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California Dairies Look To Midwest’s Greener Pastures

Dec 15, 2014

Brian Azevedo says that if he kept his family dairy in California he would most likely have to change careers.
Credit Ezra David Romero

This is the first story in a two-part series reported in partnership with Harvest Public Media. The second story explores why a Chino family moved to Nebraska a few years back: "Midwest Recruiting California Dairies To Pump Up Rural Economy."

 

California’s branded as the state with happy cows, but increasingly, not necessarily happy dairy owners. For many of them in the nation’s No. 1 dairy state it’s getting tougher to make a living, that’s why some are some selling their cattle and heading to the Midwest.

Many small dairy operations across California are struggling to turn a profit with high feed costs, the drought and regulations.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

A full quarter of California dairies have been shuttered since 2007, according to Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen.

“They’ve just closed their doors and they’ve decided to make their investment in other states,” Marsh said.

He blames high feed costs, state business and environmental regulations and the drought. He also blames almonds. The large demand and high profit margin for the nut has some dairymen leveling their operations and planting almond orchards.

“As dairy farmers have transitioned out of that business some other permanent crop has come in to take the position of where the dairy was,” Marsh said.

Brian Azevedo is one of the dairymen making a move from California, the state he has called home for the entirety of his 26 years.

“The costs of feeds here exacerbated by the drought, as well as constant increasing regulation and the cost of those regulations have made it very difficult for a small operation like ourselves,” Azevedo said.

"I'd much rather leave my home and go where I can have a dairy business, have cows and do what I want to do, versus stay here where I'm at and do something else. I think that I'll be happier over there, (not) being over here in better weather doing what I don't want to do." - Brain Azevedo
Brain Azevedo, his parents and siblings are moving to South Dakota the spring of 2015.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Azevedo, a Portuguese-American dairy farmer in Merced, Calif., has milked cows for 15 years along with his parents, his brother and sister. They rented a dairy with a herd of 600 and dreamt of owning their own. But that dream has been hard to catch.

“We realized we cannot stay here,” Azevedo said. “It is not viable."

While Azevedo wanted to give up his dairy farm, he didn’t want to give up dairy farming.

That’s where South Dakota Agriculture Development Representative David Skaggs comes in.

"We have dairies that have relocated from Ireland, England, the Netherlands -- numerous other states as well, but California seems to be a good target market for us." - David Skaggs.

Skaggs works for South Dakota luring dairies to the state. He met the Azevedos at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif. The dairy pavilion there is full of recruiters from the Midwest -- Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas -- all vying for the attention of dairy farmers.

“We have dairies that have relocated from Ireland, England, the Netherlands -- numerous other states as well, but California seems to be a good target market for us,” Skaggs said.

Skaggs says his goal is to double the number of dairy cows in the state.

“Since I took over in 2005, we have grown our dairy industry from 81,000 dairy cows to 97,000 today,” he said. “By the end of the year we’ll be over 100,000 cows.”

South Dakota recruits so hard that the state’s governor, Gov. Dennis Daugaard, is involved in the recruiting. The state even uses a hashtag #getsomemilk2014.

Brian's, right, mother Maria, right, is excited about the move to South Dakota.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“We’re trying to attract California dairymen to look at South Dakota’s advantages for establishing a dairy,” Daugaard said at last year’s expo.

Azevedo was hooked. He sold most of his cows, made multiple trips to South Dakota and eventually bought a 117-acre dairy in the Mount Rushmore state for less than $1 million dollars. It would cost at least twice as much in California.

For now, Azevedo wakes up every morning and grabs a pitchfork and feeds the 60 cows he decided to keep with a hay, oat and corn mix.

“I’d much rather leave my home and go where I can have a dairy business, have cows and do what I want to do, versus stay here where I’m at and do something else,” Azevedo said. “I think that I’ll be happier over there, (not) being over here in better weather doing what I don’t want to do.”

That’s why come spring the Azevedos will settle in South Dakota, leaving behind California’s dairy world for what he hopes will be greener pastures.

This story was reported in partnership with Harvest Public Media. The second story in the reporting partnership takes the listener to Nebraska, "Midwest Recruiting California Dairies To Pump Up Rual Economy."