YF&R: Dairy farmers ‘burn the box’ to build their business

Issue Date: February 26, 2020
By Ching Lee
Seth and Ali Duivenvoorden help to operate the family dairy farm and expand its offerings to customers.
Courtesy Duivenvoorden family

As a dairy farmer in Tehama County, Seth Duivenvoorden already represents a rarity in a region dominated by tree crops.

That he milks only 40 cows and markets raw milk makes him even more unconventional, considering the "very niche market" to which he caters—probably 1% of the state's milk drinkers, he estimates. Yet, Duivenvoorden Farms has expanded its reach, after opening a processing facility in 2017 that allows the farm to sell its raw milk to retailers.

"They say think outside the box," Duivenvoorden said. "I took the box and I burned it. We can't ever go back in the box. We have to think creatively in order to make this work."

Before building the bottling plant, the farm made its income as a herd-share dairy, selling raw milk to its member-customers. The family had operated a conventional dairy for years, selling milk to a creamery, until a family friend "came to us and said, 'Hey, we'd like to buy raw milk directly from you,'" Duivenvoorden said, noting he questioned at the time whether it was even legal.

Because Duivenvoorden Farms was already a commercial, state-inspected Grade A dairy, it could sell its milk in a herd-share program—and did so beginning in 2009. Word spread and within six months, the farm was earning as much from its 30 herd-share members as it was from selling its milk to the creamery, which found out about the secondary business and threatened to drop the farm's contract.

"So we said, 'OK, we'll see you later,'" Duivenvoorden said. "That was the pivotal moment when we decided to go all in on raw milk and herd share."

Unlike many commercial dairies that do multiple milkings a day, Duivenvoorden Farms milks once a day, which Duivenvoorden said allows the cows to produce higher butterfat in the milk. It also reduces his labor in half. His cows remain on pasture all year except during the winter, when they switch to a diet of barley fodder produced hydroponically on the farm. Whereas the farm used to buy hay in the winter, the fodder system has reduced feed costs "significantly," he said, with this year being the first year the farm is completely self-sufficient with its own feed.

Since opening the bottling plant, Duivenvoorden said the farm's sales have doubled, with its retail business surpassing its herd-share sales. Though the farm plans to continue the herd-share program, he said he wants to focus on expanding its retail market, noting that its raw milk is now sold in 21 Northern California retail outlets.

"For a lot of our existing customers, it's actually not as convenient for them to drive to the farm just to pick up one thing of milk," he said. "But they enjoy it because they bring their families out and they get to see the animals and what we're doing, and they kind of make an event out of it."

Duivenvoorden shares ownership of the farm with his father Marc, who continues to manage the farm while Duivenvoorden oversees payroll, financial decisions, most production decisions and growth opportunities. He also works as a procurement manager and inventory control manager for Siskiyou County-based Belcampo, which specializes in organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed meats. His wife Ali handles marketing, social media, promotion and farm education, including organizing school field trips to the farm, a yearly event known as "raw milk and cookies day."

Last year, Seth and Ali Duivenvoorden received the California Young Farmers and Ranchers Achievement Award, which recognizes accomplishments in production agriculture and leadership activity.

With the dairy's retail sales growing, Duivenvoorden said the farm has enough grazing capacity to expand to 60 milking cows, after which it will diversify into other ventures, such as expanding its pork production.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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