The Mesmans began working their current farm in 1942 when the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the onset of World War II caused the U.S. Department of Defense to claim eminent domain on the family’s original farm on Whidbey Island, just off the coast of northwest Washington State. Alan Mesman can’t quite see the old home farm from where he is now, but he has a great view of Whidbey Island and many of the islands in the San Juan group just across the strait from the mainland. As the crow flies, the two farms are only twenty miles apart.
Today’s home farm consists of over 300 acres in the maritime, sub-tidal agricultural lowlands where the Skagit River dumps into northern Puget Sound. Dutch visitors to the area often remark on how much it looks like Holland, since early settlers built dikes and put in pumps to claim as much of the land as possible. There’s even a tulip festival every spring. Mesman Farms is actually eight feet below sea level.
The place couldn’t be more postcard perfect. When out working the fields, Alan says, “Looking east I see the peaks of the Cascade Range—Rainier, and the volcanic, ever-steaming cone of Mt. Baker. When I’m looking west I see the Olympic Mountains and the San Juan Islands.”
If cows were into views, it would be bovine paradise. Fortunately for the Mesmans’ 140 Holstein/Jersey crosses, cow paradise consists of grass, and there’s as much of that as there are views at Mesman Farms. “Because of the maritime climate, our grass is bright green most of the year,” Alan says. “We strive to keep the cows on grass for at least six months, but that all depends on weather.”
The area is so picturesque that development is a big worry. “We’re about an hour north of Seattle and about an hour south of Vancouver, British Columbia. Basically, we’re an hour’s drive from about 5 million people.” But there are several organizations working in the area to purchase development rights on farmland in the Skagit Valley, and it has helped maintain the rural landscape and buffer working farmland.
Mesman Farms has been a member of the Organic Valley cooperative since February of 2007, but Alan had been looking into organic for quite a while. Prior to 2004, the Mesmans farmed conventionally like most folks in the area, and kept the cows confined and on a controlled feeding program. Then Alan started building fences and putting the cows out on pasture. He didn’t go completely organic then because there was no outlet for organic milk in their area.
“Once Organic Valley came in, we finished our transition. We were never really high profile conventional. We didn’t use high pressure cow management, such as hormone treatments and three-times-a-day milking. We felt that organic was closer to our style of farming anyway. It was an easy transition for us.”
Since then, Alan has seen improvement in herd health. “About the time we finished the transition, the prolapsed births stopped and we never had one again, and we ‘pulled’ way fewer calves (assisted births). Foot rot pretty much went away and mastitis cleared up. Cows no longer go off feed due to the acidosis and ketosis caused by the all-grain diet. When you look at old vet books you didn’t see stuff like that. They are afflictions of recent times.”
The soil has improved, as well. “Once we quit using pesticides and herbicides, the soil’s natural biology revived. Then the grass started growing as well as it did when we were using synthetic fertilizer. Our soil tends to be naturally acidic, so we have to lime regularly. Out in the desert part of the state it’s the opposite; they need to sour it up as opposed to us having to sweeten it up.”
The Mesmans went through the decades of conventional dairy roller coaster milk prices in the 1980s and 1990s, and they are very happy with the cooperative’s main focus, which is a fair and steady pay price to the farmer.
Alan and Vickie’s two children, Ben and Samantha, are happily engaged in other endeavors, including farming, sports and off-farm jobs.