COLUMNISTS

A dairy era that's come and gone

John Oncken
Street after street of warehouses have replaced milking parlors and corrals.

Many readers of this column over the years may remember the writings about the rise and fall of the largest milk shed in the US. It was often referred to as the Chino Valley in California which until the early 1950's the semi-desert was pretty much used as cropland for a variety of field crops.

Before the development of modem refrigeration, processing and filtration methods, dairy farms needed to be closer to their markets. So, in the early part of the century a big arc in southeastern Los Angeles County became home to a cluster of farms feeding the appetites of a rapidly growing metropolis.

It was not long before the burgeoning population of Los Angeles began moving east seeking new building sites in the dairy lands still close to the big city. As always, the builders won the contest for land and the cows moved. 

Close to Los Angeles

Before the development of modem refrigeration, processing and filtration methods, dairy farms needed to be closer to their markets, and so in the early part of the century a big arc in southeastern Los Angeles County became home to a cluster of farms feeding the appetites of a rapidly growing metropolis.

One of the oldest milking parlors in the Valley remains. Cows? Don’t know. Is it a memorial? Maybe.

The last time the industry was forced to move. it also pulled up stakes in a hurry. Joel Splansky, a professor of geography at California State University at Long Beach and the author on the history of the dairy business there, said that as recently as 1962 the town of Dairy Valley, one of the centers of the industry in Los Angeles County, had 3,505 people and 85,000 cows.

It was not long after that that rising taxes, changing policies regarding the use of land and environmental concerns over growing manure piles forced the farmers to build their larger and more efficient operations in the Chino Valley some 40 miles east. Today, the town of Dairy Valley is called Cerritos. It has a population of 53,240 people, and no cows.  

Wide streets, trees and stores cover the land formerly covered by cows.

Initially, the growth of the dairy industry in the Chino Valley was encouraged, with few restrictions or environmental concerns.  At its peak in the 80's and 90's, there were many farms in the Chino Valley with 2,000 cows compared with a national average of fewer than 50 cows per farm.  The farms were operated with machine-like precision and a pure business philosophy. 

During a rainy spell at a World Dairy Expo (in about 2000) I had a conversation with a group of Dutch dairymen who compared the Midwest and California milking systems. 

"On a lot of your farms in the Midwest and back East, every cow has a name," one Dutchman said. "They're sort of pets. It's not like that here. A cow's a piece of machinery. If it's broke, we try to fix it. Today, every cow has a number and a page on the computer."  

Another dairy owner said he had never milked a cow by hand, and never expected to. In the factory that is his barn, the employees, almost entirely Latino, manage the incessantly humming machinery.  

"It's just a factory is what it is," he said. "If the cows don't produce milk, they go to beef."

Zoning gone

By the late 1980's the 40 year old government zoning ordinance protecting the dairy industry was revoked and the developers moved in, paying huge prices for dairies and their land. Interestingly, by then many of the larger dairy families had seen the move coming and had already bought land elsewhere – the California central valley centering on Tulare, Texas, and New Mexico – and built bigger and better dairy facilities from their farm sale money which ranged up to half million dollars an acre.

One of the very few remaining active dairies. But not for long.

Slow but sure, the dairies left the former milk production capitol of the nation. Last week I counted but maybe two dairy herds – sole remnants of the once thriving 350 herds and 400,000 cows that at one time fed Los Angeles consumers for over 40 years. 

And, those will be gone in weeks as the dairy era ends in southern California. 

Goodbye Chino Valley, Welcome Inland Empire! 

Reach John Oncken at jfodairy2@gmail.com