FROM CALIFORNIA
Simple, complex and raw: the amazing success
of Organic Pastures Dairy

Third generation Fresno dairyman Mark McAfee has designed a "pro-cow" environment that leads to pathogen-free raw milk.

By Lisa M. Hamilton

McAfee's as happy as his cows: “When you don’t screw with Mother Nature, things stay simple.”
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.

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 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.

Mobile milking : 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 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 applied fertilizer.

Success off the beaten path – beyond organic

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-centered marketing

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.

Pro-cow 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, CA.