Oncken: California, the faded milk capitol revisited

John Oncken
The De Hoog family milked 500 cows on this 20 acres near Chino for over 40 years.

I was a lot younger in the early 1970's when I first visited California's new dairy area some 40 miles east of Los Angeles. That particular location was in its prime and still growing. I saw things I never imagined: 1000 cows on 40 acres with no barns, only corrals and milking parlors.

The 350 (or so) side by side dairies in the 35 square mile area made this the biggest milk production area in the world. The land was actually zoned as a dairy preserve and only dairies and aligned businesses were allowed. Over the ensuing decades the milk flowed in great amounts and in the late 70's and 80's the developers appeared on the scene while some far-thinking dairy families saw the eventual end of the zoned preserve and bought land in central California, New Mexico, Texas and even in Wisconsin and Illinois.

Those far-thinking dairy families saw the eventual end of the zoned preserve and bought land elsewhere with thee intent to move their dairy. 

Over the years I'd gotten to know some of the dairy families rather well. One, the De Hoogs milked only about 500 cows on their twenty acres and unlike most of their neighbors had resisted selling to a developer.

Chino Valley: from most milk to almost no milk

My first visit to the Chino Valley Dairy Preserve in San Bernardino and Riverside counties in southern California decades ago was a major learning experience. 

That’s when I first learned that you could milk 1000 cows on one site. Prior to that time, I like most Wisconsin farm types, thought 100 cows was a big herd. I also thought that the farm owner had to milk the cows because hired employees couldn’t do a good job and that all the cattle feed had to be raised on the farm.

Elizabeth and Martin De Hoog have seven months to move before their farm is demolished.

That was in the 70’s. Over the ensuing decades I’ve visited the area, almost on an annual basis, and written about it on these pages.  As time went on the dairy preserve zoning ended in 1990. Many dairy families took the (($200,000 - $400,000 per acre price and moved all to new lands to start over again.

Not every one decided to move, one of the latter was Martin de Hoog, his wife Elizabeth and son Martin Jr. and their 500 cows on 20 acres. I met this family of self proclaimed “small farmers" about 20 years ago when I saw them with a newly born calf on the front lawn and was curious.  

Houses are being built atop the Chine Hills overlooking the former dairy valley.

Over the years my grandchildren Trace and Cameron Curet and their mother Laurel visited the de Hoog dairy with me and watched the milking, feeding, calving and the boys jumped in the big pile of cottonseed in the commodity shed. 

The cows can be seen in the corral outside the living room window of the de Hoog house.

In a column of March 10, 2006, Martin said: “we’re signed up for a 10 year tax benefit program provided we don’t sell to a developer...we still have five years to go on that. Five of the six dairies on our 160 acre block have sold out on an escrow program (money down and no payments for three or four years). We’re the only holdouts."

This milking parlor's days are numbered.

Three years later I again traveled to in California.  I called the de Hoogs about visiting. My daughter Laurel who lives at Costa Mesa, some forty minutes away from the Chino - Ontario area and I arrived at the de Hoog dairy and were met by Martin who explained “You see, our cows are gone, We sold our 20 acres to a developer two years ago, I don’t milk cows any" he explained.

“You came at the right time. The developer is coming today and we're signing the final contract. The renter has to remove his cows in six months and we have 30 days after to remove our belongings. Then all is demolished and 160 acres of houses go up," he said.

Contented cows are not aware of their upcoming move.

What's next for you I asked?  “We don't know,” Martin admitted. "Our son is milking 450 cows in Iowa. A move after 40 years is not easy."

John Oncken can be reached at 608-572-0747 or 2742 Hilltop Drive, Sun Prairie, WI 53590