Member of Distinction: Western Area — Van Warmerdam Dairy

Written by Marjie Knust
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Like so many Dutch dairymen in the United States, Ben Van Warmerdam emigrated from Holland in 1947 with a dream of starting his own dairy. But, he also dreamed of being part of an industry that was united in its goals to provide wholesome, quality milk at a competitive price.

Only a month before leaving his home country, Ben had united Dutch dairymen there to get a better price for their milk. They were successful, receiving 20–30 percent more in their milk checks.

“That always stuck in my dad’s mind that unity brings strength,” says Peter Van Warmerdam, Ben’s son. “Ever since, he was always a leader in promoting cooperatives and cooperation among dairy farmers to try and better everyone. His motto was always ‘in unity, you bring strength.’”

It was a lesson Ben learned early in his life, as he played an important leadership role in the underground Dutch resistance movement during the German occupation of Holland during World War II.

While Ben passed away two years ago, his passion and dedication to working together for the greater good was something his family inherited. Ben and his wife, Quirina, raised seven children, four of whom are involved in the dairy operation. Sons Peter and Leo are managing partners, along with their brother Benny and sister Mary.

Now owners of Van Warmerdam Dairy in Galt, Calif., the brothers work together to carry on their father’s legacy on the farm he started in 1953.

Milking 1,100 cows, Peter and Leo cite their father’s influence often when discussing their operation.

“Through the years, working with Dad on the dairy, he really instilled effective labor and management techniques, and that you needed quality feed to get a wholesome quality product like milk,” Leo says.

Leo oversees the dairy’s farming operations, while Peter focuses on the milking herd. The brothers both emphasize that the performance of one side of the business has a profound impact on the other.

“I have a real passion for dairy cows, but I love the farming side too,” Peter says. “I love to watch things grow. I love to see good crops because if you have good crops, your cows will be healthy and produce high-quality and high amounts of milk. It’s definitely a team effort on this farm. I take care of the cows, and my brother takes care of the farming and tries to produce as high-quality feed as possible.”

Feed plays an important role in milk quality, Peter says. He works with a nutritionist every other week to examine the herd’s diet and make adjustments. He also pays close attention to how much each cow is eating.

“My motto is ‘every bite counts,’” Peter says. “I want to make sure that a cow has access to every mouthful at the right time to produce as much as possible with the least amount of stress. That is why I’ve always believed in having a high-quality diet.”

Cow comfort is also crucial to milk quality and production, Peter says.  The brothers are constantly keeping an eye on industry trends and new products. As the dairy has grown through a series of gradual expansions from 35 cows in 1953 to more than 1,000 today, steps have been taken to ensure technology and techniques are up-to-date or even ahead of the curve.

For about 30 years, the family has utilized an automatic calf feeder that provides 2 pints of milk 12 times a day, plus constant access to water, hay and grain.

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.

“NRCS has really been a pleasure to work with and they are very knowledgeable,” Leo says. “They’ve really helped us come as far as we have.”

Both Peter and Leo are active in industry organizations like Western United Dairymen, the California Beef Board, the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, the California Milk Advisory Board and the Dairy Herd Improvement Association. Peter also serves a delegate for DFA’s Western Area.

“My dad was very loyal to the industry,” Peter says. “He took a lot of time and effort to try and make the industry stronger. I think he taught us that and taught us to be responsible and respectful of others.”

He also taught them the importance of being part of a cooperative.

“We’ve been in a co-op since 1972, and my dad was on the board. He was highly proactive in getting more members to join the cooperative,” Leo says. “DFA is valuable for us. It’s been instrumental in providing a home for our milk. The staff and the field representatives and transportation all the way down the line have been very helpful in getting us through the day, on good days and on bad days.”