls Haylee Mensonides. “Everything happened on that day.”
“We had to sign the lease to rent the farm, but we couldn’t sign the lease until we had the Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan, and we couldn’t get our loan until the land and cows were certified, and we couldn’t buy the cows until we had the loan. So, we did it all on the same day,” her husband Ryan explains.
“It was a bit stressful that week,” says Haylee with a hint of humor in her voice.
“That’s why we named the farm, Providence Farm. God’s providence was visible the entire time,” concludes Ryan.
Providence Farm, located in the hills southeast of Seattle, is home to Ryan and Haylee and their two sons. The family is awaiting the birth of a third son in September.
Ryan and Haylee rent the 150-acre farm and the farm equipment from a retired farm couple. They have a seven-year lease with the option to purchase. Ryan does the day-to-day farming with the help of one full-time and one part-time employee. He also works for Agri-king as a dairy nutrition consultant. Haylee does all the bookwork for the farm and cares for their children.
“The boys love it so far,” Haylee says. “They love to help Daddy by feeding the calves and moving the cows around. They are happy for any chance they get to ride the four-wheeler with Daddy.”
The Mensonides milk between 150 and 170 cows. “We started originally with Jerseys and then we got some crossbreed animals from Organic Valley farmer Blake Alexandre,” says Ryan. “He sold us some crossbred Holstein-Friesians that are good on pasture.”
“We tend about 60 acres of pasture,” continues Ryan. “The cows have access to pasture all day with the exception of about four hours for milking.”
When asked about what crops they grow, Ryan’s answer is simple. “We grow grass. We raise grass and grass silage and alfalfa hay. We buy a little bit of grain from an organic feed mill.”
It’s clear Ryan pays close attention to his cows and knows them each well. “Our herd is split into two groups of cows. Those that produce more milk stay in one group and get 15 pounds a day of grain. The others get 3 pounds of grain a day. I’ve figured out that my high-producing cows give me a 2 to 1 return for the grain I put into them, while the low producers don’t make milk with the grain I give them, they just eat it.
“We also raise three or four pigs at a time,” he continues. “Occasionally we have goats on the farm to keep the blackberry canes down. We raise our chickens for our own eggs, we are raising a steer for organic beef, and we have a vegetable garden.”
Ryan is proud to be able to count seven generations of dairy farmers in his family. “My grandfather came here from Holland in 1953 and started a dairy in 1956,” he says, “and my dad ran a local producer processor dairy farm for 33 years. My wife is from California. She came from a large dairy area but had zero experience with dairying before she married me and moved here.”
“I’m sure I’m quite entertaining with some of my questions and the things I say,” laughs Haylee. “Some things I’m sure he prefers I don’t say in public because I should know them. I’m still learning!”
Ryan refers frequently to the dairy tradition of his family and their support. “Part of the reason I looked into organics is my brother is an organic farmer. I buy hay from him and he has helped me out a lot. My dad has been a big part of this farm. He always dreamed of starting his own farm. Now he is living vicariously through our families. My dad is fighting cancer and can’t be as involved as he would like, but he loves seeing us on the farm.”
“I’ve been working in the dairy feed and nutrition side of the business for the last sixteen years,” explains Ryan of their decision to pursue organic dairy, “I work with Andrew Dykstra, an Organic Valley farmer, and when I felt God’s calling to pursue the dairy industry, he was there with advice. He helped me to get the ball rolling and to join the cooperative.”
“We are definitely starting from scratch, but we’ve had a lot of people help us,” says Haylee. The Mensonides are already passing the goodwill on to others. Their teenage niece is growing her own organic dairy herd, currently at seven milking cows, on their farm.
The Mensonides are working hard to build a strong future for Providence Farm. Their long-term goal is to make and direct-market their own artisan cheese. They are also becoming very involved with Organic Valley by hosting farm tours.
“We wanted to help with farm tours and Organic Valley marketing events because we both have communications degrees and we understand how important marketing is,” says Ryan. “And we want people in the community to see that young people are farming.”