Dairy dynasty

Happy cows indeed: Solano's dairy industry is worth $12.5 million

By Tom Hall/Special to The Reporter
Cows munch on their food as others are herded into the milking barn at the Heritage Dairy southeast of Dixon. (Brad Zweerink/The Reporter)
Product profile
Solano's milk production was valued at $16.5 million in 2005
Price for producers: 90 cents per gallon
The milk goes to regional processors, then to grocery stores or nonmilk dairy product manufacturers
Cost to consumer: Upwards of $2 per gallon. Solano milk can also end up in cheese, cream and butter.
Dairy Council of California: www.dairycouncilofca.org
Fun fact: Sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, camels, yaks, water buffalo and reindeer are other animals that can produce milk for human consumption.

Though television commercials show plenty of pride among California's dairy cows, their existence has become highly controversial in Solano County politics.

Following sewage spills at the county's largest dairy - the 4,000-cow Heritage Dairy in Dixon - in 2003 and 2005, county politicians placed new regulations on large-scale milk producers and, at the behest of city officials from Dixon and Vacaville, have delayed the applications of megadairies seeking to bring their companies to Solano.

But outside of the shadows of the contentious debate over Heritage and other mega dairies, milk production has remained a consistent moneymaker for Solano farmers.

Milk is the county's sixth biggest "crop." Solano's dairy farmers sold $12.5 million worth of milk in 2005, nearly 100 percent of which was processed outside of Solano.

Milk is by far the largest livestock product turned out by county farmers. Lambs wool brings in only 1 percent of the value of Solano milk, and combined apiary production - honey and beeswax - total less than 2 percent of milk's earnings.

Jack Beukelman, whose family has been in the milk business since 1981, has 900 dairy cows just east of Dixon. In case you're wondering, it's not a business for a wide-eyed rookie to jump into.

"It's like running a small city," Beukelman said.

Those commercials about California's happy cows? The farmer encourages you to believe them.

"Ads talking about the importance of having a 'contented cow' are absolutely right," Beukelman said after a recent long day's work on the farm. "You have to handle the cows gently, quietly. If you mistreat them, you're cutting your own throat."

Beukelman said his dairy puts out an average of 7,000 gallons of fresh milk every day. For 25 years, until this past June, Beukelman sold directly to Crystal Creamery, one of Northern California's major milk processors and distributors. Now, Beukelman sells to a group that redirects the milk to processors with shortages.

A Beukelman's, the milk is drawn from the cows, then immediately chilled, reaching a temperature of 40 degrees F in one hour. It is trucked out to the processor every day. It takes only a few days for milk to go from Beukelman's cows to a neighborhood grocer's refrigerator.

Beukelman said ensuring freshness and safety at every step keeps the buying price high.

Responsibility for the surrounding environment is also important, the farmer said. Beukelman was one of the first 10 dairy farmers in the state to self-impose strict voluntary measures to protect soil and water surrounding his operation six years ago. Now that Solano has the state's strictest environmental regulations for dairies, Beukelman said early conscientiousness is paying off.

"We figure it was good to be ahead of the curve,'' he said.

At Stuart Rowe's Innisfail Dairy, also in rural Dixon, life is a bit different. Rowe has a small dairy: only 200 milk cows, which produce an average of 1,200 gallons a day. Rowe's family has farmed in northern Solano County since 1919 and at its current Pedrick Road location since 1986.

The smaller volume allows Innisfail to modify its operation from the standard dairy setup: the cows have space to graze, a rarity in the milk business.

"Our size enables us to graze our milk cows, which isn't done a whole lot of places these days," Rowe said. "It's the only way we can compete. We can't buy feed on the same scale the larger dairies can. So this helps."

Along with the 75 acres on Pedrick Road, Rowe has more grazing land near Davis. Similar to the timeframe at the Beukelman farm, Innisfail ships its milk daily. It is Crystal Dairy's oldest existing supplier - Innisfail sold its first cold gallon to Crystal during World War II.

Rowe keeps two full-time employees at the dairy, and he himself does more than his fair share of labor. Most of Dixon's residential growth in the past two decades has occurred on the opposite side of town as Innisfail, though some ranchettes have crept closer.

So far, he said, the rapport between residential neighbors and the dairy has been good.

"Our neighbors have been good to us," Rowe said. "They know the dairy performs an important function and limits its environmental impacts, and that the dairy has been here longer. They respect us."

Send comments to citydesk@thereporter.com.

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