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 pick-up.
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 stay simple.”
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
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
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
milking : The McAfee herd rotates through
pasture but never leaves it, not even for twice-daily
milking. Instead, the McAfee Pasture Parlor goes
“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
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
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 the fields.
||"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
Success off the beaten path –
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.
and proud of it: Mark's cows are happy,
healthy and pathogen free.
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,