Gerrit van Tol and his six brothers come from a long family tradition of dairy farming. Today, two of his brothers operate the family’s original farm in southern California, while the other four run their own dairies in northern California.
In 1976 Gerrit broke with part of that tradition and moved to La Center, Washington, a small town north of Portland, Oregon, and began farming his own way. “We’re about the closest farm to Mount St. Helens,” Gerrit says, “so we had a front-row seat when it erupted in 1980.”
Then in 1985, uncontrollable circumstances reshaped Gerrit’s life when his first wife, the mother of their four children, died in a car accident. Suddenly Gerrit was a devastated single father of four.
Fortunately, Gerrit met Karen. Karen came from a very different background. Her childhood involved moving around a lot. But the place she always remembers coming home to was her grandparents’ farm in La Center. So when she and Gerrit married, moving to the farm was like coming home. There she and Gerrit raised his four children and added two boys of their own to the pack. The extended “family” includes about 120 Holstein cows with some Jerseys thrown in for good measure, not to mention a few chickens and pigs.
As Gerrit learned more about organic farming, he realized it was about something he’d already learned through a lifetime as a dairyman: “The cows are healthy if they eat healthy grass. You don’t have healthy grass if you don’t have healthy soil. And I don’t know how you can have healthy soil when you poison it year after year.” The farm was certified organic in 2005.
“We wouldn’t have made it financially if we hadn’t gone organic,” Karen adds. “Organic Valley, even during the hard economic times, kept paying farmers a fair pay price.”
Karen and Gerrit’s eldest son, Jeff, works full-time on the dairy, while the rest of the kids help out as much as their busy lives allow. There’s always plenty of work to be done, and having the whole family involved is very rewarding
Now with her grandchildren, Karen is able to recreate the experiences she had with her grandmother several decades ago. They pick blueberries together in late summer and 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.”