Ward and Rosie Burroughs: Grass Farmers
Our trip to California Cloverleaf Farms just outside of Turlock, Calif. felt like our first journey into the heart of Big Ag country. Cruising around the Bay Area and Northern California for the past four weeks was great. but somehow I felt
all the small family farms were the exception to the rule. And the rule is large, high production farms and ranches that dominate California’s Central Valley. When people talk about industrial agriculture and all its attendant problems (use of petroleum based pesticides and fertilizers, crowded conditions for livestock, dependency of antibiotics, monocrops, animal waste) this is where it all happens.
The road to meet Ward and Rosie Burroughs at their California Cloverleaf Farms, a 3,000-acre ranch and dairy that supplies milk to Organic Valley, was a tour through the dark side of American food production. We passed grim, windowless warehouses where thousands of factory farmed chickens live their short, miserable lives. It’s hard not compare them to concentration camps. They certainly look the part. Stark “biohazard” signs warned people to stay out. Next came the sinus stinging stench and blight of confinement dairy operations, cows kept in tight, mud and manure-caked quarters without so much as a blade of grass. This is where the vast majority of milk cows spend their short lives (about three years before the intensive milking takes its toll).
As I reached the end of the road and entered the Burroughs’ ranch with the Sierra in the background I felt myself relaxing as the high volume industrial farms gave way to green fields of rolling pasture and hundreds of cows doing what they were made to do: eat grass. Make no mistake. This is a big farm and in the Bay Area there’s a notion that only small farms can do right by the land and animals. But the Burroughs’ diversified farm will disabuse you of that idea right away.
With some prodding from their kids, Ward and Rosie Burroughs set the family farm on the road to sustainability and transitioned the farm to a grass-based, organic operation. Ward had been a conventional dairy farmer, feeding his cattle in a confined operation, calving year round and using whatever chemical products that were at hand. But he saw another way forward and figured out how to make it work. Pasture-based dairy ranching was once the norm in the United States, but over the past 50 years it has been replaced by chemical dependent, confinement operations where the animals see very little precious grass. Ward looked to New Zealand for advice because there’s a thriving grass-based agriculture scene there. Out here in the Central Valley, they are the oddballs bucking the industrial agriculture system.
“We had to stick our necks our and do it all on our own,” says Rosie. “It was really scary.”
The shift to pasture-based cattle ranching has produced a shift in their thinking as well.
“Our focus isn’t on milk production,” says Rosie. “It’s on grass. We don’t say we’re dairymen. We’re grass farmers.”