Making It Work: Young organic dairy farmer sees promising future


Issue Date: October 18, 2017
By Ching Lee
Jennifer Beretta supplies hay to dairy cows on her ranch in Sonoma County.
Photo/Ching Lee
Sonoma County organic dairy farmer Jennifer Beretta stands in a pasture where her cows are grazing.
Photo/Ching Lee

Editor's note: This is the second installment of a three-part Ag Alert series about different paths young farmers and ranchers take as they build their agricultural careers.

As a fourth-generation dairy farmer on her father's side and sixth generation on her mother's, Jennifer Beretta said she always knew she wanted to milk cows for a living.

But growing up, she also witnessed volatility and grueling economic times in the dairy business and for a while wondered if there was a future for her in the family's Sonoma County dairy.

"I went through high school hearing my dad say, 'I don't know if we're going to have a dairy,'" she said. "I thought, what am I going to do? That was part of the reason I went to school. I knew I had to get an education because if the dairy wasn't here, I didn't know what I was going to do."

She's the oldest of three children and has been involved in the family operation since she could remember: driving a tractor as soon as she could reach the pedals and coming home after softball practice to feed the cows.

"I was that 11-year-old that was showing five dairy cows when most of my friends had one or two," she said. "By the time I was graduating, I had a string of 10, so I knew I was going to be here."

She was also highly aware of the business side of dairying, including the complex nature of the state's milk pricing system and how markets work.

"I listened and I learned," she said. "I watched my grandpa and my dad go through hard times."

She ended up studying animal science in college with the hope that she would come back to the dairy, where she has worked since high school, and carry on the family tradition. After attending Santa Rosa Junior College, she transferred to California State University, Chico, in 2008, a year after her family transitioned their dairy to organic. Chico State, at the time, had also in recent years converted its university dairy to organic, which Beretta said dovetailed nicely with the education and training she was seeking.

"They were still new to the organic thing and we were still really new, so it was nice to learn with them," she said. "It was a really good fit for me to learn and bring stuff back here to the dairy."

She worked at the university's organic dairy for two years and learned about pasture rotation, techniques of which she's brought home. She also learned holistic approaches to animal health and to this day continues to use many of the organic treatments and homeopathic remedies she learned at Chico State.

After graduating in 2010, she began working full time on the family dairy. The dairy business was still struggling through a major downturn in 2009 that had shuttered dairies and weakened the financial standing of many others. Like others at the time, her family had to sell some of their cows.

In 2011, she watched her mother's side of the family, which runs a dairy in West Marin, transition to organic—selling their conventional cows, buying organic cows and going through the organic certification process for the whole ranch.

"I watched them have to make a decision of either no longer being in the dairy business or going organic," she said.

Unlike conventional dairies, where milk prices are subject to the constant ups and downs of the global market, organic dairies enjoy a set contract price, typically for a year. For her family's 300-cow dairy, which is located near Santa Rosa but was not threatened by this month's wildfires, being organic makes sense, Beretta said, because people in the region support organic agriculture and want to know where their food comes from.

"Here, we're so lucky—we have the pasture, we can meet the (organic pasture) rules," she said. "The creameries in this area have such a niche market."

Since coming back to the farm, she has also seen better times, as recently as 2015, when there was a nationwide shortage of organic milk and processors were scrambling to secure more supply. That year, organic milk processors in the state were paying farmers a high of $42 a hundredweight, she noted. Today, prices have dropped by more than $10 per cwt., with the sector facing an oversupply and some organic milk being diverted to the conventional market.

"When prices started to go, it was like, 'Oh no, we're going to start this rollercoaster ride like the conventional market,'" Beretta said. "We watched this huge price increase, and now we're back watching the price decrease. So I've been through the lows, the highs and back to the lows."

Despite the current challenges, Beretta said she remains optimistic about the future of the organic dairy business.

Her involvement in agriculture stretches beyond the family dairy. In addition to being a 4-H leader, Beretta for years has been a regular at Ag Day—both in Sonoma County and at the state Capitol. She participates in the county fair, where her family often has a dairy exhibit and brings at least 20 animals for display. She gives tours of her dairy, which is often used by the local junior college for its dairy classes. These on-site classes allow students to gain hands-on experience.

"I really want to be engaged with the people in the community that want to learn," she said.

Having been involved in Farm Bureau's Young Farmers and Ranchers program since she was 18, Beretta said she's now seeing familiar YF&R faces becoming Farm Bureau leaders. She's currently the second vice president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and continues to serve on the state YF&R committee.

She said she would like to see more young farmers and ranchers get involved, dismissing common excuses from those who say they don't have the time.

"I sit on so many boards and work every day," she said. "If you don't get involved, then you can't complain about the stuff that gets passed and say you don't have a voice."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.