Steve Pierson jokes that he must have been a dairy farmer in another life because he certainly doesn't come from a farming background. "I didn't know any farmers," he recalls of his childhood in Indiana, where he grew up as the son of an engineer. But ever since he was very young Steve was powerfully drawn to the idea of working with animals and living in a rural environment. While his two brothers went on to study accounting and chemical engineering, he enrolled in the veterinary science program at the University of Florida.
Upon graduating in 1980, Steve packed his things into a Volvo and drove across the country to Oregon. With single-minded focus, he sought out the head of the dairy department at Oregon State University, asked if he knew of any local dairy farmers looking for a herdsman, and soon, Steve was headed to St. Paul, thirty minutes south of Portland, where he met with Marlin Rasmussen, a third generation dairy farmer and the owner of Sar-Ben Farms. That day Marlin offered him the job of herdsman and not too long after, Steve won the heart of Marlin's daughter Susan.
Susan's story is stunningly different. "I was raised here all my life," Susan notes. Her great grandfather, who immigrated from Denmark, passing through Ellis Island, started a farm in Nebraska. Her grandfather continued the family's move west, eventually settling in St. Paul, Oregon in 1959, where he established a dairy on the land the family continues to farm today.
Currently, Sar-Ben Farms stretches across 175 acres with 150 as irrigated pasture. Steve and Susan manage the farm in partnership with Marlin, milking 350 Jersey, Holstein and crossbreed cows. In 2005, Sar-Ben Farms received organic certification and joined Organic Valley. "The word sustainability is very applicable to our situation," Susan says, digging deeply into the word's meaning. By transitioning to organic practices and joining the cooperative, her family has been able to sustain their way of life—one her great grandfather etched. They receive a stable and equitable pay price for their milk and benefit the health of their land and herd.
"One of the things that makes me different from a lot of farmers," Steve adds, "is that I made a conscious effort to choose this lifestyle and the dairy industry. I am an example that if you"—by you, he means other urban kids—"want to farm, it can happen."
Organic Valley has contributed to the vivacity of the Piersons' rural community in arenas beyond the farm. This past year, the cooperative donated funds to the St. Paul High School athletic program, where the Piersons' three kids, from high school freshman through college graduate, have attended. In the spring, when their second son, Ryan, would compete in track races, "We had a big sign we brought around that said, 'Fueled by Organic Valley.'" Steve says with a chuckle. Considering that Ryan is a farm kid raised on organic dairy, it's a claim that holds many genuine meanings.
"Our quality of life is very high," Steve discloses. "I work a fair amount and there is a lot of risk involved, but I get to work with my family." Steve and Susan are excited that just as Ryan is heading off to Oregon State University, their eldest son, Kevin, is returning to work on the farm beside his parents and younger sister, Sara, having graduated with his degree in animal science. Kevin will be the fourth generation farming on the same land.
While Susan's and Steve's passions for farming arose from diverse sources—one from a deep family well and the other from youthful insight—today they are united. "I see the farm being here in 50 years with great grandchildren running it," Steve continues. "Our goal is to make these same opportunities available for our children and theirs."