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Sonoma County dairy farmers face uncertain future

When 11-year-old Brayden Beretta informed his Aunt Jennifer he would take over Beretta Family Organic Dairy when he turns 18, she smiled because that would mean the fourth-generation family business would go on.

But, there’s no guarantee that will happen.

“At this point, we’re just trying to survive with where costs are,” said Beretta, assistant herdswoman at the family’s Santa Rosa dairy that has been in business since 1948. “Fuel costs are through the roof, which then makes our costs extremely high. … When it costs $3,000 to fill up your tractor just to disc your field to plant a crop, it’s really discouraging and really hard to even justify planting that crop sometimes.”

Still, she considers her family fortunate — at least for now.

“Since the end of June and by Oct. 19, five dairies in Sonoma County will have gone out of business,” said Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. Two of them will close this month. “That's five generational farm families who now are ending the legacy, and multiple farm families and employees are affected by them closing. And it's a direct effect also on the local economy.”

Ghirardelli did not provide the names of the dairies going out of business this year.

With the five dairies closing so far this year, that will leave 47 dairies still operating in Sonoma County, she said.

In its 2021 crop report, the county reported livestock and poultry product values decreased 21% compared to 2020. The decrease was largely due to a 21% decrease in the volume of the organic and convention milk production. The value per unit for organic milk increased by 10.8% and 13.7% for conventional milk.

The report listed the value of milk at $125 million, down from $158 million in the 2020 report — but still the second-highest valued agricultural product in Sonoma County, behind winegrapes at $541 million.

The overall value for Sonoma County crops and livestock in 2021 amounted to $811 million, a 19.2% increase from the 2020 value of $681 million, according to the report.

The county’s report also noted the tough financial situation facing local farms because of persistent drought in the North Coast.

“Our county’s organic ranchers can find themselves under greater stress because their animals are required to be raised on pasture for their first six months,” the report said. “In 2021, local ranchers reported that not only were their own irrigation ponds losing water faster than it was replenished, but those relying on recycled municipal water had their rations cut by up to 70%. As a result of this, some ranchers chose to sell portions of their herds to relieve the pressure of putting them out to pasture.”

At an Oct. 6 Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting, Ghirardelli did not mince words.

“Basically, what I did was, I charged them with really looking at the crop report today because in the future it's not going to look the way it does (now),” she said, adding it was earlier that morning she learned two more dairies would be closing this month.

Albert Straus, founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery, has long supported six organic farms each in Sonoma and Marin counties. When asked Monday if that remains the case, he said, “It’s true as of today.”

Straus said farmers in the Western U.S. are expected to lose between $100,000 and $200,000 this year.

“It’s a crisis,” he said. “We’ve got a coalition of organic dairy brands and dairies trying to get emergency relief for organic dairy farmers because of the drought and the escalating cost of forages and grains.”

The group is talking with legislators at the local, state and federal levels, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said.

It all has Straus feeling worried for the farmers and his business.

“I'm worried that if we don't have the farms and the milk supply, we won't be able to produce products,” he said. “And we're importing most of our food these days.”

Straus said he will increase the prices he pays to the farms Nov. 1 to help offset some of their costs, calling the farmers’ situation “unsustainable.”

To cover those costs, he said he also will be raising market prices of Straus Family Creamery’s milk products that also include ice cream, yogurt, butter and sour cream.

“I think it’s the third time this year that we're doing price increases to the market,” he said. “Along with all the freight and fuel and packaging and all these other costs, it's sky high. It's just really a hard time for everybody.”

Beretta, who also serves as board president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, also is worried about what the future holds for dairy farmers.

“I would say that we're going to lose more dairies, and it gives me chills saying that,” she said. “I don’t see any form of prices going down.”

And she also wants to see legislation.

“The amount of regulations that they've put on us … they just increased water-quality fees,” she said. “Why? What was the purpose of that? We're all hurting, and you just increased the fees.”

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and employment. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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