San Diego Is No Place for Cows

Say goodbye to one of the county's last dairy farms

"Caltrans has an easement right through our milking barns."
  • "Caltrans has an easement right through our milking barns."
  • Image by Joe Klein

Pete Verboom built his dairy in the Pala Valley in 1966. Ever since, the 100-acre farm straddling the San Luis Rey River has been his home and workplace. Over the following 34 years, over 100 dairies have disappeared from San Diego while Verboom's has survived. He and his wife, Lani, raised two boys and two girls on the property and always thought they'd retire on their farm. Instead, Verboom is moving on. He's sold his dairy and purchased 500 acres near Orland, California, a town of 5000 in Glenn County 100 miles north of Sacramento. Currently, he's splitting time between the two properties, preparing the northern to begin its new life as a dairy come spring and preparing the southern for its return to nature.

Pete Verboom: "They had maps on their wall showing the whole layout of the valley from Oceanside all the way to Lake Henshaw, and my dairy was never shown on that map."

Pete Verboom: "They had maps on their wall showing the whole layout of the valley from Oceanside all the way to Lake Henshaw, and my dairy was never shown on that map."

No single reason convinced Verboom to leave San Diego. It was "several reasons," he says. "Our children are very interested in staying in the dairy business," says Verboom, a powerfully built man of 60, with straight white hair, huge hands, and a gentle demeanor. "And San Diego County is not the place. It's never been very conducive to dairies, and they won't allow new dairies. The last new dairy that was built in San Diego County was in 1971."

Asked in what way San Diego County isn't conducive to dairies, Verboom answers with a story. "Back in 1987 through '89, I served on what was called a Habitat Formation Committee. It was basically [composed of] the property owners along the San Luis Rey River. They were doing a study on the San Luis Rey River bottom, as far as setting it aside for habitat. During all that time they had maps on their wall showing the whole layout of the valley from Oceanside all the way to Lake Henshaw, and my dairy was never shown on that map. That particular area was always listed as existing habitat. I pointed it out to them, and they kept saying they'd get it on the map. Well, after three years of serving on this committee, they never changed the maps."

Verboom milks, refrigerates to 34 degrees, and ships out a truckload of milk per day on a truck owned by Land O' Lakes.

Verboom milks, refrigerates to 34 degrees, and ships out a truckload of milk per day on a truck owned by Land O' Lakes.

The habitat the committee was looking to form was for a small bird called the least Bell's vireo, which lives in the willows that grow near the river. The vireo affects Verboom in two ways: during dry years he is prohibited from pumping extra water out of the ground because it could cause the willows in which the birds nest to die of thirst. Then there's the brownheaded cowbird, "which is the main predator for the least Bell's vireo," Verboom explains. "What they do is, they lay their eggs in the same nest as the vireo so the vireo ends up raising the cowbird. The cowbird chicks are bigger, so the vireo chicks die off, and the cowbird chicks get fed."

The dairy is wrapped up in this drama of nature because cowbirds, as their name suggests, thrive near dairies. "There's a lot of feed available," he explains, "lots of bugs, lots of flies. That combination draws the cowbirds, and they're very aggressive."

The other major theme in what Verboom calls "the handwriting on the wall" -- traffic generated by Indian casinos planned and under construction along the Highway 76 corridor. "You should see the casino [the Pala Band] are building up there," Verboom says. "It's the Taj Mahal. They're going to employ something like 1200 people. It's going to be big. And they plan to open it in March. Then you've got three more coming: one in Rincon, one in Pauma Valley, and another one on the La Jolla Reservation. All that traffic has to come right up this road, and Caltrans has an easement right through our milking barns near the road to straighten out and widen the road."

Another traffic factor in the Pala Valley will be the planned Gregory Canyon landfill, the site of which sits just south and east of the dairy. In fact, Gregory Canyon Limited, the partnership that owns the not-yet-operational landfill, bought Verboom's dairy.

The landfill is not a popular idea with many residents of the valley. Drive east on 76 from I-15 to the Pala Reservation and you'll see at least a dozen "NO GREGORY CANYON LANDFILL" signs hanging on roadside fences. "Well," Verboom says, "for me it was good from the standpoint that I could see the handwriting on the wall that said I wouldn't be able to stay here with my dairy because of the habitat thing and the traffic. And I don't think anyone else would have bought the property because so much of it is in a 100-year flood plain, and you wouldn't be able to do anything with it."

Gregory Canyon Limited, Verboom says, "bought it pretty much as a buffer around the landfill. All of it is going to go back into open space, except for the landfill site itself. It's already been rezoned for open space, everything except the footprint of the landfill."

Verboom was paid $5000 per acre for the land. "Then," he says, "we were also compensated for some of the facilities that we'll have to replace: the milking barns, the houses, and so forth."

In Glenn County, he was able to get land for less than he sold his Pala Valley plot. "The ground was about $2500 an acre."

Verboom put the difference toward more land for his new dairy, which is 500 acres as opposed to 100 here. "We had to," he explains, "because we have to be able to show that we can get rid of our manure. Here it all gets trucked out. We mix it with sawdust and soil to make topsoil, which is then used in projects where they need landscaping. Growth is booming right now so there's a lot of demand for topsoil. Up there we won't have the access to the population base to get rid of our manure like we've had down here. Up there we have to put it on farmland to raise crops with it. We'll be farming about 400 of the 500 acres, corn and wheat, to feed to the cows."

What attracted Verboom to Glenn County -- beyond that his two sons and a son-in-law already own dairies there and all eight of his grandchildren are there -- was a pro-agriculture atmosphere. For example, he says, "They have an ordinance that says if you're outside of the city limits of the cities in Glenn County then the county, being an agricultural county, does not consider dust, flies, spraying, and such as being a nuisance. It's part of business. They're very pro-agriculture, and that's one of the things that attracted us to Glenn County. And, they had some milk plants up there to buy our milk." Cheaper feed will be an another advantage Glenn County has over San Diego. Verboom will be able to grow much of his own grain, and hay should be cheaper. Here, he pays $140 per ton for hay out of the Imperial Valley and about the same for grain that comes from Ontario. Prices in Glenn County, "Right now they are cheaper," Verboom says. "We're closer to the feed source, and we can buy direct from farmers rather than going through brokers. So there will be fewer middle men, less hauling. It's a very farm-friendly community as far as feed access goes."

Shipping his milk to the local plants might be easier in Glenn County as well. At his Pala Valley dairy, Verboom milks, refrigerates to 34 degrees, and ships out a truckload of milk per day on a truck owned by Land O' Lakes, the conglomerate that buys his milk. At the new dairy, "We may do our own trucking," Verboom says. "My sons and my son-in-law are already there in Glenn County, and they're pretty close to the milk plants. We'll be producing four to five loads every day, and it will be cost effective for us to have our own truck." Currently, Verboom's Northern California facility is near complete. The final step will be moving his 1200-head, 90 percent Holstein, 90 percent brown Swiss herd. "It will take 48 trucks," the dairyman explains, "and it will happen all in one night. We will milk them here, load them on the truck, then unload them at the other end and milk them right away and then let them have something to eat. We'll have people working on both ends. I'll either be here or on the other end. I'm not sure yet."

Each truckload of cows will cost Verboom between $1200 and $1500. The move will happen "as soon as we're ready," he says. "I was hoping for December, but I don't think we're going to make it. It's probably going to be in spring sometime.

"We're going to miss it here," Verboom admits. "This area is the most even-temperatured area in the country. We'll miss that very much. We've lived here a long time, and we have our church here, the Rancho Community Church over by Temecula, which we helped start back in 1968. There are a lot of friendships there. On the other hand, all of our grandchildren are up in Glenn County, and we've started to make friends up there. I think that if my kids had not been interested in the dairy business, I probably would have stayed here and fought the battles and eventually I would have retired here from the dairy business. But because our kids were interested and I couldn't see much chance for them to continue here, it was good for us to look elsewhere."

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