Dairy dynasty

Four-generation family operation serves up raw milk

A thirsty calf digs into some raw milk, bottle-fed by Luke Duivenvoorden.

A thirsty calf digs into some raw milk, bottle-fed by Luke Duivenvoorden.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Get their milk:
You can find it at Chico Natural Foods, New Earth Market and S&S Produce. For more, see rawmilkdairy.com.

There’s a lot to love about being a dairyman, but the highlight of Marc Duivenvoorden’s long days on his family farm in Cottonwood is when excited children run up to him, eager to take home some fresh milk.

Last week, he reminisced while offering the CN&R a personal tour. There was one unforgettable 2-year-old, Daly, he recalled, who often visited the farm with her family, regular customers.

“She’d bring her empty bottle and refer to me as Farmer Marc, and have Farmer Marc fill up her bottle,” he said, smiling. “It made a huge difference for her in her life.”

Though Daly’s family no longer gets milk at the farm, he recently noticed a picture of the girl, now 7, on Facebook, grinning while hugging a gallon of Duivenvoorden’s signature product.

Business wasn’t always like this, with customers constantly dropping by, and the relationships the Duivenvoordens have developed over the last 10 years “make all the difference in the world,” he said. “You feel appreciated and supported. It makes [all the hard work] worthwhile.”

Marc grew up on the same 57-acre dairy farm he manages today with his wife, Lori, sons Seth and Luke, and Seth’s wife, Ali. Situated about 50 miles from Chico off of Interstate 5, visitors pass several other farmhouses and grazing cows before Draper Road reaches the sweet spot where four generations of Duivenvoordens reside on the 55-year-old family farm. Family matriarch Rita, 85, still enjoys tending a garden.

Three generations of Duivenvoordens, with their farm dog companion, Sky. From left: Luke; his parents, Marc and Lori; Ali and Seth and their children Rhett, Kaden and Hudson.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Underneath powder-blue skies and the steel gray visage of Mount Lassen, Marc grew up helping his mother and father, Rita and Jerry, and aunt and uncle, John and Nel DeJong, raise and milk about 200 cows two to three times a day. His parents founded Duivenvoorden Farms in 1963 after emigrating from Holland, establishing a typical commercial dairy—the farm’s milk was sold to a local creamery. Back then, it was more about “pushing product and producing as much [milk] as possible to bring in the money,” he said.

At the time, there was quite a vibrant dairy industry in the region, Marc said; theirs was one of about 80. Now, the Duivenvoordens’ farm is one of the last remaining dairies in the Redding/Shasta County area. (The farm is technically in Tehama County, on the border between the two.)

The economic downturn 10 years ago spurred the farmers to become hyper-focused.

The farm sold its raw milk solely through herd shares up until last year, when it opened a licensed processing plant on-site. Customers can still purchase shares of livestock (one share is 1/10 of a percent of a cow), and as a benefit, are able to get a gallon of milk a week (as well as the chance to purchase grass-fed beef and milk-fed pork). With the processing plant, the Duivenvoordens also are able to package and sell their milk to stores—customers can find it in Cottonwood, Chico, Red Bluff, Redding, Willows and Palo Cedro, as well as on the farm.

Dairy farmers are known for being “stubborn as hell to any change,” Seth said, but one of the best things about his father is that he is open-minded. When Seth returned to the family farm after graduating from Chico State in 2012 with a bachelor’s in animal science, he convinced his father to open the processing plant and venture into the retail realm, selling raw milk in stores.

Despite raw milk’s growing popularity and availability in 30 states via farms like the Duivenvoordens’, its consumption is still controversial, mainly because of the health risks associated with unpasteurized dairy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even dairy farms with sound safety practices can have healthy animals that contaminate milk with germs such as E. coli and Salmonella, typically killed through pasteurization.

Ali Duivenvoorden cradles the farm’s first pint-size raw milk jugs before shipping them to stores in Chico and Willows in January.

Photo courtesy of Duivenvoorden Farms

The Duivenvoordens aren’t convinced, and swear by raw milk’s benefits, not just for heartburn and as a hangover cure, Seth said, but for its enzymes and rich butterfat and cream. They all drink their own farm’s milk, including the kiddos.

“Raw milk doesn’t even come close to food-borne illnesses by meat, produce, all these other items we eat on a daily basis,” Seth said. “The second you mention raw milk, people say, ‘How dare you do that!’ … The benefits outweigh the risks to us, and our customers.”

On the day of the CN&R’s visit, most of the cows were lazing in the shade of the barn, trying to escape the afternoon heat.

Every day, the cows are rotated to a fresh patch of grass, a method called intensive grazing, Seth explained. They are entirely grass-fed and milked only once, in the morning, because the family aims for quality of life for the cows, as well as product. Each one of them has a name, Marc added.

Seth recalled his time working on other dairies, where conditions were not as comfortable. At one particular farm he did not want to name, 1,500 cows were milked three times a day in six-hour increments, giving the animals only two hours to graze before returning to stand in long queues on hot concrete and getting milked again.

“You just see these cows, they’re worn out, they’re burnt out,” he said. “Our cows, as much as I can say it, are stress-free. We bother them for one hour a day and the rest of the time they get to be cows.”

Running a dairy these days, Seth and Marc agreed, is hard work, and the cost of doing business is getting so expensive that dairy farms are “dropping like flies,” Seth said. Grade A dairies in particular are heavily regulated: Their family’s 30-cow operation has to meet the same conditions as a 2,000-cow dairy.

Rhett Duivenvoorden scoops up corn bran, doing his part to feed the calves at the family farm.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

“You have to love what you do while you’re working hard to make a living,” Marc added. For the Duivenvoordens, that doesn’t seem to be an issue.

“It’s a way of life,” the father and son said, echoing each other.

That love is also contagious. Ali, who became a Duivenvoorden when she married Seth five years ago, grew up in the suburbs of Petaluma but has become passionate about farm life. She emphasized how valuable it has been to raise her children there.

“They’ve learned at a young age the importance of caring for animals, responsibilities, the circle of life,” she said. “They learn to appreciate where their food comes from.”

It’s for the same reasons she loves coordinating field trips that bring kids from local schools and organizations like Boy and Girl Scouts of America out to the farm.

It’s “something kind of special” that the entire family lives and works together, said Lori. She and Marc got married about 30 years ago. She divides her time between running her own business, managing the farm office and events, and, of course, enjoying being a grandma.

“When you see what your kids get, it’s really amazing,” she continued.

“Of course it’s simple and it’s nothing fancy and it’s hard work and it’s hot,” Ali added, “but it’s something other people wish they could take part in. We feel so lucky to have that experience. It’s so rare.”

Since opening its processing plant, the farm has increased sales by about 150 percent, Seth said, and they hope to continue expansion. Most recently, the Duivenvoordens have started offering chocolate milk sweetened with Ghirardelli Dutch cocoa to herd-share holders to gauge consumer demand. And everyone is gearing up for Raw Milk and Cookies Day in October, during which they offer free samples, tours and activities for kids to give people a taste of what life is like on the farm.