Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Creative Preservation in California's Dairy Industry*

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Creative Preservation in California's Dairy Industry*

Article excerpt

An unmistakable dynamism permeates the dairy region of California's Marin and Sonoma Counties, even as many indicators suggest that it is in decline. Expensive ranchettes and "starter castles" are supplanting dairy farms in this iconic Northern California landscape, widely known for its dramatic coastlines, grasslands, and extensive ranching history (Figure 1). North Bay dairy operators struggle to compete with more efficient dry-lot farms located farther south. (1) In Marin County production has fallen by half since its 1959 peak of more than $40 million in constant 1980-1984 dollars (Table I). Since that peak the county has lost 318 of its 363 dairy farms, and its aggregate dairy herd shrank by nearly half (Table II). Performance in Sonoma County is slightly better. The number of dairy farms dropped precipitously, from 2,725 in 1950 to 121 in 1997, but, at 32,407 head, the county's dairy herd numbered only 10,000 cows fewer in 1997 than it had in the 1950s. Production is slightly higher by an inflation-adjusted $3 million. In the early twentieth century, Marin and Sonoma were the state's leading dairy counties. Today, they represent, together, less than 3 percent of state production (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1999; California Agricultural Statistics Service 2002; U.S. Department of Labor 2004; County of Marin, Agricultural Commissioner, various years; Sonoma County, Office of the Agricultural Commissioner, various years; U.S. Census Bureau, various years).

Nevertheless, these farmers are resurgent. Rather than sell out entirely or relocate to expand their operations, they are transforming their farms. They are experimenting with organic milk and boutique cheeses, organic beef and produce, olives, and wine grapes. Some incorporate new ventures into traditional milk production. Others are developing new management styles or even purchasing more land for their dairies. Their goals are to keep farms operating, diminish environmental impacts, and provide future generations with an opportunity to farm. Many North Bay dairy-farm herds are shrinking--some have as few as 200 cows--and many are thriving at a time of increasing consolidation and concentration in the dairy industry (Hendrickson 2001).


Analysts suggest that consumer politics and globalization explain such shifts to organic and other types of so-called quality food production (Marsden and Arce 1995; DuPuis 2000). Although consumer politics has a role and globalization is an oft-encountered theme among the local "slow-food" movement, the development of alternatives in the Marin-Sonoma region is best understood as an outcome of comprehensive land-conservation strategies and planning. The region's commitment to land conservation and its quality-foods industry emerge from historical and ongoing struggles over urban growth, rising concerns about environmental values, and deep interests in dairy preservation.

In this article, we first situate these smaller operations in the broader spectrum of California dairy styles and then address the local basis for the persistence of these dairies in a region tightly constrained by land prices and competition. Four case studies illustrate different ways in which farmers define quality in their products within this context. None of these efforts would be possible without land conservation and planning, which distinguish Marin and Sonoma from other areas where "turns to quality" are often unrelated to local politics and are sometimes altogether disconnected from agricultural innovations like sustainable or organic farming. A consideration of the Marin-Sonoma experience therefore can deepen our understandings of both land conservation and quality foods.


Since the 1950s California has been widely known for its large-scale dairies. The dairies come in two varieties: dry-lot farms and pasture-based farms (Gilbert and Akor 1988; Butler and Wolf 2000). …

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