Member of Distinction: Western Area — Van Warmerdam Dairy

Written by Marjie Knust
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They recently installed “green freestalls,” which are freestall dividers made of a flexible plastic pipe, rather than metal. The material reduces cow injuries and improves cow comfort. Two years ago, the brothers began installing the new dividers in phases of 60 stalls, and installed 250 “green” stalls when building their new freestall barn about a year ago.

“We’ve been very happy with the results,” Peter says. “The cows don’t get injured as much and they are comfortable.”

In addition to Peter, Leo and Benny, their nephew, Ryan, helps out on the dairy along with 12 full-time employees. Many of the employees have been with the Van Warmerdams for decades.

“We have seen their families grow from babies,” Leo says. “As a matter of fact, a couple of the sons work here on the farm now with their fathers. It’s always nice when you can help a family out, especially ones who immigrated over just like my father did. My dad always had a passion for the employees because he was an employee at one time also. You treat your employees with the utmost respect and expect a good day’s work out of them, and they will give it to you.”

In addition to a competitive wage, the Van Warmerdams provide their employees with free on-site housing plus utilities.

“We also work alongside them,” Peter says. “I’m not afraid to put a shovel in my hand when I need to, and I think that goes a long way when you have employees. If they see the boss here every day working hard to be a profitable, efficient operation, it gives them confidence that their boss takes pride in what they do.”

About 15 years ago, the family also invested in a playground facility for their employees’ families that includes a swing set, basketball court and a soccer field.

“It’s beneficial for us because then we don’t have kids climbing on tractors and equipment, creating a safety issue, and it’s beneficial for our employees because they don’t have to drive five to 10 miles into town to take their kids to a park,” Leo says.

While the dairy has been successful under the brothers’ leadership, they also feel the ups and downs of the industry, which is why they are involved in several other projects designed to diversify their operation.

About 230 acres of their 1,200-acre farm are dedicated to 135,000 solar panels that generate enough energy to power 8,000–9,000 homes. The solar farm is a project the family began about three years ago with their local utility company.

“I call that part of the farm the back 40,” Leo says. “It was the hardest to farm. It fit the criteria it would take for a solar farm. It’s been a good project and they are going to be bringing in sheep to graze the grass underneath the panels, so it’s still ag related.”

In addition, the family is building a methane digester that will generate enough power for 300–400 homes. They are also considering planting grapes on part of their property.

“You have to multi-purpose your land, especially during these economic times,” Leo says. “I think that diversity is how we’re going to stay in business.”

Sustainability is important to the future of the farm, Leo says. For the past 15 years, he has been working closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to make improvements to the farm that keep them ahead of California’s stringent environmental regulations and ensure the operation is around for future generations.