Despite policy challenges, family-run dairies continue to grow and succeed through dedication and faith, California dairy farmer Simon Vander Woude, the chairman of California Dairies Inc., first vice-chair of NMPF and a member of its executive committee, says in an NMPF podcast.
“We begin every day acknowledging that what we have is not our own, it's a gift from the Lord, and we have to be good stewards of the gifts that He's blessed us with,” Vander Woude said. “We've been very blessed here.”
That stewardship is expressed in many ways, from caring for the environment to seeking new opportunities to serve consumers in the United States and worldwide, he said. Vander Woude, who testified before a congressional subcommittee last year on the need to expand global market access, said that while domestic consumers continue to want dairy products, overseas sales are the key to harnessing dairy’s growing productivity and international demand.
“If 20 to 30 percent of our milk products are going overseas today and our domestic market is pretty stable, it's growing at a smaller pace than what we can grow our milk markets,” said Vander Woude, who also sits on the board of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. “We need to continue to explore trade agreements with countries that will benefit the U.S. dairy industry.”
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Hello, and welcome to the Dairy Defined podcast. How does a dairy thrive during two years of COVID disruptions? Perhaps a clue can be found on Vander Woude Dairy in Merced, California, faith, family, and cows. Simon Vander Woude is the chairman of California Dairies Inc. and first vice-chairman of the National Milk Producers Federation. His family runs the operation together. And with deep roots in this California community, it's been dealing with market challenges even while making sure consumers receive high-quality milk in the pandemic. Simon, could you tell us a little bit of the story of your family dairy farm? How did it start and where are you today?
Simon Vander Woude: Sure. So the Vander Woude family has been in the dairy business for a long time. I'm kind of third-generation kind of first-generation. Both sets of my grandparents immigrated to the US after World War II from Holland. And my mom's family ended up working for a potato farmer in Missouri and my dad's family ended up working for a dairyman in Artesia. So we have a long history of being in the dairy business. So both sets of grandparents were able to start dairies in San Diego on their own and that's where I grew up. I grew up on a dairy in San Diego County in Southern California. Yeah, so my parents ended up starting their own dairy in 1971. And then my wife and I had an opportunity to start our own dairy in 1994. So none of us has taken over the family business, we've all kind of started our own.
But after a few years of being in the dairy business, my wife and I decided, this is what we wanted to do, but San Diego is not the place to do it. So we started looking at moving to the Central Valley of California, and talked to my parents and they said, "Well, let's do it together," which was great news for us because we had a lot of energy, but not that much equity. And my parents had the equity and still lots of energy. They were still in their 40s or so when we made that decision. We started looking at different areas of California, Bakersfield was our main target and the Lord just seemed to close those doors and got in the car with my dad one day to go look at some ranches in Bakersfield.
I said to him, "I feel like the Lord's telling us we need to look somewhere else." And he said, "Well, mom said the exact same thing to me last night." So that was kind of a sign that we needed to be opening our eyes to different opportunities. And we were going up a little further north in the Central Valley for my niece's baptism. And we looked at the Orland, Willows area and ended up looking in the Merced area. And within two weeks, we were in escrow on the property here in Merced. So again, the Lord close doors and open doors and this wasn't our extreme wisdom, this was the Lord's guidance that led us here. We partnered with my parents then and built a 3,200 cow dairy, which was way outside of our comfort zone because at that time I was milking 300 and my dad was milking 500. So for us to go out and build a 3,200 cow dairy was a little bit odd, but today we're milking 3,200 here at Vander Woude Dairy in Merced.
And we've also added Dutch Door Dairy, which is a 650 cow dairy in partnership with my manager. And couple of years ago, we added Grandview Dairy, which is a 2000 cow dairy. And just in January, our son became a partner there. So he came home from college and has been working with us there. And it's been a lot of fun for my wife and I, for Chris and I, to kind of see where this goes and now we get to be the parents and working on getting our kids into the operation someday. So it's fun to see where they're going to fit in and if they want to fit in, that's their choice.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: You've actually added another generation, it sounds like, to managing the dairy.
Simon Vander Woude: Yes, we have. It's exciting. He graduated from college in May of 2020. So sitting on the couch eating chicken wings because everything was virtual that year. And he had plans to go out and work somewhere else for a while and everything was just upside down. So he started working for us and it's been a lot of fun working with our son and seeing him grow in his management style and just working together on growing that operation.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Tell us how you managed your way through the pandemic?
Simon Vander Woude: You know what? It's been a one day at a time thing, especially early on. Rules were changing each and every day. Labor laws, obviously, were changing each and every day. So we had to continually adapt and try to maintain as much compliance as we possibly could without sending everyone home and just telling them to be gone for two weeks because the cows never stopped milking. The cows didn't know there was a pandemic and they needed feed and they needed to be milked and cared for each and every day still. So yeah, that's been kind of the biggest challenges. And then, obviously, our milk markets were just wonky for the last couple of years and we're finally starting to see some normalcy in milk markets here in the US.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: How are you preparing for what we have ahead?
Simon Vander Woude: I think you got to start with remembering that we are in a global market. This is not just a California market or a US market, we're in a global market. So with that in mind, we keep an eye on other parts of the world and what they're doing and the needs of importing countries and that sort of stuff. So we do have opportunity here in the US to grow our milk footprint if we can and afford to and if the markets are there for it.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: You spoke about this last year actually before a house agriculture committee subcommittee about the importance of boosting market opportunities for dairy.
Simon Vander Woude: Yeah. If 20 to 30% of our milk products are going overseas today and our domestic market is pretty stable, it's growing at a smaller pace than what we can grow our milk markets, our milk flows on farms, so with better genetics and better feeding capabilities and all the things that we do to grow our efficiency on farm, we need to find other markets. And as a co-op, we were intimately involved with TPP development and other export opportunities. I sit on the board of US Dairy Export Council. So we need to continue to explore trade agreements with countries that will benefit the US dairy industry.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: What are some of the biggest policy challenges you faced this year starting with the federal level?
Simon Vander Woude: Federal policy this year is, again, mostly related to labor laws and compliance with mandates and all the other stuff that's going on. We do not have over 100 employees, so we don't fall into that big category, but we do fall into some other categories. We have about 60 employees across the three dairies, so we have a lot of labor issues that we have to deal with. When it comes to federal policy, obviously, there's no secret that exports have been a challenge. Just getting product on boats, sitting in California, that's kind of our edge. And it's been very difficult to capitalize on that edge here from California. We are a higher cost of production area and we have that opportunity to ship from the ports, but that's been a challenge over the last year.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Also wondering what are some of the regional challenges you see as more particular to Western producers.
Simon Vander Woude: So obviously in California, water's going to be probably the biggest threat to the California dairy industry. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is being aggressively implemented here in California. As heavily as California is regulated, water was one thing that was never regulated here up until a few years ago. So it was kind of the wild, wild west on water. And we have enough water, we just don't manage it well here in California, that's a farmer's perspective, and I think pretty much all farmers in California would agree to that. We work with our state agencies and the water boards and that sort of stuff to try to do a better job of managing it. And we as the farming community have stepped up and taken steps to become more sustainable with water.
Simon Vander Woude: My particular farms were in pretty good shape, but that's not the case for all California dairies. And that's probably the biggest threat to the California dairy industry at this point is water. Other threats are labor, and that's something that's across the entire US. Challenges we have here is that we are now in California, we're regulated to a $15 minimum wage and a 40-hour workweek. So our employees don't want to work 40 hours, they want to work 50 or 60 hours. That's what they're used to doing and that's kind of the norm in agriculture, a lot of that now is at overtime rates. That's probably the two biggest challenges here in California, are water and labor.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Given that and the uncertainty that can be faced in dairy, I want to go back to something you were talking about earlier, the role of faith and family on your farm. You talked earlier about the messages you were receiving both from the Lord and your mother, which sounds like a quite formidable combination.
Simon Vander Woude: I think we begin every day acknowledging that what we have is not our own, it's a gift from the Lord and we have to be good stewards of the gifts that he's blessed us with. We've been very blessed here. We've worked hard and we have been able to acquire quite a bit of property and cows and that sort of stuff here, but we are stewards of this to honor and glorify the Lord. And as long as we start each day acknowledging that and acknowledge that throughout the day, life is good. We've been very blessed and we know that it's a gift from the Lord. So it's our job to be a blessing to others.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And what will it take to ensure that your dairy can continue to sustain that mission?
Simon Vander Woude: An open mind. I think as I tell my employees and my kids all the time, as soon as I tell you I have it all figured out, push me out of the way because there's still more to do. Here on our operations, we have added a methane digester at the home dairy. We're in the beef business through some of our breeding programs. We sell a little bit of genetics. So diversity, we diversify into different opportunities that come along and try to do our best to use those in a beneficial way for everyone.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: We've been speaking with Simon Vander Woude who is the chairman of California Dairies Inc., a first vice-chairman of NMPF, and the owner of Vander Woude Dairy in Merced, California, who I believe may be speaking to us from his barn. What's going on in the background, Simon?
Simon Vander Woude: Oh, my manager just came in and is doing some data entry and checking on some things, and he let his St. Bernard in the office too, so he's kind of plopping around.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Anything you'd like to add before we let you go?
Simon Vander Woude: No, just thank you for the opportunity to share our story. And if anyone has more questions about who we are and what we do, we do have a website, vwdairies.com, and you're welcome to check it out.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And that's it for today's podcast. Be sure to look at NMPF Sharing Our Story page. You can get there from our homepage at nmpf.org. For more about the dairy farmers and their cooperatives who feed America and the world, you can find this podcast online on nmpf.org, and you can subscribe to it on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, and Amazon Music under the podcast name, Dairy Defined. Thank you for joining us.