Interview: Blake Alexandre of Alexandre Family Farm

We caught up with Blake Alexandre over the phone from his farm in Northwest California. And like a true farmer, he was in and out of the farmhouse, walking around the farm checking on cows, and eventually in his truck heading to town. But this didn’t slow down the rich storytelling.

In fact, Blake’s farmerly multitasking only enhanced his authentic voice, which was scrubbed clean of the romanticism of the farm life. We talked about family, the challenges of the dairy industry, cattle breeds, and the awe of watching endangered species make a comeback on his farm’s intact ecosystem stewarded through Holistic Management.

BLAKE ALEXANDRE / photo: Andrew Miller

Jonnah:
Thank you for taking the time today, Blake, for talking with me. For anyone who isn’t familiar with your farm, I’d love for you to share where your farm is located, who you farm with, and how you got into the dairy business.

Blake:
We're primarily located in extreme Northwestern California, right up on the Oregon border and about a mile from the ocean. We farm in three counties with our family - Stephanie and I and our five children. The oldest three are all married and working for us full-time. Number four is also here on the farm working with us. And number five is living in Texas and wants to return to California eventually. 

I grew up in this region, not here at this extreme northern location, but down in Ferndale, which is 100 miles south, where our oldest son, Joseph, and his wife now live and run our farm down there - which was my great-grandfather's farm, who started there about 100 years ago. So, it's really neat to have Joseph as the fifth generation on that property.

We take a lot of pride in the family farm, because dairies tend to come and go. This part of the California dairying is extremely unique from the rest of the state in that we really do lean on pasture a lot. Our decision to go organic, which was more than 25 years ago, was based on the fact that we were already growing grass, we've been grazing cows for generations, and we wanted to try to get a premium price for what we were doing. That started us on this organic path, which then really led us down a trail of how to farm, which was building organic matter, and ultimately led to this regenerative understanding of what we do. 

CHRISTIAN ALEXANDRE / photo: Andrew Miller

Jonnah:
I know that you grew up in a dairy family, and I'd love for you to talk about what that looked like day to day. Cows don't take a day off. What was your childhood like working in the rigor of the dairy life?

Blake:
I grew up in Ferndale on a rented facility that my parents managed for 38 years. And it was my grandfather's ranch that I was speaking of earlier. I have one sister a year older, and one sister a year younger. We were pretty traditional kids growing up in the '70s. My sisters did a lot of work around the house, and I did all the work outside. It was just old-fashioned in that regard. And I took a lot of ownership in raising baby calves and helping my dad. Along with the other one or two employees that we had on our farm at the time, we milked about 150 cows. It was an endless supply of work that was always there.

Jonnah:
On Alexandre Family Farm, where you are now, how long have you been on that land, and how many acres are you managing there?

Blake:
Stephanie and I married almost 35 years ago, and we actually dairied in Southern California, where her family's from, for about four years. We rented a facility there, and then this land came for sale here in Del Norte County. In '92, we moved here. So we've been here for just over 30 years. For us, this was all new ground, new land and farming opportunity, and yet it was only 100 miles away from where I grew up. So in one sense, it felt like coming home. We raised our five kids here. They all were part of the farm. We live in a small house across the road from the milk barn, and the calves, and the entire operation. We've got five dairies total in the two counties. We also have farm ground in Modoc County in Eastern California where we grow a couple thousand acres of hay. Then we process our milk down in the Bay Area, Alameda County, right next to Oakland. 

We've got about 60 full-time employees in four counties and about 9,000 acres total. We've got well over 9,000 head of cattle, which is primarily all dairy cows with a handful of grass-fed steers.

VANESSA NUNES (ALEXANDRE) / photo: Andrew Miller

Jonnah:
That's amazing. What breed of cattle are you running, and how did you choose that breed?

Blake:
At one time, we were 100% Holsteins. About 25 years ago we started bringing in some Jerseys and then cross-breeding Jerseys. For about 15 years we used a lot of seamen from New Zealand and created the little chocolate-colored Kiwi cross. The New Zealanders also have an Ayrshire breed and we like those particularly. They tend to make cows kind of ugly, but they're extremely functional and I really admire them.

About eight or nine years ago, we learned about a breed called Fleckvieh, which is a dual-purpose breed from Germany, and we really love those cattle. We've been crossing that into our crosses, and somewhat developing our own composite breed, with the Fleckvieh being the most dominant or prominent breed. They're really gentle cattle that are bred for both meat and milk production at the same time. That's the dual-purposeness of what they do and they gain weight. One of our farms is 100% grass-fed, and these cows are just outperforming our cows that are fed grain in that setting. They really specialize in converting forage into meat and milk which is what we love the efficiency of the Fleckvieh breed.

Jonnah:
I know that you have poultry integrated into your operation. How do your multi-species enterprises support one another?

Blake:
We literally visited Joel Salatin's ranch in March of '05, but it was about a week later when we were visiting a farm in Pennsylvania that we really realized, "Oh, now, here's a model that we can get behind," which was raising chickens for profit. I'm not saying that Salatin's not a profitable thing, but from my perspective, a lot of operations in organic are glorified gardening, and I'm trying to think at scale and see what we can do from that. So what Stephanie and I were really looking for was a project for our kids. We started the chickens as a project where it would be 100% labor supplied by the kids.

It was kind of a sink-or-swim project, and it worked really, really well to bring them in. The two oldest first got really into it, and then it was three, then it was four, and then five. That business just kept growing as the kids matured and got older. By the time they were in high school and then heading off to college, we were at about 3,000-4,000 hens, and the markets were pretty good. We were selling at a local farmer's market and then the natural food stores, within a few 100 miles, and heck, we were in Whole Foods. As the kids went away to college, the project was kind of on hold. One year, we had four kids at college, so we were really missing their labor and efforts.

As they started to graduate, the first three literally came home in one year. Then we wrote a plan to really scale up that business from 4,000 birds to 30,000 birds. That was a big step for us. We bought the neighboring ranch, 185 acres, and made that chicken headquarters. A few years later, we decided to double up from there. That's the evolution of our egg business, which is called Alexandre Kids. It's been a wonderful relationship with the chickens and the dairy in that the profitable years at the chicken ranch helped prop up the dairy. And of course the dairy propped up the chicken ranch for many years as well. Now that alternates occasionally, and it's nice to be diversified from that regard. 

But we don't do the utopian chickens following the cows around the pastures. I actually think that's silly because the main bugs that are in our manure are dung beetles, and I do not want the chickens exposed to those, or vice versa.  We don't want the cow pies on the chicken's feet when they're laying eggs. With our pasture-based manure, it's pretty soupy out here. I know it works on a small scale, but it's hard because maneuvering thousands of chickens around just to follow cows, we truly try to avoid that.

Jonnah:
It sounds like there is symbiosis in an economic way, which is so important in any farming enterprise. I also love what you said about being in the business of agriculture, and so many of the shining examples that are shown are about how things can work come from homesteaders or gardeners.

But when you're running a production farm at scale, you have to think differently. 

Blake:
I'm motivated by one of my university professors asking me, 42 years ago, what I was going to do for my industry, what I was going to do for California, what I was going to do for the United States, and what I was going to do for the Pacific Rim. At the time I didn't have the answers, but it's always been on my mind as to, what is the answer to those questions, and how can we make a difference.

Jonnah:
Well now you are now making a difference, which is so amazing. That leads into my next question. As you and Stephanie and your kids have been building this farm, was it part of the plan all along that you were going to become a nationally distributed milk producer, or is that something that you grew into?

Blake:
Hell no. Never.

No, that was never a goal. We were content selling our milk at a co-op that had been literally in our family for 100 years - the Humboldt Creamery Cooperative. My great-grandfather was a chartered member there in the 1920s, and we were content selling our milk there. That business went bankrupt, and we lost a lot of money in 2010. It rocked our world in a big way. Eventually we joined Organic Valley for about three or four years and got healthy and got our feet under us while the milk markets got re-established out here in the west. As we proceeded a couple years further into that, around 2015, we were encouraged by some Whole Foods employees to start our own brand, because they knew we had A2 organic milk.

Those folks quit their Whole Foods jobs, came to work for us full-time, and we started our brand, Alexandre Family Dairy. The purpose wasn't to have a brand, it was really to bring value to our farm. So, we're making this extra cool and groovy milk that's pasture-based, organic and A2/A2. At the time there was no market for what we had. Organic Valley and all the others were not about to launch an A2 organic product. That's kind of what led to what we're doing.

CHRISTIAN ALEXANDRE / photo: Andrew Miller

Jonnah:
That was such a brilliant move to get a premium for the unique milk that you were already producing.

I’m curious about the wildlife that you're seeing on your ranch this winter? Are there any groups of animals moving through? Big wild ruminants or birds? What are you seeing these days?

Blake:
We have tremendous wildlife. There's over 200 elk on our ranch today. They're born and raised here and the herd has been here for about 14 years. They have no reason to leave our ranch because living's pretty good right here.

We also have an endangered species called the Aleutian Canada Goose. When we bought our property 30 years ago, the population of those birds was about 5,000, and they were endangered. Today, there are about 230,000, and we were a huge part of their comeback. So, 85% of that population feeds on our ranch.

Jonnah:
Wow. It's incredible that your land management approach has fostered such a strong environment for biodiversity.

Blake:
Yeah, it's huge. That was back when they were endangered, and now they're actually hunted. I heard them out my window early this morning in the dark, and then I heard people shooting at them as the sun came up. We are just loaded with species. We've got a bald eagle's nest on our farm and about 260 species of birds that live here, some of them are on the endangered species list. We also have a strong fish habitat. The coho salmon in the streams on our farm have been documented to grow 30% - 40% larger than their contemporaries that don't travel up our streams.

Jonnah:
It's amazing that you have such a robust wildlife habitat while also being such a high producing farmer. It really demonstrates the power of Holistic Management.

As an experienced farmer who has been in the business for your entire life, what aspect of your work do you feel is most misunderstood?

Blake:
It's super hard work, and it's financially very stressful at the same time. The last four years, the organic dairy industry has just been a real dud. Our costs kept going up, but the markets weren't. We've been trying to compensate by marketing more of our own milk. We started by marketing 10% of our own milk, then it grew to 15% or 20%, and now about 40% to 50% of our production is sold through our brand at a premium price. And that is helpful, but it's also extremely expensive to launch and start a brand. I was at a dairy conference recently with lots of dairymen, and we're all in the same boat financially, and that boat is somewhat sinking. It's very difficult but I think that it's starting to turn around.

photo: Andrew Miller

Jonnah:
I know that from my personal experience as a farmer the work is so physically challenging, but then it's also hard to rest because there is always stress running in the background. Mentally, you're doing 1,000 math problems in your head at once.

Blake:
Right. Exactly.

Jonnah:
And you're dealing with real, live sentient animals and  you want them to be comfortable. So there's just a lot of variables.

Blake:
That's exactly the truth. 

Jonnah:
Thank you so much for sharing your story. And for your amazing commitment to the regenerative movement.