Editor’s Note: In honor of the International Year of Family Farming (#IYFF14), we’re posting a few (out of hundreds!) of the beautiful Organic Valley family farmer stories so you can get to know a few of your farmers a bit better. Enjoy!
Where redwoods meet the sea in northern California’s Humboldt and Del Norte Counties, Blake and Stephanie Alexandre and their five children have poured their combined generations of dairy know-how into their farms.
Having grown up on a dairy farm and loved it, Stephanie used to pray she’d marry a dairy farmer. While attending California Polytechnic Institute in San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly, to those in the know), she met Blake Alexandre and knew her prayers were answered.
They started out dairying with Stephanie’s family in arid southern California, but Blake knew he wanted to get back to his beloved pastures in northern California at some point. When the opportunity arose in 1992 to buy an existing operation in Del Norte County, just two hours north of the Alexandre home farm in HumboldtCounty, Stephanie and Blake seized it. Stephanie was not familiar with pasture-based dairying. She fell in love all over again.
In 2003, opportunity knocked again, and this dynamic duo took over the Alexandre home farm in HumboldtCounty, where Blake’s mom and sisters still live. With the help of a long time manager and family friend who oversees the day-to-day operation in HumboldtCounty, Blake and Stephanie not only maintain their various operations, but have made them thrive.
The dairies are certified organic, the first since 1999, followed by Blake’s ancestral family farm in 2004. But when it comes to grazing cows, Blake says, “We’re not new to it. I’m the 4th generation on our Ferndale dairy in HumboldtCounty. This is how my grandfathers farmed before me. Going organic was kind of a new/old way to work.”
“Good pasture management is our primary tool, which basically means ‘don’t do anything stupid.’ We don’t tear up our ground with equipment. We don’t plow, till or disc any more. These are permanent pastures in which we sprinkle upgrades every now and then. We’re blessed with a beautiful setting where cool season grasses and legumes do well, like perennial, annual and Italian rye grass, New Zealand white clover, red clover, plantain and chicory. We have such an incredible growing season that 12 percent of our grass growth comes in between December and February. We don’t put our soil in the freezer for the winter!”
To keep the pastures healthy, Blake amends the soils with elements that tend to leach out, like zinc, boron, sulphur and basic micro elements.
“Plus, we value our manure.” Manure collected from the freestall barns where cows are housed in bad weather, or from the milking parlors, is carefully composted with straw and crab waste from a local fishery. We work the compost piles all the time to get the maximum nutrient content possible. When the mix is ready, we spread the compost on the pastures as thinly as possible.”
The only subject Blake geeks out on as much as pasture is cows.
“I have always enjoyed working with cows,” Blake says. “The license plate on my first car, a ’79 Trans Am, read ‘luv cows.’ I still have the car and the license plate. To begin with I was really into the registered Holsteins, but the last 15 years I started crossing Jerseys into the herd with a little bit of Ayrshire mixed in. Pretty much 80 percent of the herd is crossed now. We really like small, wide-bodied cows, which is a touch old fashioned in terms of what most dairymen look for these days.”
Because of their dedication to grazing, the Alexandres have begun yet another transition on the Humboldt County farm to 100% grass-fed. These cows feed only on fresh pasture or dried forages, and eat no grain or soybeans.
“We’re pretty passionate about it,” Blake says. “The grass roots, literally, are the heart of it. If we want to make high quality products for people, OrganicValley’s Grassmilk label is the perfect fit for us. I believe we can make the most nutritious milk for consumers. It needs to taste good and make them feel good, and I mean physically good. If I eat a candy bar, I’ll feel bad in 3 hours. What we eat should make us feel good, and we can give people milk that does that. Grassmilk can do that because of the elevated nutrients in the milk, like CLA [conjugated linoleic acid], Vitamin E and Omega-3.”
Nutrition matters very much to Stephanie, who teaches nutrition classes. “I love to teach people how to eat the way we used to eat before cancer and heart disease and diabetes took over our lives. To me that is a ministry, and to produce healthy, organic food the way we do is also a ministry. The closer we can get to eating right, the healthier we’ll be. I was fortunate to be raised by a mom who always taught me to shop the perimeter of the grocery store.”
The Alexandres personally practice what they preach. The family visits farms across the country to learn from their peers. When the kids were introduced to pastured poultry techniques on a Mennonite farm in Pennsylvania, they came home and began their own pastured poultry operation. Seven years later, they have 3,000 pastured laying hens that provide organic eggs for local stores and farmers markets as well as Whole Foods stores in the region.
“We were never interested in processing our milk under our own label,” Stephanie says, “but because of the egg operation, I realize it’s fun to have your name associated directly with your product. You connect personally with your customers. When we get emails saying how much people love the eggs, it’s great. But we love our milk, too, so when we hear from people about our eggs, we tell them to try OrganicValley milk, because the cows are pastured just like the chickens. The eggs help us tell the same story about the milk. We really believe in what we do.”
Of the five Alexandre children, two are still at home and the three oldest are getting ag business degrees at Cal Poly, just like their mom and dad did. Stephanie says, “We encouraged the kids to go to school wherever they wanted and still they ended up following in our footsteps. They really wanted to be somewhere that had a strong agriculture community, because they love farming. Our kids have a huge fire in the belly for organics.”
And thank goodness, because the traditions begun generations ago will see the light of the future if the Alexandres have anything to do with it.