When they read the number on the check, their hearts sank.
After a month of physically exhausting work, the owners of Duivenvoorden Farms received absolutely no money in return. That was thirteen years ago, when the northern California dairy farm participated in the “conventional market” – selling its milk to a co-op-owned creamery.
“That’s a pretty negative thing to look at, and your morale goes really low after you get a check for nothing on a dairy you’re working 24/7,” said co-owner Seth Duivenvoorden, who represents the third generation of the family-owned, rural business.
“If you are a dairy person selling milk to a co-op, you are at the complete mercy of that co-op,” he said.
In the arrangement, the creamery sets the prices, tells the farmers how much milk it can buy and no matter the farmer’s cost, the price it will pay does not budge. It’s a dilemma many small dairy farms are facing, with reports of farms shutting down, while others take out debt to stay afloat.
But others are pivoting to different markets and business models, looking for a formula that lets them thrive. For Duivenvoorden Farms, adapting meant taking more control of how their milk is priced and sold. So they transitioned to the raw milk sector. They began with a herd-share operation, where a farm sells shares of an animal and distributes its milk to shareholders. This provides dairy owners with more control over prices for their efforts.
That model was an improvement. There were no more checks for zero dollars, but California law caps herd-share operations at three cows, leaving no room for expansion. So in 2017, the dairy pivoted again and began selling raw milk directly to retailers. This arrangement is legal in California as long as the milk comes from a Grade-A dairy and milk plant. Since that switch, Duivenvoorden Farms has increased the number of cows in operation to 37, and the family is looking to max out the herd at 60.
That’s a small dairy farm, but a viable one thanks to the new approach. The operation, which is near Cottonwood (population 3,316), has grown enough to hire employees and thrive even during COVID-19. In fact, the Duivenvoordens saw an increase in sales when the pandemic hit. Because they control the whole process from cow to jug to the store shelf, the farm is not impacted by outside food-chain disruptions. While stores had shortages of other dairy products, Duivenvoorden’s milk kept coming.
“We’re a completely vertically integrated company,” Duivenvoorden said. “We own the cows, milk the cows, sell the milk and distribute the milk ourselves. So for us, we have the ability to change with the times.”
Making the transition allows a third-generation dairyman to continue a treasured family tradition and share it with those he loves, including his parents, siblings and wife, while raising a fourth generation on the family farm. To make it work, the business had to face up to change and find a way to use it as an advantage. It’s not easy, and Duivenvoorden recommends a lot of due diligence.
“Research as much you can before you take a step in any direction,” he said.
He also puts a premium on connecting with and learning from others, especially those nearby.
“It’s extremely important to network with your local community and get out there,” Duivenvoorden said. “Be a part of your local farm bureau or chamber of commerce. Be a part of the local community organizations to where you can meet with people who you might not have any other connection to them, but all of a sudden an opportunity may arise out of that.”
Finally, it’s essential to persevere through the challenges of change.
“I think the key is to not get discouraged when you hear a ‘no,’” Duivenvoorden said, later adding, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard somebody go, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ and I went, ‘Watch me.’”