DFA’s Young Cooperator (YC) program was designed to help develop the next generation of dairy leaders and serve as an outlet for young farmers to network with their peers. This is what led Sean Kelley from Stevinson, Calif., to join the program earlier this year.
“I got involved with YCs as a way to meet more people within the same industry,” he says. “I did not grow up in Stevinson, and being a transplant to a small town, I decided to take advantage of every possible opportunity to meet people.”
The thought of being able to exchange ideas with peers from not only his region, but from all over the country, was appealing. He has found value in learning about other farmers’ dairy practices.
“It’s always good to see how other people accomplish the same task,” Kelley says. “Sometimes they will have a great idea that you can implement.”
Kelley recently spoke about his family operation at a joint meeting between the Mountain and Western Area Young Cooperators. He mentioned it’s hard to talk about their farm without starting from the beginning because they take great pride in their past.
In 1852, James J. Stevinson Corporation started as a beef operation, supplying meat to miners during the California gold rush. Eventually they diversified into raising other animals. In the 1920s, they were farming and had three small dairies, but other dairymen operated out of those facilities so long as they agreed to buy their feed from the Stevinson farm. When Kelley’s grandfather returned from World War II in 1946, he decided to operate the dairies himself. In the seven generations since James J. Stevinson founded the operation, the family continues to farm on the same land.
Today, it has morphed into a diversified farming operation. The family’s key businesses involve milking 3,000 cows on the dairy, growing 1,200 acres of almonds, raising beef cattle and farming corn, alfalfa and forage mix. They also run a real estate business based out of Las Vegas, Nev., and Sacramento, Calif.
Currently, two family members join Sean in running the operation. His uncle, Bob Kelley, is president and oversees the entire ranch. His cousin, Danny Kelley, who serves as vice president of operations, manages water issues and is in charge of compliance. Sean’s title is also vice president of operations, and he has his hand in a little bit of everything, working with the dairy, farming, calf raising, beef and maintenance foremen to make sure everything is running as efficiently as possible. He also manages their real estate offices.
“We work well together,” he says. “There is no ‘I’ around here. It’s definitely a ‘we’ business. We have a good-sized operation, and it would all fall apart if we weren’t in this together.”
While the Kelleys are inspired by their family’s past, they have an eye firmly on the future.
“Our operation is a little different from most,” Kelley says. “We are so diversified that I don’t have time to be at the dairy on a day-to-day basis. We have highly competent people running each part of our operation. It gives me the ability to forecast for the future and look for ways for the operation to expand and diversify even further. But it’s a group effort that keeps us running so efficiently.”
Although he didn’t grow up on a farm, Kelley has known this was the career for him for a long time. Spending his summers working on the family farm since the seventh grade helped cultivate his passion for agriculture. When he attended California Polytechnic State University, he graduated with a degree in agriculture business with a concentration in ranch and farm management.
Since leaving college and taking on a career in the family business, Kelley has been eager to take on new roles not only on the operation, but also in the Cooperative.
He is playing a significant role in helping to strengthen the Western Area YC program, and was recently elected a delegate for the Area.
“In 2008, our previous cooperative dropped us when milk got super long,” Kelley says. “DFA was there for us with open doors, and we couldn’t be more pleased. I’ve been trying to get as involved with the Cooperative as possible. It’s a great organization that goes above and beyond its call of duty for their members.”
Concerning the Western Area, Kelley is excited to have an opportunity to work with other Young Cooperators to build a sustainable future for the dairy industry, particularly given the challenges ahead — specifically environmental regulations in California.
“Regulations have gotten so aggressive that it’s almost a fulltime job to stay on top of the paperwork and keep your permits straight,” he says. “It’s starting to push dairies out of California.”
With California typically being a trendsetter for regulations, Kelley worries these regulations will spread to other states. This is a big reason why he wants to be more involved with the Cooperative’s efforts to fairly represent the dairy industry as a whole.
“I think sometimes environmental agencies and activists forget we are farmers, and farmers don’t get the returns necessary to survive by neglecting or destroying their land,” Kelley says. “We are stewards of the land and we are going to do everything in our power to take the best possible care of our animals and land because that is our livelihood.”