At historic ranch, the next generation picks up the pitchfork

02/02/2012

In June 2008, 65-year-old Joey Mendoza, the third-generation dairyman and lifelong resident of B Ranch, in Point Reyes National Seashore, announced that his operation was in serious financial trouble and that he was selling his herd to stave off restless creditors. He vowed to return to the business at some point, but how and when was anyone’s guess.

Now, Mendoza’s 25-year-old son, Jarrod, is quietly and tenaciously following through on his father’s pledge. Not only has he brought the dairy back to life, he’s also managed, in a relatively short period of time, to convert it to an entirely organic operation.

Last Friday, the younger Mendoza, clad in muddy rubber boots and a thick canvas jacket, watched as an employee unloading organic feed from a large semi mistakenly snapped a cord on one of the bales, causing mounds of hay to spill out onto the ground. Rather than panic, Jarrod stood collected. “This is when the real fun begins,” he said, smiling.

Taking over the operation was always on the back of Jarrod’s mind, but according to his father, it was never set in stone. “He really didn’t act like he was that interested when he was younger,” Joey said. The spark came after high school, when Jarrod took a job on a small organic dairy near California State University, Chico, where he was studying criminal justice. He found the organic movement fascinating, and, after learning the regulations, came to view certification as a way to reinvigorate his family’s foundering dairy.

Yet by early 2010, the local organic dairy industry had become fully saturated. “We had talked to Organic Valley, Straus, Horizon, a lot of these big organic companies, kind of pleading our case to let us back in,” Jarrod said. “And they were all pretty much, ‘We are so full of organic milk right now that we can’t take anyone else on.’”

But in June a door opened when a nearby operation agreed to sell Jarrod and his older sister, Jolynn, who was an initial investing partner, their herd of 120 certified organic cows and their contract with Sierra Organic, a small company that distributes to grocery stores throughout southern California. “I graduated from Chico in May, we got the cows in June, and we were up and milking by July. July 7 was our first day,” Jarrod said.

The quick transition to organic was enabled, in part, by the preexisting quality of the land. Though Joey had run a conventional operation—meaning he could use non-organic feed and treat sick cows with antibiotics—the pastures had never been treated with pesticides and thus, except for the certificate, were already organic.

Jolynn eventually left the partnership to start an organic operation with her husband at L Ranch, leaving Jarrod in charge. Over the last 18 months, Jarrod has acquired several heifers and bred many more on his own. Today, the dairy has swelled to some 200 head, a sizable number and one that Jarrod says he will maintain.

Judging from their brandings alone, it is a motley crew. “It’s crazy,” Jarrod said. “All of them have my brand, and then some have my dad’s brand, and then my dad bought some cows from this other guy so those ones have his brand. Then there are the original 120 with their brand, and some of those have brands from previous owners. To start, in order to meet the amount of milk [Sierra] wanted, we had to sort of piece it together.” Eventually, he hopes to whittle the array down to just one brand—his own.

Because he is unable to treat his cows with most medications, Jarrod has come to rely on a critical skill he acquired as an undergraduate. “In criminal justice we learned that you have two types of police forces: a reactive police force and a proactive police force,” he said. “Organics is more about preventing things from happening. Not that conventional dairies just sit back and wait for their animals to get sick, but with this, you just don’t have that luxury to wait until that happens.”

Applying organic practices in the Seashore’s unique environment has proven challenging at times.

One rule historically mandated that in rainy conditions the cows had to be kept on a designated pasture, rather than penned in a barn. Grazing in wet conditions increases the rate of manure leaching into surrounding waterways—and for B Ranch these include Drakes Estero and the Pacific Ocean.

“If we don’t let the cows out we have the organic guys getting mad at us, but the water quality of the land stays good,” Jarrod said. “If we do let the cows out then the water quality people get mad at us, but the organic guys are happy.” He added that organic regulators were willing to work with him, and have since changed the rule.

Managing a dairy, let alone a certified organic one, is already a taxing endeavor. The days are long, vacations rare and profits highly volatile. And for Jarrod, the learning curve has been steep. He admits that he has yet to perfect the timing of pasture rotations or his ability to diagnose certain animal illnesses. “I’ve definitely made some dumb mistakes along the way—moments when it was like, ‘What the hell are you thinking?’” he said.

But for the most part, those closest to him say he has dealt with the pressure remarkably well. “He’s doing a good job, getting his cows bred on time and producing a really good quality of milk,” Joey said. Jolynn said Jarrod used to call regularly with questions, but that, as the months have gone on, the phone rings less and less. “He still calls,” she said, “but he’s become a lot more confident in his decision making. He’s just becoming his own person.”

From Jarrod’s perspective, the transition taking place at the dairy has less to do with moving forward than simply returning to a way that once was. “I remember when I was first sitting down with my dad explaining about how we were going to do things and he said, ‘Gosh, that sounds like the way my great grandfather used to do it.’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of the point, we’re just trying to bring some of those things back to life.’”