Life moves on as dairies disappear

John Oncken
Only a few dairy herds remain.

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 1,000 cows on one site. Prior to that time, I, like most Wisconsin farm types, thought 100 cows was a big herd. I also thought the farm owner had to milk the cows because hired employees couldn't do a good job and that all cattle feed had to be raised on the farm.

That was in the 70s when the 500 (or so) side-by-side, 20- to 50-acre dairies in the 35 square miles made this the biggest milk production area in the world. The land was actually zoned as a dairy preserve with only dairies and ag businesses allowed.

Over the ensuing decades, I've visited the area, almost on an annual basis, and written about it on these pages. You also read about how the far-thinking dairy families saw the eventual end of the zoned preserve and bought land in central California, New Mexico, Texas, Idaho, Colorado and even in Wisconsin and Illinois.

Many of California’s dairy corrals  were uncovered during the heyday of milking cows in the nations most concentrated dairy area in the Chino Valley of California.

Preserve ends

The dairy zoning and Preserve ended in 1990 and many dairy producers took the developer's money ($200,000 to $500,000 per acre) and moved — their milking parlors and houses demolished and replaced by houses, apartments, warehouses and condos.  Perhaps three dairy herds now remain in the entire valley.

The south end of the preserve was the first to go and development began. The recession of the late 1900's brought development to a halt, and 75 or so dairies remained.

A holdout

One of the “holdouts” was Martin de Hoog, his wife, Elizabeth, son Martin Jr. and their 500 cows on 20 acres. I met this family of self proclaimed "small farmers" years ago when I saw them with a new calf on the front lawn and stopped.

It was in February of 2006, when 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 yearly payments for three or four years). We're the only holdouts.

The de Hoogs did sell and moved the dairy herd to a rented dairy near Lincoln, NE, where Martin Jr., his wife and two young children live and manage the herd. Martin makes the trip to Nebraska every few months to check the operation and help his son. "This leased property is just temporary," Martin said. "We plan to buy another dairy somewhere in the Midwest. Our son found one in Iowa he likes and we may buy it.

Signs of the times - digging up the cow corrals.

The corrals, formerly full of cattle on my previous visits, were all empty at the de Hoog dairy. The two four-wheelers were permanently parked alongside the barn, and weeds were growing in the concrete cracks in the pens and feed mangers. However, Martin was scheduled to meet later in the day with a young dairyman who wanted to lease the dairy. "The place he's at is scheduled to be torn down soon,” Martin said.

He also said that said the developers are national and international companies with long-term plans in place for residential and business development for the entire former dairy area and that the $300 - $500 per acre prices are not unusual for them.

We left the de Hoog dairy for maybe the last time and headed for lunch at the famed Flo's Cafe at the Chino airport. This is the place I where met dozens of dairy folks over the years, talked about dairying and made a lot of friends. "The dairy crowd has shrunk to almost nothing," a waitress said.

We drove by the former Albers Dairy (long since sold and demolished) where Ray Albers first introduced me to California dairying – his was a progeny test herd and I was ABS advertising director - and where I met his three sons. The family was among the most revered in the valley.

The new residents probably don’t know cows lived here before they did.


Change is inevitable. The narrow country roads in the dairy valley are now freeways. I can't find the dairies I used to visit — they are long gone. The hundreds of thousands of cows have been replaced by as many people. Also sort of sad. And life moves on.

Contact John F. Oncken at