Nation's first regenerative organic dairy drew inspiration from WI mentors
Stephanie and Blake Alexandre, owners of Alexandre Family Farm in Crescent City, Calif., have made huge steps in conservation on their dairy farm: they are the first to earn regenerative organic certification in the United States.
Regenerative organic certification denotes a holistic approach to farming that puts soil health and animal welfare before anything else. The idea is to work in "harmony" with nature, Blake said, which will help fight back against climate change and the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
"We're part of the solution, and so that's what regenerative agriculture means in the context of the word," Blake said. "What it means to us is that it's really cool that somebody come along with a word and a name and a certification to describe what we really do as dairy farmers who graze cattle for many generations."
The Alexandres said they worked with the certification pilot program, which is offered by the Regenerative Organic Alliance, for two years before becoming the first to receive the honor. ROA plans to work alongside US Department of Agriculture conservation goals and benchmarks with companies such as Patagonia helping plan strategy.
The certification rests on three pillars – soil health, animal welfare and worker fairness – that must be met at a "high standard," Blake said. They both said the program has helped them define their business and way of farming as well as help them understand the science behind regenerative agriculture.
Besides dairy products, the farm also sells chicken eggs and some beef and pork. They keep their cattle and chickens on permanent grazing pastures, where they add compost periodically instead of tilling the soil. They practice rotational grazing and manage their grasses carefully to build large root networks in the soil, which helps sequester carbon.
"The real art of what we do is in managing the grass height and grazing it off appropriately – letting it get really tall, building lots of roots, which is how the carbon is really getting into the soil," Blake said. "That really dictates how fast we're progressing and benefiting."
The compost system at Alexandre Family Farm was born out of a realization that compost is more valuable to the soil than simply buying fertilizer. They mix manure solids with fish waste and also use old bedding made out of wood shavings from a nearby lumber mill.
Blake said the one thing dairy farmers across the US don't do enough is compost. He explained that much of the farm biowaste and green waste goes straight to landfills when it could be repurposed to improve the soils on the land.
"I would start with composting, farmers don't do enough of that. It's a real goldmine of opportunity," Blake said. "Anything that can be composted should be composted on a farm and, of course, used as a soil amendment."
The Alexandres have five grown children who all work on the farm now: Savanna, Dalton, Vanessa, Christian (married to Callie) and Joseph (married to Alexa). Stephanie said it was important to them that the farm go organic so that the kids would have a more viable opportunity to continue the business themselves. Generally, the Alexandre family has been an early adopter of organic and GMO-free farming practices, and now, regenerative agriculture, Blake said. He added that he wanted his children to contribute to the solutions of the world, not the problems like climate change.
Stephanie said part of their success is simply working with nature and faith. She said they don't put a lot of money into their marketing budget because the consumer can taste the care and quality in the product itself, enough to have them coming back for more.
"We're literally working with nature and we're working with God's plan in harmony," Blake said. "We don't have a big old marketing budget, we just make super good products – the best out there – put them on the shelf, and when consumers taste them and touch them and feel them, they appreciate it. ... That's very rewarding.
Blake and Stephanie said they even took much of their inspiration and knowledge for organic farming from Wisconsinite mentors. Having visited Wisconsin many times to learn about dairy farming, they looked to local dairies for guidance, like Organic Valley Cooperative based in La Farge. They said they also read Gary Zimmer's "The Biological Farmer," an introduction to the concept of biological farming that emphasizes connections with nature. Zimmer operates Otter Creek Organic Farm in Spring Green, Wis.
Alexandre Family Farm is also pioneering research into breeding dairy herds that produce milk only with the A2 protein, rather than a mix of A1 and A2 proteins, which are the primary beta-caseins expressed in cow milk. Some scientific studies have shown A1 proteins increase inflammation in the gut when ingested, while A2 proteins don't have the same effect.
The Alexandres believe that this intolerance of A1 proteins makes some people think they're lactose intolerant when they could actually consume milk containing A2 proteins.
"Ninety percent of the people that think they're lactose intolerant are wrong. They're intolerant to the A1 protein," Blake said. "This knowledge and technology, just 14-15 years old at the most, came out of New Zealand and a book was written about it shortly after it came out. We read the book and believed it. It made a lot of sense to us, intuitively, so we immediately started searching for A2 genetics."
When they first started looking to breed A2-only cows about 20 years ago, Stephanie said the semen supplies were very limited as research into the concept was only just beginning. She said their supplies only came from New Zealand for a few years, but now their semen comes from Germany, France and the US as it's more accessible today. They also have to be careful with breeding because they only graze their cattle, rather than give them feed rations, she said.
Other conservation efforts on the family farm include wildlife rehabilitation of elk, salmon, bald eagles and other animals on the edges of farmland, as well as planting trees periodically.
"All the elk, sometimes we have over 350 of them on our ranch, the wildlife, migratory waterfowl that go to our ponds and the salmon that flows through our stream ... and then the frogs and a bald eagle nest on the ranch. And then we just say, by the way, we are dairy farmers," Stephanie said. "Just get started on the process – learn, read, appreciate and give reverence to the soil, and that will give you benefits."