Dennis Leonardi. Ferndale, Humboldt County.
"I ask myself sometimes why the hell I do this. It’s obvious I like it because I’ve been doing it for thirty-five years, but I have worked as hard as three men’s lifetimes—and I’m just fifty-six years old."
Humboldt County’s Ferndale is the last dairy town in California. There are other places that draw much of their income from dairy farming, but nowhere else is the economy, culture and history singularly defined by cows eating grass and producing milk.
The reason is the Eel River, which drains off the coastal mountains and pours into the Pacific just west of Ferndale. The river means the soil is rich and never wants for moisture; helps the grass stay green year round. The river also means a floodplain that prevents housing development. So this broad valley is given over, seemingly in perpetuity, to dairy cattle—16,000 of them.
In more intensive dairying areas in the Central Valley that number of animals would mean probably two or three dairy farms. Here, though, it means sixty, most of them run by families who have been here for generations. The result is a tight community. When someone gets cancer, neighbors raise money to help pay the bills. After a farmer recently lost ten cows in a freak accident, his herd was anonymously replenished.
But neither the strong community nor the idyllic setting shields farmers from the pressures of the dairy industry. Over the past twenty years the valley has lost roughly ninety farms—that’s three out of five. The sixty remaining are mostly owned by those in their later years.
“Who is following us?” third-generation dairy farmer Dennis Leonardi said to me. “It’s so capital-intensive and there’s so much work, the rate of return is so slim. It sounds terrible to not want your kids to come back to the farm, but I wouldn’t wish this hard a life on anybody.”
Barn. Eel River Valley, Humboldt County.
Downtown. Ferndale, Humboldt County.
Haylage. Eel River Valley, Humboldt County.
Dennis Leonardi brings heifers to new pasture. Loleta, Humboldt County.
Path to the ocean. Loleta, Humboldt County.
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