California Farmers, One Family’s Story

Farmers are incredible people, fighting against formidable odds, and prevailing, as in this story from Inside Climate News.

An excerpt.

“After 67 years of living and breathing dairy farming in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Scott Magneson cannot, will not, stop.

“Every morning before dawn, when the valley fog is still resting on his fields in thick clouds, he checks the barns. Then he starts on the to-do list, which outlasts the day. In another farm tradition, Magneson rarely leaves his land. He can’t remember the last time he and his wife Pat (who does the bookkeeping) took a vacation.

“Magneson, a big, ruddy-faced man who has earned his broad shoulders, is working all he can to ensure his farm—with 600 Holsteins, 500 acres, and 12 full and part-time workers—survives wildly uncertain times.

“Two years ago, in a major conservation move, he added a $560,000 manure management and composting system, paid for by a state grant for “climate smart” agriculture projects. It’s a hopeful investment for the future, against the odds. Even before the coronavirus blindsided the world and upended the food delivery system, the iconic American family farm was already in crisis, its ranks shrinking before his eyes.

“When Magneson was growing up, the vast dairy lands of Merced County, two hours south of San Francisco, stretched to the horizon. Everyone farmed. It was always hard work, but also proud. These days, farmers are spent. The decades-long decline in multi-generational family farms is quickening. Studies blame climate change, at least partly. Record heat, severe drought, biblical floods and historic wildfires are hitting too hard, too often, for farms to recover from the blows.

“Ironically, dairy farms, a significant source of climate-changing emissions in the form of methane gas from cow effusions, are failing the fastest. Besides freakish weather events, they are being pummeled by declining milk prices, rising production costs, trade war tariffs on milk exports and the growth in mega dairies.

“More than half the nation’s dairies have disappeared in the last 15 years, dropping from more than 70,000 to just over 34,000. Last year, 3,281 dairy farms disappeared, the largest annual drop since 2004. California, the top dairy state, lost 80 farms last year and more than 800 in the last 20 years, leaving 1300.

“Despite the precipitous drop in family farms, the number of milk cows has ticked up. Farm closures are fueling consolidations, creating industrial operations with several thousand cows. The largest in the country thus far, 75 miles north of Chicago, has 30,000 cows.

“A grim consequence of the farm failures is suicides. Dairy farmers are killing themselves at twice the rate of veterans and five times that of the general public.

“The coronavirus, still playing out, is adding to the disaster for family farms, even with Federal and local farm aid. In dramatic videos, the world has watched farmers dumping thousands of gallons of milk because their primary customers, schools and businesses, were locked down. The dramatic, literal loss of their product underscores their dire predicament. Even milk producers who haven’t had to spill a drop of milk, Magneson included, have written off the year in red ink. .

“Magneson has lost 20 percent of his business since the pandemic lockdowns, sold 30 of his cows and has been forced to sell his milk, which is organic, at a loss.

“Every once in a while, I’ve thought about doing something else,” he said, shrugging. He was walking through a barn with his son Jake, 27, as cows poked their heads through stalls to watch them.

“Climate-Friendly Agriculture

“Jake works on the farm too, handling complicated paperwork such as grant applications for projects to reduce the farm’s methane emissions. A 2016, California law requires livestock farms to cut methane emissions by 40 percent of 2013 levels by 2030—with dairy farms bearing 75 percent of the burden.

“To help meet the state’s ambitious goal to drastically reduce its greenhouse gases, California launched the country’s first “Climate Smart Agriculture Programs” in 2014. Four programs provide funds, education and support for farmers committed to cleaner, greener land conservation, water efficiency, healthy soils and alternative manure management. The programs, launched by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (C.D.F.A.), are so popular, that two to three times as many farmers have applied than the program can  sustain.

“Jake’s application for the manure solids separator landed the farm one of the state’s first Alternative Manure Management Program (or AMMP) grants in 2017. (Scott Magneson describes the project in this C.D.F.A. video:

“Their elaborate system looks like a giant sized Rube Goldberg machine, but all the parts serve the same purpose—to reduce waste, create organic compost to use on the land, provide bedding for the cows and create richer, more productive soil.”

Retrieved June 23, 2020 from

Be well everyone!

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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