By Peter Schmid, Organic Valley farmer-owner from Washington
Since 1996 when my family farm joined Organic Valley, I have grown up as a part of our cooperative and watched it grow. So for years, I have had an appetite for learning about other farms in our cooperative. I have to admit, I have been envious when hearing about the old days of traditionally thriving dairy communities. Places where there are still a significant number of dairy farms and the sense of community are rare these days on the west coast.
My parents always let me know growing up that even in my small mountain valley of Trout Lake, Washington, that there used to be 30 dairies. I could hardly fathom that number. Sadly, in 2017 there are only 3 dairies left. We still work together almost like a family, but the larger sense of a vibrant farming culture is gone.
My trip from the Canadian border in Lynden, down the coast all the way to Petaluma, California, found me in many of the most traditional farming communities on the western seaboard. By visiting five farms in our cooperative, I learned a great deal about how farming families deal with different challenges that arise from change.
When my dad gave me a camera for my birthday about three years ago, I was surprised but suspicious. What was I going to do with a camera? I had no experience with photography and hadn’t shown much inclination for it either. Looking back, I laugh thinking maybe he wanted me to get off the farm and out in nature to explore. In a sense, I did just that, but I also kept my love for farming close to me and began sharing my photos on Instagram under the name “farmblog.”
Over the next few years, I came to realize how important it was to have photographs of our families’ farms and how much we would cherish them in the decades to come. When I look back at the handful of good black and white photos from the early pioneers of my family, I can tell you stories about each one. Photos don’t last forever or tell the whole truth. Even our perception of the events we capture changes over time as we change. All of the farmers that I met on this trip experienced serious change in their farming lives. Even though I was only able to capture a small snapshot of each farm, when viewed together at the end of my trip, I viewed my journey as a collage of our cooperative. I would encourage all Organic Valley farmers to spend time at other farms in the cooperative, and I encourage the people who support us to take advantage of Organic Valley’s Farm Discovery public farm tours when they’re available in your area.
Hans Wolfisberg fell in love with the historic dairy farming area of Lynden, Washington. We both share Swiss ancestry, but Hans is a first generation American. Growing up in Switzerland, he experienced their farming culture, and when he came to the U.S., he found many of the same cooperative qualities in Lynden and in Organic Valley. Hans keeps his farming practices simple and loves to spend as much free time as he can enjoying the Northwest. Although Hans was born in a foreign land, he adopted his new country and loves it the same as he does his own. People move for many different reasons, just like people transition to organic for different reasons. At a young age, Hans traveled from Europe to Canada seeking new frontiers to explore and learn about. I think his spirit of adventure translated well to organic. On the other hand, Hans’ conservative farming practices have kept him grounded, and I consider him a well-balanced farmer and individual.
Gerrit and Karen van Tol currently farm in La Center, Washington. Years ago, they moved from California to Washington and had to build new connections with the land and the local community. Like many of the farmers I met on my trip, starting over was both a challenge and an opportunity. Some of Gerrit’s family in California still dairy down there, and they do it differently than him. The van Tols had a chance to redefine what farming meant to them, and they chose to join Organic Valley. Thirty-seven years ago when Mount Saint Helens erupted practically in the van Tols’ backyard, they experienced its effects on the farm first-hand. It was a reminder that no matter where you move or what you do, some things are out of your control. The van Tols focus on making their farm the best that it can be and try to leave the worry of external forces to others.
Pete and Kelly Mahaffy had a different kind of starting over to contend with when they began their partnership with Organic Valley. Instead of moving locations, these Coos Bay, Oregon, residents revived a former family farm that had lain dormant for years. Regaining momentum wasn’t easy and organic wasn’t a sure path. The easier choice would have been going back to the old model of farming. However, they decided to take a leap of faith as a family, and ever since it has paid dividends. Seeing the Mahaffy kids joyfully oblige me with my silly photography ideas was heartening. I saw so much energy and love for farming in the next generation of Mahaffys. Pete and Kelly told me that they aren’t trying to pressure the kids into farming but, instead, are fostering an environment where they naturally grow to appreciate farming, and so someday they might carry on the legacy out of sincere passion and not obligation. Pete and Kelly told me that because of Organic Valley many of the younger generations in their area are considering coming back to the farm and continuing the farming legacy.
Tom Ghidinelli and his father farmed together in California for many decades. Losing his father after years of fruitful partnership was a challenge for Tom, but he still keeps his dad’s legacy close. Pleasant Point Dairy isn’t the same without Tom’s dad, but starting a new chapter of the farm is easier knowing his memory will always live on through the farm and the people who visit it. I was reminded of my grandpa when Tom told me about his father. The way they both loved to spend most of their time on the farm and didn’t feel the need to impress the outside world was evident. When we lost our grandpa, the dynamic of the farm changed. For anyone who loses a close farm family member, it can feel like starting over as responsibilities shift and priorities are reassessed. Ultimately, the qualities that define the ones we love always stay with us, and the lessons we learn from them carry over into the next iteration of the farm. Tom honored his parents with a fiberglass cow that symbolizes the lasting legacy of what they meant to the farm.
Visiting Gillian and Garry Mahrt’s farm in Petaluma, California, was the last stop on my journey. I had traveled over 1,400 miles up to this point, but it was nothing compared to the distance the Mahrts have traversed between Great Britain and California time and time again. Garry grew up on a farm near Petaluma, but it wasn’t in the dairying tradition. Gillian was born and raised in Britain, and the two met on an agriculture exchange program in Australia. Eventually they moved to California and started a first generation dairy. Sometimes farming organically isn’t the easiest choice, but much like the Mahrts, we sacrifice convenience for the people and practices that we love. These two people came together from different walks of life to cooperative and accomplish a shared vision. I feel that together the farmers that I met on this trip represent Organic Valley well, and I am hopeful for our future.
Peter Schmid is an Organic Valley farmer-owner from Washington state. In 2017, he took a multi-week road trip to visit five West Coast Organic Valley farmers to learn more about the similarities and differences in how they farm in different parts of the region. You can follow his excellent farm photography on Instagram at FarmBlog, and you can download his photos for free at FarmBlogArt.com.