Gerrit van Tol and his six brothers come from a long-standing family tradition of dairy farming. Today, two of his brothers operate the family’s historic farm in San Diego, while the other four run their own dairies in northern California. While Gerrit fits the family mold in important ways, he has also shaped his life to suit his own affinities. Leaving California and the world of large dairy operations behind, in 1976 Gerrit moved to La Center, Washington, a small town north of Portland, Oregon, and began caring for a much smaller herd.
For as much change as he brought to his own life—uprooting himself and learning how to keep a healthy dairy herd in the wet Washington climate—uncontrollable circumstances exerted greater force. In 1985, Gerrit’s wife, the mother of their four children, died in a car accident. Suddenly Gerrit was a devastated single father of four.
Gerrit met Karen, the teacher of his eldest son, Jeff, on a fieldtrip. Karen came from a very different background than Gerrit. Although her extended family had lived in La Center for five generations, her childhood involved constantly shifting locations, as they moved from Yakima to San Diego to Anchorage, Alaska. One place she always remembers coming home to was her grandparents’ farm in La Center, where her grandmother kept pigs, cows, horses and chickens. In meeting Gerrit and falling in love, Karen discovered her latent desire to live on a farm.
“Gosh, as soon as we were married, I bought myself a couple of pigs; I named all the cows—it was something totally new,” Karen recalls with a laugh. Karen and Gerrit raised his four children together, and have two boys of their own.
In 2005, the van Tols received organic certification for their herd. Karen recalls that the decision felt like a natural verification of the choices she and Gerrit had made for years. The biggest changes from their routine operations were switching to organic feed and ceasing to spray their fields to rid them of thistle and other unwanted plants. Today at the dairy, the van Tols use more intensive mowing and weed eating, which cut down the undesirable grasses and forages before they flower and spread.
The van Tols milk around 120 Holstein cows, plus a few Jerseys, and raise their own calves, making their herd around 250 total. The 150-acre farm is the only certified organic dairy in Clark County.
“We wouldn’t be making it if we hadn’t gone organic,” Karen acknowledges. “Organic Valley, even during the hard economic times, kept paying farmers a fair pay price.” When Gerrit and his brothers get together and talk, she adds, Gerrit always tries to convince them that organic is the way to go.
Karen’s one-time student, their eldest son Jeff, now works full-time on the dairy, while Little Gerrit, the youngest of the first four children, is a diesel mechanic nearby who works on their tractors and raises the older calves with his wife. Like their father and uncles, both sons hope to continue dairying. A few years ago, Karen and Gerrit built a home around the corner from the dairy, and Jeff and his wife moved into the farmhouse, taking on more responsibilities and easing the future transition from one generation to the next.
“We’re trying hard to keep it going,” Karen says. “It’s a little bit difficult as, over the years, people have started building around us.” Larger urban developments have not overtaken the landscape, but the possibility looms. At the same time, Karen has seen that local residents enjoy being near a farm. Among the reasons is the van Tols u-pick blueberry patch. Planted just before Gerrit first moved north in 1976, the mature bushes are incredibly tall, plentiful, and easy to pick.
Now with grandchildren, Karen is able to recreate the experiences she had with her grandmother several decades ago. They pick blueberries together in the late summer, and also feed the cows and collect eggs. “The free range chickens roam around, and it’s like an Easter egg hunt for us to find their nests,” Karen says cheerfully. “It’s a great life. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”