One of the last dairy farms in Southern California

The Verbooms of Pauma Valley

Pauma Valley Dairy cows
  • Pauma Valley Dairy cows

Pete (Pieter Johannes) Verboom, owner of Pauma Valley Dairy, a family operation milking a thousand cows in the town of Pala, was only a few months old when Nazis invaded and occupied his homeland, Holland, in the spring of 1940. The first five years of his life contained jackboots, oppression, shortages, ration cards. He did not mention this on the day I visited his farm, trying to learn something about the quickly diminishing family farms in San Diego County.

The information came from a copy of his father's diary of his family's voyage to America that began in Antwerp on November 22,1946, and ended in Los Angeles on January 10,1947. I love documents like these, hundreds of thousands of which must have been written by people immigrating to America from countries ravaged by famine, war, poverty, disease, or combinations thereof, Pete Verboom’s father, Willianr (Willem), a dairy farmer, was 34 years old, was married to Nell (Neeltje) De Bruin Verboom, 3 years younger, and they had three children: Gladys (Klassje), the translator of her father’s diary and 10 at the time; Martin (Maarten), 7; and Pete, 6.

Pete Verboom

Pete Verboom

The ship, the S.S. Duivendijk, a freighter, had once belonged to the German navy and was given to Holland as part of war reparations. It was not the Queen Mary, but neither did the Verbooms travel steerage class. Mr. Verboom and his sons shared a cabin with “a farmer from Leidsedam, by name of Jansen. His 19-year-old daughter Henny would share a cabin with my wife and daughter. We were lucky because farmers by farmers usually works out the best.”

The diary is articulate, has some wonderful moments of description, is specific, quotidian, and contains much of what you would expect: rounds of sea sickness, boredom, difficulties of living in confined spaces with others, particularly strangers, a sense of loss over the old world, and anxiety and anticipation over where they were going.

There are moments of wonder, like this, eight days out, “Six a.m. I awaken and look out the porthole and say to Mr. Jansen there is another ship sailing alongside. So we get out of bed and on deck to see it better. We discover that what I had thought to be running lights of a ship were really two big stars, so big and so bright like we have never seen before. Back in the hall we meet Mrs. Zylstra with a bedpan in her hand; we had a good laugh and crawled back in bed.”

On December 7, five years after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the ship docks in Curacao for cargo. Curacao was part of the Dutch West Indies. “Everyone is very pro-Holland.” After lunch on-board, Willem and two other passengers decide to explore the port city of Willemstad, the island’s capital. They have one dollar among them. It’s hot. They’re very thirsty, but a single beer costs 75 cents. Farming, however, dairy farming in particular, is never far from his mind, even on this tropical island; “The cows are so skinny, although it is no wonder with the condition of their pastures.” They continue their adventure, hitching rides, walking and, at one point, because of their thirst, they consider entering a soda bottling plant. The other two men decide to go in and wrangle for something to drink. Willem is reluctant; “Mr. Jansen and Rinus wanted to go in, but I was holding back because I felt like a beggar.” With that sentence I knew something important about this man, which I would immediately see in his son when I first spoke to him nearly a half-century later, after he had been on this farm in Pauma Valley for 30 years: a love of independence, pride, a great willingness and capacity for work, and a deep bedrock of unshakable integrity.

The three men eventually make their way to a Dutch merchant, a Captain Vrengdehill, who gives them glasses of ice-cold lemonade. When leaving they try to pay, but there is no charge. Willem adds, “You could see he did it completely out of hospitality and not because he felt sorry for us. We thanked him profusely and he left us with good advice buttoned in our ears, ‘Keep your eyes open — be willing to use your hands and you will have a good chance of success in the world.’ He said it sincerely, like a father to a son.” The rest of the voyage was fairly uneventful. They stop in Colombia, where they sail up the Magdalena River to Barranquilla, and on the way he notes, “A dead cow drifts by; it probably went one step too far into the river.” They are delayed in Panama for nearly three weeks while the ship undergoes repairs. There are more excursions ashore, this time the whole family, often visiting the local USO for movies, music. There’s one last stop in Guatemala for bananas.

Gladys Verboom De Boer includes this paragraph as part of her brief introduction to the translation of her father’s diary: “The reader must keep in mind that the amazement shown at and the frequent references made to such everyday items as bananas, oranges, cigarettes, and automobile traffic are the direct result of the scarcity or nonexistence of those things because of the Second World War spent under German occupation in Holland.”

The entry for January 7,1947, starts, “Beautiful weather, a sunny summer day. We’re eating bananas, bananas, bananas! We are now in the Gulf of (California and on the last phase of our trip.” Three days later, “Finally, in the distance, we see the lights of San Pedro, the harbor of Los Angeles.” The diary closes with “There comes an end to everything, also as you can see, this journey from Holland to the United States of America.”

About a month short of 49 years later, I visit Pete Verboom, his wife, Lani, his brother Martin, plus some of his dairymen on his farm in Pauma Valley. There are citrus groves in the area, a lot of avocado farmers, but no other dairies. Once there were four in this valley. Although there are more than 3000 dairy farms in California, making it the largest dairy-farming state in the country, in San Diego County fewer than 10 still operate.

I had spent most of my childhood, from age 3 to 18, living on a small family dairy farm in Massachusetts. My grandfather and uncle were farmers, my father was the milkman. Most of what I knew about dairy farming I had forgotten but had occasionally written about that life in poems. At the time I met the Verbooms, I was teaching poetry writing and living 50 miles from Pauma Valley.

It wasn’t easy setting up a day to visit Pete Verboom’s farm — once, when he had agreed to talk on the phone to make arrangements for my visit, he was out on a tractor towing a visitor who had taken a wrong turn into his watermelon patch and gotten stuck. Another time he canceled my visit because of a trip he had to make upstate. His two sons, Pete, Jr., 34, and Chris, 32, live about 100 miles north of Sacramento. Both of them are dairy farmers, and they have adjacent properties. His oldest daughter, Suzanne, is married to a dairy farmer and lives near her brothers. His youngest daughter, Julie, is still in college at Point Loma Nazarene, but she wants to marry a dairyman, raise calves, live the farm life too. Her father told me this; and even though I am the father of a daughter myself and find it unwise to speak her mind for her, I did not feel it was wishful thinking on his part.

Pete Verboom is a big man, over six feet, broad shouldered, barrel chested. As he pointed out to me, hauling around 170-pound bales of hay, leaning into 800-pound animals to get them to move the way you want them to is better exercise than you can get at any health club. He was teased as a child by members of the S.S. Duivendijk's loading crew about his vettebassie— fat body. He’s certainly not fat now, but he also clearly doesn’t drink skim milk with his meals. His hand, when I first shook it upon meeting him in the still-dark early morning, was huge, soft, strong, and warm. Unlike many farmers’ hands I remember, his was not missing any fingers or any parts of fingers. His features are unmistakably Dutch. I never saw a picture of him as a child, but I bet he could have been on the paint can. In a wedding photo I saw of him at 19, he looks like a young Troy Donahue.

I noticed a row of rubber boots lined up outside his kitchen door and immediately asked if I could borrow a pair for the day. I hadn’t forgotten everything about dairy farming.

We drove down a steep hill to his calving pens on a battered three-wheel off-road vehicle. He has two corrals down here. One for cows close to giving birth, another, adjacent, for cows very close to giving birth. In a year, nearly 2000 calves are born on this farm. He cut the twine on bales of hay stacked in front of the fence and broke them up with a pitchfork for the cows. I was surprised to see that the bales were bound with twine, not wire. The early baling machines used twine, but then for a long time it was wire. It turns out that wire could sometimes contaminate the hay and bits of it would occasionally be eaten by cows. To counteract this, cows would be induced to swallow magnets, the bits of metal would cling to the magnet, which would lodge in the cow’s first stomach and keep it from interfering with the cow’s internal milk-making apparatus. It was eventually deemed safer and easier to go back to twine.

He uses approximately 70,000 tons of hay a year — there are huge piles of it everywhere, mostly under opensided sheds. Hay that gets wet can ignite under the right, or wrong, circumstances. Such spontaneous combustion is the cause of most barn fires, a too-common farm disaster. Verboom had lost several thousand tons to a fire a few years earlier. A barn fire in my childhood killed more than 30 cows and several horses.

Afterward, we sat on some bales and began to talk. I asked specific questions. How many gallons of milk did he produce a day? Seven thousand; his cows all Holsteins, the most productive milk cows; all his milk was strictly for drinking (not for cheese, etc.); all 1000 head (except for a period before and after calving) milked twice a day, every day, each mass milking taking about five hours. A tanker truck comes each day to take the milk, which is sold to a wholesale milk dealer.

He doesn’t do the milking himself anymore — his dairymen do that. His main hands-on job is pulling calves. Of all the calves born each year, a fair percentage of them need help. His other main task is the business of farming, which is enormously complex. A farmer, if he is to survive, has to be a good manager, like any businessman. Pete Verboom is the manager, CEO, foreman, overseer, padrone, the buck-stops-here man of his business. If you think of farmers as rubes, rustics chewing on a piece of hay and opining about the weather, don’t. He has about 30 people working for him, one of whom is his brother Martin, and some other hands, including several Mexican workers who are his primary dairymen. They live with their families on the property in ranch-style houses, none of which seems any smaller or much different than the Verbooms’.

I saw several children — on bicycles, playing. This farm is their home. The children call him Opa: Grandpa. He and his family participate in the weddings, funerals, holidays of his workers. He’s only had to fire one man in 30 years, but I got the impression he would not tolerate slackers. Some of his hands have been with him more than 25 years; sometimes a hand’s son also comes to work for him.

It was about 7:30 a.m., now full light and already quite warm. I asked him what he loved about his work.

Verboom: I think for me the best time of the day is early in the morning when I’m out here by myself or my wife is with me. She’s usually with me out here. Well, I’ll set up the bales, and she’ll cut the twine, and it’s time to talk, and that part — I would hate to lose that part.

Lux: And that’s where you talk about your kids, your —

Verboom: Everything Whatever — and it’s so quiet down here in the mornings. Now you hear equipment start rolling, but in the early morning it’s peaceful. And I love working with animals; and a big part of my business is buying and selling and trading feed and cattle and calves. I love the trading part of it, the dealing. I love to trade.

He told me an anecdote about his two sons. They came to him in high school and told him they wanted to go into the dairy business. He said okay, but here’s the deal. You both come to work for me for a few years to really learn the business, and you have to put two-thirds of your salaries in the bank. Like a father to a son. They agreed; and when they had amassed $65,000, they went to the bank for a loan. Starting up a farm — land, stock, equipment — is an enormous investment. Two young men, still in their early 20s, who had already saved that much money naturally impressed the bank’s loan officers. They got the loan to start their businesses.

This story is about a family farm, and the family farm starts with a family. That this was, is, a close, strong family was evident. No one insisted on convincing me of that or convincing themselves of that. It was a simple and obvious truth.

A little later in the morning, joined by his brother Martin, Pete decides a few cows close to birth need some help. A lot of the calves are born without help — a cow drops a calf during the night, in the morning there’s an addition to the herd. They guide the first of two cows into an enclosed area in the corner of the corral — she’s not restrained, just kept in a manageable area. The birth of a calf, I’m sorry to disappoint you, is not like in the movie City Slickers, in which the actor helps a cow having difficulty giving birth and triumphantly pulls it from her in a whoosh of music, and then, of course, astonished by this miracle, he adopts the calf as a pet and flies it home to the suburb where he lives. Everything here is matter of fact, routine — these two men have done this together thousands and thousands of times.

Pete reaches (literally, with both hands) into the cow’s vagina and attaches a small chain around the calf s forefeet A calf is bom front feet, then head, first The chain is attached to a hand crank on a metal pole. One end of this pole has a brace that fits around the cow’s rump, and the other end fits around Pete’s waist. He cranks it, the chain tightens, and the calf is pulled out and falls the three or four feet to the ground with a wet thunk, wide-eyed, blinking, astonished. The look on a newborn calf's face is probably the closest thing to an expression it will ever have in its lifetime. The cow immediately turned to her calf and began to lick it clean. During the birth she didn’t make a sound.

The second cow, smaller and younger than the first and having her first calf, howled and bellowed throughout the process. The woman who transcribed the tape I recorded while this was happening told me her cat, who was taking a nap on her desk as she worked, jumped up, startled and disturbed, when it heard the bellows. It must have been some kind of primal animal identification. This cow, immediately afterward, walked away without even looking at her calf. She walked in a straight line about a hundred feet, stood there with her head down for a few minutes, shaking it a little, seeming to mutter to herself, and then turned around, walked back to her calf, and began licking it The calf, even before it stood up, appeared to be reaching for, sniffing her udders. They were copiously leaking milk.

I asked Pete and Martin what could go wrong, not only in calving, but otherwise as well. Were coyotes a problem? No, they were useful, actually. If a calf was stillborn, they’d just drag it into the bushes a bit, and the coyotes would take care of it the natural way. They cleaned up afterbirths. Dogs were a problem sometimes. The Pauma Mission Indian Reservation borders one side of the property, and sometimes their dogs pack up at night; and they, unlike coyotes, will attack a vulnerable cow, one giving birth, for example, and kill it or its calf. Occasionally dogs have to be shot.

Rain, too much of it, could be a problem; the previously mentioned hay fire was the result of too much rain soaking the hay, leading to spontaneous combustion. The year before, the San Luis Rey River, now barely a trickle, which runs right through the middle of the property (Verboom has about 100 acres), washed out the bridge connecting both sides of the farm. What was left of the bridge stood at least 25 feet above the river, so this was a powerful and very destructive flash flood. To get to the other side of the farm only a hundred yards away took an hour’s drive over and around a small mountain.

The biggest problem for small farms (if 1000 cows doesn’t seem small, it is nowadays; a big farm milks 5000 to 6000), of course, is people. Urban encroachment it’s usually called and carries with it attendant restrictions, regulations, zoning laws, water problems. There are a lot more people in the valley now than when the Verbooms started farming here. At first people seem to like the idea of living in the country, near farms. That’s why they leave cities in the first place: to go where there’s more room, air, where there’s less crime and crowding. But there are some problems for people, three in particular, in living near a dairy farm: 1) the smell, 2) the flies, 3) the dust. Bucolic visions can be quickly shattered once the olfactory reality of a working dairy farm wafts over your patio, your barbecue, your country club. I, personally, find the smell of a pig farm worse, but not by much. Nor are chicken farms a party for the nose. The smell of horse manure I find sublime, and I have, I’m not ashamed to confess, been known to loiter by the horse-drawn carriages one can hire in New York City, where I live, for a ride through Central Park.

As a result of this urban encroachment Pete Verboom has been denied the possibility of expanding his operation, which he needs to do to keep up with his rising costs. In one of his skirmishes with county supervisors, he was told the reason he couldn’t expand his operation anymore was because “cows don’t vote,” meaning, of course, that people do, and people don't appreciate too many farms too near.

The price of milk, because of price controls, has remained essentially the same since 1978. After a long time battling various local and state bureaucracies, he will move his operation upstate. His farm has already been sold; the land will act as a buffer zone for a waste management landfill that is going to be over the next ridge from his property. Verboom is an outspoken opponent of government price controls. He feels they stifle him and other farmers who are not only good farmers but good businessmen as well. He is optimistic that the new Republican Congress might help.

Verboom: With the new Congress that we have now, I feel that there is a window of opportunity to get rid of government intervention in pricing our products. And I feel we are going to see more and more of it going back to the free market, because up until this point the government has always — the federal government and the state government set our prices on a monthly basis, what we get paid for our products. And we’ve always felt that the old adage that protecting the family farm was the reason the government didn’t let go of pricing our product, because they wanted to price it and then have a price-support structure to protect the family farm.

And my argument has always been, hey, we’re family farms too. Just because we’re larger — the only reason we’re larger is because we’ve had to grow in order to survive. So you’ll find that with the new Congress, as is, the opportunity of getting rid of setting our prices is going to be a real benefit to the industry. Supply and demand and quality will set my price. And the better my product, the better chance I have of getting a better price.

I think that when the Milk Stabilization Act was enacted back in 1936 under the Roosevelt administration, I believe that there was probably a good reason for it. But I believe that anytime you enact laws, you should have a sunset where they are reviewed, and if they are no longer adequate or no longer serve the purpose that they were set for, then I think they should do away with it. I don’t think the law should be perpetual to create a bureaucracy.

Lux: So you think there’s a chance with the Republican Congress that they will repeal these laws?

Verboom: I think with the 1995 Farm Bill, which still has to be enacted — the politicians are yanging back and forth — but I think that in the 1995 Farm Bill we’re finally going to see it done away with.

I think that the free market is the best way to go. The way it is right now, especially with rice farming, there is so much price support and money coming from the taxpayer that goes to the rice farmer that it’s almost a joke. And I think finally we’ve got enough new people in Congress to see that and say, hey, this is a joke. Why are we paying more and more taxes? Well, this is the reason we’re paying more and more taxes, and it’s not benefiting the small farmer as it was intended at all. It’s benefiting big operations; and I’m not saying corporations, I’m saying big operations. Big, big farms. Because of the volume that they do, the price support is okay — they are still going to make plenty of money.

You see, I’m just using rice farming because that comes to my forefront; but in rice farming there is a minimum. You have what you call the Commodity Credit Corporation that is a federal program that pays the farmers. Some farmers they pay not to produce, but they also have a $50,000 limitation to each farmer, unless you have a partner. Let’s say Tom Lux is a farmer — if you’re a rice farmer, you get a $50,000 payment from the government for producing rice. But if you have a partner, you get $100,000. So you’ve got these rice farmers in Sacramento Valley, they make a partner out of everybody that works for them. They may have 50 employees. And everyone of them gets a $50,000 payment, which goes to the farm. So you have guys up there that have 50 partners, and for each partner they get $50,000. That’s the only reason they’re in the rice business, because they’ve learned to corrupt the system.

There are always people who will find the loopholes in the system and learn to take advantage of something that was designed to help farmers. But now people have found ways to get around it, and the most honest people are the ones who are getting hurt.

It’s clear that Pete Verboom has some opinions on the subject. I asked him if he considered himself an activist in this business. He said, “Very much so, because I believe that what happens to one small farmer or one individual is going to affect everybody.”

He spoke quietly, but not without passion on the subject. I believe this is why he allowed me to visit his farm and talk with him. He didn’t need any personal publicity. I wasn’t going to help him sell milk.

Later in the afternoon I watched one of his hands, John Parker, trim the hooves of some cows. They have a hydraulic mechanism that sits on the back of a flatbed truck. It lifts and lowers a kind of stall for the cow to walk into beside the truck, then lifts the cow and lays it on its side on the back of the truck. The four hoofs stick out to be trimmed. The tools were blacksmith tools exactly like the ones I remember from childhood — huge pliers-like clippers, rasps — but this man also used what looked to be an ordinary electric rotary hand sander. If he found a problem with the cow’s hoof, he treated it with an antiseptic and covered it with a large red neon bandage. The cow was lowered, released, and walked more comfortably, like a grandmother after a visit to her podiatrist, back into the corral.

I also watched the milking process in one of the two milking barns. The cows know when it’s time, and they head toward the barn and begin trudging in. You don’t have to whistle for them, but they get a little prodding as they approach and start to enter the barn. They first crowd into an area of maybe 100 by 100 feet; they’re packed in very tightly, but with very little squabble. Here they get a shower — from beneath — from dozens of shower heads (for lack of the technical term) embedded in the concrete. The water pressure is strong and sprays at crazy angles from beneath and between the crowded cows. The point of this, of course, is to clean their udders. They are also hosed down a bit from the top, but a cow’s hide is not subject to much cleanliness. They are washed enough to eliminate most of the mud and manure that crust their flanks and sides from lying and walking in mud and manure.

They are then prodded — they want to go where they’re going, they just don’t seem in any big hurry about it — into milking stalls, and the machines are attached, one metal cylinder to each of the four teats. The milk goes directly to the holding tank, with little or no exposure to air. You never see it except through a round glass window in a joint in the hose — it’s like watching a miniature front-loading washing machine — as it draws the milk from the cow. Each cow gives up three to four gallons, twice a day, 365 days a year, no holidays off. Their udders are wiped down with an agent called teat guard after each milking to help keep them bacteria-free when they go back to their pens. These cows do not roam a pasture languidly eating grass all day in between barn dining. They are fed twice a day, hay and grain spread just outside the fence.

None of these cows has a name. They do all have ear tags on each ear, in different colors, for ID purposes. Farmers are not sentimental about stock animals. The Verbooms have a dog, however, who is clearly loved — a kind of square, stocky, amiable white mutt who barked at me a few times halfheartedly when I first arrived. He quickly became a pal. His name is Jake, and he followed Pete around through most of his chores, including climbing high onto piles of hay bales. Jake had been through some rough times lately. He’d been bitten on the mouth by a rattlesnake but survived that. Jake didn’t look like Lassie and probably wasn’t as smart, but he was tough. He had also recently recovered from a broken leg — he either fell off a pile of hay bales or got stepped on by a cow, Pete wasn’t sure which. I saw a picture of him with a multicolored — as if children had written/painted on it — cast on his leg.

Pete sells all the calves born on his farm and buys heifers, cows old enough to start milking soon. Cows are old enough to give birth and to milk when they are about 24 to 27 months old. I asked him if he artificially inseminated. No. They did that the old-fashioned way. I asked him if it was possible that he would buy back a heifer born previously on his farm. He said that was possible, probably happened often. I asked if he might ever recognize a heifer he had pulled a few years previously— their markings are distinctive. He looked at me for a second, not sure if I was kidding (I was), and said simply, no.

Lani Verboom

Lani Verboom

Late in the afternoon I sat with Mrs. Verboom for an hour or so in the shade behind the house. There was no swimming pool, no patio, not a chaise lounge in sight. Her first name is Lani — spelled the Hawaiian way, Pete later told me. She is a polite, gentle, serene woman, very attractive, and like Pete, in her mid-50s. She and Pete grew up together, were high school sweethearts, and married at 19. Born and raised in L.A., she’s not from farming stock but was drawn to this life. When I asked her about life on this farm, what she loved about it, she answered by saying, without a hint of self-righteousness or excess piety, that she and Pete were believers. The Rancho Community Church is very important to them, a place to worship but also a place of community, a place where a sense of family and a sense of service to others is nourished. When I told her Pete had said that one of the things he loved about their life is the time they have together alone in the mornings, she smiled shyly, possibly even blushed a little.

She spoke about playing softball on the nearby reservation — “Women’s softball is really big on the reservations.” These days would often end with gospel music. She spoke of Pete setting up a little petting zoo for local kids, putting a few calves in a pen, of picnics and barbecues with people from the community, the reservations, the workers. She spoke of her children and grandchildren — 11 so far, all but 1 a girl. Even though she was happy they were relocating close to her children up north and that the prospects for dairy farming were better there (they have not purchased a new farm yet), there was a tinge of sadness in her voice and eyes when she spoke about this place, what they’d built here, the family they raised here, the community and church they would be leaving.

Listening to her, I kept thinking about a passage in Ian Frazier’s wonderful book Great Plains. He’s visiting a town in Kansas called Nicodemus. It was founded in 1877 by black homesteaders. It is now a very small, racially mixed community. He visited on a day they were having a community celebration — food, music, a fashion show of ladies’ hats, a dance:

  • I looked past the people sitting on chairs against the wall, the women with their pocketbooks on their knees, past the portrait of Blanche White, who was like a mother to the kids in the town, through the tall open window, past the roadside grove of elms that Blanche White’s 4-H Club planted in the 1950s, past the wheat-field horizon, and into the blank bright sky. Suddenly I felt a joy so strong it almost knocked me down. It came up my spine and settled on my head like a warm cap and filled my eyes with tears, while I stood there packed in with everybody, watching Mrs. Robinson’s lovely daughters dance.
  • And I thought, It could have worked! This democracy, this land of freedom and equality and pursuit of happiness — it could have worked! There was something to it after all. It didn’t have to turn into a greedy free-for-all! We didn’t have to make a mess of it and the continent and ourselves! It could have worked! It wasn’t just a joke, just a blind for the machinations of money! The Robinson sisters danced; Prince sang about doves crying; beauty and courage and curiosity and gentleness seemed not to be rare aberrations in the world. Nicodemus, a town with reasons enough to hold a grudge, a town with plenty of reasons not to exist at all, celebrated its Founders’ Day with a show of hats and a dance revue. The Robinson sisters wove between each other, three-by-three. People cheered and whistled. The rancher who had wanted to see some breakdancing clapped.”

A little bit later he finishes this rhapsodic passage with this: “The world looked-as I wanted it to. My every breath was justified. I felt not the mild warmth of irony, not the comfort of camp, not the cheer of success and a full bank account; just plain, complete joy."

Pete joined us, and they invited me inside to look at some family pictures. I took some photos of them to help jar my memory when I was writing later. Pete asked me if I knew how much milk fat there was in whole milk. I didn’t, but I assumed it was a lot more than the 3.5 percent it actually is. America’s obsession with low-fat foods has not helped the dairy industry. There was a baseball cap with “Got Milk” as a logo on front — we’ve all seen the clever ads on TV, part of the milk industry’s marketing of itself.

Before I left, Pete asked me if I’d like a glass of raw milk taken directly from the holding tank this morning. I hadn’t had a glass of raw milk for probably 40 years, since before I hit double digits. Mrs. Verboom put out a dish of homemade pastries. Lord, that milk was good — ice cold, creamy, smooth.

I had spent only a day with the Verbooms, yet I came to respect and admire, even envy, them. What I had come here for was not the farm, I realized. I had no overwhelming nostalgia for my own past and wasn’t trying to recapture it by coming here. That was a long time and a very different landscape ago. I was looking for a family. Not one I could be a part of (I have my own) but for one that embodied an ideal, an ideal that has a lot to do with fairness, and hard, honest work, and independence, and generosity, and integrity. I am always disturbed when the American Dream is described in terms of the materialistic only — the house, the two cars — and not more in terms of ideals — justice, say, equality, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” — but I sensed both here, and in a wonderful balance.

San Diego County will lose some good people soon, some good neighbors. When this farm, this family is gone, a piece of the heart and history of this area will be gone too. The good news is that they will not be leaving California. Nor will they be leaving America. Nor, I hope, will America be leaving them.

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