January 17, 2003: Something about this creamery is
not quite right. It’s not the smell, in fact there’s no
odor to speak of. The air is good and cool, the lighting bright, all
surfaces clean—that’s all right. It’s just so…
empty. As owner Mark McAfee guides me into the first room, I wonder
if there is machinery built into the walls or behind a green curtain
like in Oz. This is, after all, the processing facility behind perhaps
the most revolutionary dairy in the United States, yet there’s
no technology—just a butter churn that looks like a solid chrome
bingo cage and a bottling machine that could fit in the back of my
as happy as his cows: “When you don’t
screw with Mother Nature, things stay simple.”
When I say this politely, Mark’s delighted smile tells me
I’ve hit on the very essence of his operation. He puts it
plainly: “When you don’t screw with Mother Nature, things
Organic Pastures Dairy is an unassuming cluster of buildings in
Kerman, California; a CCOF-certified organic blip on the Fresno
County radar. The creamery is built from two reefer vans outfitted
with just basics—sinks, counters, water, and uncomplicated
machines. The only decoration is a picture window that frames the
bordering pastures. The milk and all its incarnations are raw, so
there’s no pasteurization, just a quick chill and filter then
bottle and cap.
And that’s the secret of Mark’s operation, which is
one of only a few California dairies that are growing instead of
closing doors. By keeping his technology simple, he allows natural
complexity to flourish. The milk is a perfect metaphor: by keeping
it raw, Mark encourages the beneficial bacteria that keep pathogens
in check. Each batch of milk is tested for bad guys like salmonella
and E. coli, and not once have they been found. He has even had
researchers introduce such bacteria to test samples, and the pathogens
have been unable to reproduce. In conventional milk they would be
the dominant organisms and proliferate, but in the varied ecosystem
within Mark’s milk, the competition stifles them.
It makes sense that Mark would run his dairy on the principle of
simple complexity, for he follows the same path as a person. A third-generation
Fresno dairyman, he is direct and intense, his business run in perfect
order. And this lays the ground for his ideas to take off, which
they do, as he talks with breathless enthusiasm to anyone in earshot
about everything from natural hoof disease prevention and raw cheese
recipes to nutrition-based cures for autism.
His face is bright and honest like a Corn Belt football coach,
yet his mind is intergalactic.
Because of the latter, he was able to recognize that a raw milk
creamery can’t grow from a conventional format, that it needs
instead to be part of a larger web as complex as itself. As we walk
the few feet from creamery to pasture, Mark explains the steps outward
from the milk: a healthy balance of bacteria comes from a healthy
cow; a healthy cow comes from a healthy farm. And so Mark has designed
what he calls a “pro-cow environment.”
||"McAfee's herd rotates through pasture
but never leaves it, not even for twice-daily milking. Instead,
the McAfee Pasture Parlor goes to
them, towed by a tractor."
To begin with, his herd rotates through pasture but never leaves
it, not even for twice-daily milking. Instead, the McAfee Pasture
Parlor goes to them, towed by a tractor. From afar the mobile barn
looks like a carnival ride, a white steel box with ramp leading
up and along its side to gated milking slots then back down into
the grass. The floors are grated steel or padded with rubber, so
the cows’ joints get minimal shock. It accommodates 20 animals
at once and milks them in 10 minutes, during which time the human
on duty notes milking durations and udder health, identifying the
cows on paper by the number from their right ear tag and the name—Gloria,
Gladys, Golda—from their left. As cows dry up at the end of
their cycle, they are put out of rotation for 50 days. As they dry
up for good, they are put out to pasture, but never slaughtered.
While most dairies consider this kind of personal approach uneconomical,
for Mark it has tangible rewards. The cows experience fewer health
issues, as evidenced by the farm’s cull rate of only 9 percent
(conventional dairies hover around 30 to 40 percent). That’s
partially because the animals are less stressed. As we walk through
the fields, not one runs. Instead, one incredibly pregnant Jersey
waddles in our direction, takes a few good sniffs, then meets my
camera with her tongue.
: The McAfee herd rotates through pasture but
never leaves it, not even for twice-daily milking. Instead,
the McAfee Pasture Parlor goes to them.
“There are even bulls in here,” Mark says proudly.
In fact, there’s one a stone’s throw away, lounging
like Julius Caesar amidst his harem. Apparently they are so, well,
satisfied (the ratio is 40:1) there’s no call for aggression.
The dairy keeps only young bulls, so the cows don’t incur
back trouble, but other than that breeding is uninterrupted by humans.
“Production breeding is geared toward making a cow that eats
more and makes more milk,” Mark says. “No one pays attention
to making a healthy cow with strong joints and good hooves. Most
dairy cows never even see a bull, and end up so inbred they don’t
last more than three years.” But here, Jerseys, Ayrshires,
and Holsteins cross genes, each lending their better characteristics
and canceling out the lesser traits of the others. It will take
years for the breed to be markedly improved, but the simple strategy
sets the groundwork.
Solidly challenging the skeptics
Lauding this return to natural systems can be dangerous in places
like Fresno, where convention is so skeptical of the “green”
approach. Yet who can argue with the fact that Organic Pastures
just doesn’t have the classic dairy woes?
Take manure: Organic Pastures has no expensive, hazardous lagoon
for dealing with waste because it has almost no waste to deal with.
With a barn that moves weekly, there is no concrete floor where
manure builds up, no permanently muddy patch that must be sluiced
off. And because the cows aren’t lying in their own manure
as in confinement operations, they don’t need to be washed
before milking. (In fact, Mark believes that this only transports
bacteria from the rest of the cow down the udder and into the milk.)
The total wastewater for the herd of 350 is under 700 gallons per
day, all of which channels back through the irrigation lines onto
||"Organic Pastures has no expensive,
hazardous lagoon for dealing with waste because it has almost
no waste to deal with. With a barn that moves weekly, there
is no concrete floor where manure builds up, no permanently
muddy patch that must be sluiced off."
Further, the barn’s mobility means the land that would otherwise
be paved over can remain in pasture, some of which grows alfalfa
for the herd. And the cows’ mobility means their manure goes
back into the soil, negating the need for applied fertilizer.
Success off the beaten path – beyond
Of course, the best proof of the system’s success is the bottom
line. Organic Pastures’ products are now sold in 231 stores
in California, and the product line is about to expand to include
raw Colby and Jack cheeses. Mark attributes the success to leaving
the well-beaten industry path and starting a dialogue with consumers.
Before last year, the dairy was a faceless member of the Organic
Valley cooperative. But the innovations (especially the mobile milking
parlor) drew press and then customers out to the farm, where Mark
was always available for a tour. (He has had 4,300 people to the
farm over the past two years.) As a result, consumers asked to buy
his milk specifically. After enough had asked, in January, 2002,
he went independent and started the Organic Pastures brand, which
remains solely the product of his herd.
The dairy’s production per cow is far lower than average—about
40 pounds a day (50 max.), compared to nearly 100 at a big commercial
operation that uses antibiotics and high-protein feed. Those seemingly
sour economics are compounded by expensive choices such as keeping
dry cows rather than slaughtering them and buying supplementary
alfalfa that’s organic. But here’s the trick: because
Organic Pastures is responding to specific demand rather than pouring
product into an overflowing marketplace, it gets a worthwhile return.
Mark’s is the only business in the country offering raw,
organic cow’s milk, and people are willing to pay for it.
What’s more, they even do his marketing for him—rather
than solicit stores himself, Mark relies on visitors to his web
site to ask their local markets to carry his product.
So while the average dairyman gets $9-11 per hundredweight for
his milk, and the average organic dairyman $15-20, Organic Pastures
gets what works out to $55-60. That’s $1.50 a quart (up to
$2.50 for the 20 percent they deliver themselves), compared to conventional’s
$1.03 a gallon when it leaves the farm.
People are willing to pay more because Mark has proven that his
product is different, and better. “Normally the farmer is
just on the farm,” he says. “But with this kind of business,
you have no choice but to be out there educating and getting involved
in the marketplace.” He spreads the gospel at trade shows,
in radio interviews and letters to editors, on his delivery routes,
and on the constant tours he gives when at the farm. This mobility
is possible because of a web of committed employees, and one in
particular: his son, Aaron.
proud of it: Mark's cows are happy, healthy and
At the far side of the mobile milking parlor, we encounter the
19-year-old redhead on his way to deliver hay to the herd. Aaron
is tall, his body just on the verge of becoming a powerful machine.
Dressed in denim, plaid, and a rigid white cowboy hat, he looks
far more like a farmer than his father.
Mark tries not to embarrass the boy with introductions, but still
lets slip that Aaron gets all A’s at Fresno State, that he
sets the curve in calculus class. Dad beams while reporting that
his son has done all the jobs on the farm—from marketing at
dozens of Whole Foods stores to milking the herd solo. Aaron toes
the ground with sincere humility, politely waiting out the pleasantries
so he can get back to the field.
When released, he walks briskly to the nearby tractor and starts
it up. One breath and Mark picks a new subject—growing alfalfa,
I believe—and revs back up to a-mile-a-minute.
As we return to the creamery, I glance west and see the promise
of this dairy: with the sun setting through a thin Central Valley
haze, Aaron is already in the middle of the pasture, pulling a trailer
of alfalfa to the herd. A few impatient cows run just behind, biting
off a mouthful of hay whenever a bump slows the tractor, and Aaron
laughs at them.
It’s a simple moment, sure, but the very thing that builds
a complex future.
Lisa Hamilton is a freelance ag writer from Mill Valley, CA.