On a recent June morning, I found myself rising earlier than normal to a beautiful cool California morning. Most early mornings mean an early arrival to the shop, either gathering for a meeting or a little extra prep for the shop or, even worse, for inventory. On this particular morning my destination led away from the city, away from the crowds. In fact, the day I had planned was intended to be quite the opposite of a typical day in the cheese shop. No helping customers, answering phones, no faxing or signing of invoices. Instead, with the help of a mutual friend, I had arranged to spend the day in the sun with John Taverna, a local dairy farmer who provides organic Jersey milk to Cowgirl Creamery for their selection of seasonal cheeses. This time of year Cowgirl Creamery produces their St. Pat, a bloomy rinded 9 oz. round that is wrapped in organic stinging nettle leaves. At other times of the year you may find their Pierce Point or Devil’s Gulch, each adorned with organic ingredients that are felt to be representative of the season. No matter the time of year, one can be assured that these cheeses are produced using the rich, wonderful milk of the Taverna Jersey cows.
As I set off north on the highway, I thought of questions I would ask, what information was important for me to take away later that evening. I thought of how nice it would be to feel the warmth of the sun without worrying about cheeses swelling and sweating on the counter. I also thought about what kind of work was in store for me and whether or not I would be up for the task. The love of working outdoors had led me to construction and landscaping in the past, however it had been more than a year since I picked up a shovel or threw on a pair of coveralls in preparation of a dirty day’s work. My father’s family has deep roots in dairying and farming, however I had never milked a cow, wrangled a steer or fed a calf. As I thought about what expectations I had or what information I would be expected to relay afterwards to staff, I tried to relax and focus on enjoying the day. In the end, as I pulled over at the beginning of John’s driveway to slip off my Birkenstock’s and into my boots, I settled on just trying to keep up with the multi-generational dairyman I was about to meet and to retain as much information as possible. At the very least I was sure to leave a little stinky and sunburned.
Boots on and Birkenstocks safely out of sight I pulled my car into what I hoped was the Taverna dairy farm. Met by a gang of loud and rowdy farm dogs, I surveyed the gravel driveway and the buildings that lined it. The driveway formed a circle that led round a gathering of tractors, what looked like an old horse trailer and a covered area for feed which was stacked neat and high. Directly behind this was an older trailer that was surrounded on either side by what looked like storage sheds and an old cargo container. I learned later that this trailer was supplied by John to his one and only employee and his wife, who were being visited that week by his mother in-law in order to help with the birth of their child. John had had employees in the past, however none had been accompanied by a wife, let alone a child. Turnover of farm employees was high and John was hoping that the stability of a family would encourage this man to stay longer than the others. To the west of this makeshift homestead was the milking parlor, capable of mechanically milking twelve cows at a time. Bales of alfalfa were stacked under the empty window frames and as the cows lined the milking station the alfalfa would be placed in front of them. This provided them with a nutritious supplement to their pasture fare as well as a bit of distraction from the pneumatic pumps attached to their utters. In better times the alfalfa would be accompanied by grain, however the economy and low milk prices had necessitated a cut back in the diversity of their diet. Despite this, the organic alfalfa was eaten with pleasure and the cows looked plump and satisfied.
On the eastern edge of the driveway stood an old ranch home, the white paint peeling and many of the panes in the windows left broken. The home had been added to the property by John’s grandparents, the second generation of the Taverna family to work the 250-acre property here in Petaluma. The last family member to live in the house was John’s uncle who, John told me later that day, had unfortunately allowed the house to fall into disrepair. John was now the fourth generation of his family to operate the dairy farm and he hoped to rehabilitate the house, restoring it to the home he remembered as a child. Living there, he said, would enable him to be closer to the cows and the farm.
Alerted to the arrival of his volunteer by the barks and snarls of his dogs, John emerged from the milking parlor in a pair of mud boots and a blue striped, short sleeved shirt. His cheeks were beyond rosy, reddened by the persistent sun of northern California. He had a bushy, well-groomed mustache and his thick dark hair was streaked grey. Although waking up at 6 am seemed gruelingly early to me, John had been up since before 5 am and the first milking of the day had already taken place prior to my arrival. Perhaps I should have come earlier, risen with the sun to take in the full cycle of the farm. Was I inconveniencing him to show up mid morning, would my presence be burdensome rather than helpful? As we shook hands, John’s smile was genuine and warm and my fears began to fade. He spoke in a low, gruff tone and had a very deliberate way with his words. He reminded me a bit of my dad, who spoke in the same thoughtful manner. My father had been raised in up-state New York on his family’s dairy farm, working with his father and the animals, taking part in everything that farm life entailed. He no longer lives on a working farm, however he always has and continues to exude a sense of calm, giving an air of acceptance with the way things are. I have often found this level-headedness exhibited by folks who have physical occupations, those that force them to work hard and think pragmatically. It seems that they more than many will show a sense of contentment, I suppose I liken it to a connection with the world others are not forced to develop. It is an endearing trait and I could not but help sense it in John. I felt welcome in John’s company and as we stood in the sun, surrounded by the hills of Petaluma, he introduced me to his farm.
Home to 140 Jersey cows and one mildly ornery bull, the Taverna Dairy Farm has been in operation for more than 100 years. Carrying on his family’s tradition of dairying in the Petaluma area, John has kept his herd at or around this size for years now. He takes impeccable care of them all and finds that the size of his herd works well on the land. He tells me that he once built it up to 200, however this increase in cows had had quite a noticeable effect on the land, and not a particularly positive one during mud season. Since then he has kept the herd at a more manageable size. The Taverna herd is nearly 100% pasture fed and they spend both night and day in the open, sleeping together in groups and coming in twice a day for milking. With the help of his lone employee John milks the herd twice a day, the milk picked up at 6:30 in the evening everyday of the week. Although his holding tank has a 1,100-gallon capacity, these days less than 400 gallons are produced each day for sale. This is in part due to the limited finances for a well-fortified supplemental diet, as well as drops in both milk consumption and prices. On top of the common financial strains of modern dairy farming, John has recently certified his farm organic. To most, including myself who sees high priced organic milk in markets, this seems like a step forward in adding value to the milk produced here. Unfortunately, even though every drop sold is 100% organic, only one out of seven days worth of production is sold at the price of organic milk. John hopes that this will change soon and that he will be able to both increase his production and sell more of his milk organically. It was shocking to discover that, even though the farm operates organically day in and day out, only a small percentage is sold as such. It will take more hard work from folks like Cowgirl Creamery and the few smaller cheese makers in the area who buy the milk at organic prices to sustain an operation like John’s.
As we progress through the day’s tasks, John barely skips a beat as he talks about the dairy industry and it’s ups and downs, how they have impacted his farm and others like it in the Petaluma and Marin areas. I find that he is an incredible source of information. With no computer and therefore no Internet, along with limited time spent in front of the TV, John’s attention is most often turned toward his cows, his farm and his role in the dairy industry. He sights numerous magazines like Hoard’s Dairyman and shows me articles with pictures of larger industrial farms and ads for cutting-edge machinery. I can see that he takes pride in the fact that his farm is small, that his cows are treated with love and respect. In larger operations, he tells me, the cows must have their hooves clipped on a regular occasion. Here, at the Taverna Dairy, natural pastures, organic feed and impeccable attention to the health and happiness of his cows rarely necessitates any clipping. We talk about artificial insemination versus the natural breeding program that he now follows; he explains in detail to me both sides of the argument and why he has chosen to keep a bull among his cows. Throughout the day John tells me about his cows diet, about calving and how to judge the pregnancy of a cow; he lectures on dairy taxes and government programs. I did all I could to keep up and had to focus my attention more than once in order to take it all in, hoping that I would do the day justice and remember at least some of the information. I felt privileged to act as a one-man audience to John’s stories and explanations of the day’s activities and was in awe of the work that faced him each morning and his ability to meet all the challenges of the day.