Across the slough that divides our property from the next, a man is coiling electric fence on a reel, collecting skinny white posts under one arm. I can see him well through binoculars. He's stocky, bearded with dark thick hair, wearing blue coveralls and a short-sleeved blue shirt. He looks clean and spiffy from this distance, and perhaps he truly is, at 6:30 a.m. at the beginning of a day on a dairy farm, not the end. Dairy farming is a dirty business, given the ever-present manure and running heavy equipment over wet soil.
My exposure to dairy farming is limited: I have this rather romantic view (literally) of the dairy across the slough from us. I'm told that Grauwen's farm, which provides the pastoral view west of our property, is "pasture managed" as opposed to "herd managed." Less additional feed is purchased because the herd is the size the pasture can support. After several years of preparation involving different animal husbandry and feed types, it's become certified organic.
Down the road is a much larger dairy that is herd managed, given what I can observe. The black and white Holsteins spend the entire winter in the cement-floored barn. We see big trucks arriving with supplemental feed a couple times a week as we pedal past on our afternoon bike rides. Not only is that herd larger, the pastures are a bit lower in the North Fork drainage. Wetland plants, especially sedges, give evidence of damp conditions. Wetter fields mean less suitable pasture for grazing. By comparison, Grauwen's pastures look as smooth and weed free as a fairway. Other farms downstream are cut through with eroded streambeds, in some cases denuded of all riparian cover, while thick bushes and a single line of electric wire protects the slough that separates Grauwen's property from ours.
In New Zealand, I had more intimate exposure to dairy farming. Set in the rolling green hills of the North Island, the farm was small enough to be operated by one person. We'd tag along with our host John, who'd inherited the farm from his father, for the afternoon milking of a bit over 100 cows. They reacted by offloading more than milk, given two strangers in the milking parlor. John said there were pressures to expand the herd, but he didn't want to add animals that weren't Ayrshire ... or additional workers. He was trying to keep his operation simple enough to allow him to pursue other interests, like joining a sit-in at a proposed hydro dam that was going to flood the best apricot orchards in the country.
Mike Grauwen is considering reducing the size of his operation for similar reasons; he figures he'd earn the same amount of money with more time for other things he enjoys. Current federal subsidies, however, favor big corporate farming. As prices for fossil fuels and corn increase, small-scale farmers must change practices or be squeezed even more. In this respect, Mike is ahead of the curve, relying less and less on purchased feed.
There's one more dairy farm in our neighborhood. Eyeballing it from the road, its pastures extend over a hillside and flood plain. It stands fallow. Rumor says a younger member of the family ran it for a time after the old folks retired, but decided he didn't want the seven-day workweeks. There's speculation about what will happen next with the idled dairy. The land is zoned exclusive farm use; its lower field, like ours, is frequently flooded by the North Fork, so housing development is unlikely. Under Oregon's land use laws, the family has the right to a limited division of the property, but some people worry that a loophole will turn the whole thing into houses. Turning food-producing land into asphalt and buildings would be a shame.
Given my leaning toward natural and organic foods, I prefer the milk that's produced in my viewshed. As a native Oregonian and proponent of land use planning that prevents open land, both agricultural and forest, from being turned willy-nilly into housing tracts, I'm delighted to have a view unspoiled by development-admittedly an elitist attitude. Some California counties have begun to legislate protection for ag lands to preserve open space and beautiful views as well as habitat and environmental quality ... and to provide economic support to farmers. Those policies could help the idled farm stay more or less like it is-farmed with cows or row crops, or even left fallow to provide a green, pastoral, and romantic view for upland property owners, people like me.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer who will continue to learn more about the several farms within an easy bike-ride of her home.