Herman DeJong recently greeted an acquaintance with a boast that is rarely heard among Riverside County dairy farmers these days.
“I’m still here,” said DeJong as he summed up the three-year interval that had passed since the acquaintance last visited the farmer’s dairy and ancillary operations in Wildomar.
During that span, at least six dairies have disappeared from the county’s rapidly-urbanizing landscape.
DeJong is the last dairy farmer in a vast swath of Interstate 15. Furthermore, DeJong’s dairy has become the only dairy among the five cities that anchor southwest Riverside County.
“Slowly, one by one, all the little dairies went out of business,” he said. “There were like four five dairies around here at one point—in Fallbrook, Perris, Lake Elsinore. I couldn’t make it on the milk alone. I’ve got the feed store and the market that help out, too.”
DeJong said he’s occasionally questioned at trade shows or industry gatherings by larger dairy farmers who are contemplating opening retail outlets of their own.
“I’ve got a little niche right now,” said DeJong. “I leave out the middleman. I leave out the trucking. It’s right from the cow to the bottle to the store. Some days we run out of milk.”
The sharp decline among DeJong’s counterparts was first spotlighted in the county’s 2005 Agricultural Production Report.
During the preceding decade, 83 dairies left the county or closed, according to the annual document that is usually referred to as the crop report. That loss represented 65 percent of the dairies that were once scattered across the county, the report stated. Fifty-one of those dairies were shuttered in the three years that prefaced the report, said officials.
That left the county with 45 dairies, John Snyder, the county’s agricultural commissioner, said in a newspaper interview at that time.
The losses slowed, but did not stop over the next four years. Counts showed that just 35 dairies remained in operation countywide in 2009, most of them in the San Jacinto, Hemet and Winchester areas. Data for last year is still being tabulated.
“We’ve steadily gone down, down, down,” said Bill Oesterlein, a deputy county agricultural commissioner, in a recent telephone interview. “We’re still losing a dairy or two a year. I think that will continue. I expect 33 to 34 (remaining) in 2010.”
Meanwhile, the total value of the county’s annual milk crop fell nearly $100 million to $119.6 million in just two years, the most recent crop report stated. Oesterlein said he is now gathering information for the 2010 report.
Farmers and agricultural experts blame rapid land development, stagnant milk prices, rising feed and utility costs and increased government mandates, fees, and taxes. DeJong, 60, said he has had to wrestle all of those alligators while keeping tabs on a long-proposed road that might someday split his property.
In 1947, DeJong’s parents emigrated from Holland, a nation known for its dairy industry and products. Upon their arrival, DeJong’s parents bounced from one community to another until the family finally settled in Wildomar.
“He was an immigrant and he was taken advantage of before we got here,” said DeJong.
The 30-acre parcel became a dairy in 1935. DeJong’s father went to work there in 1956. His father left the farm for a bit before he returned in 1958 to purchase the place. He had seven children and one cow. At that time, there were 60 to 80 dairies in Southern California that milked cows and sold milk at the same location.
DeJong said he, too, briefly left the farm to try another trade. Upon his father’s advice, DeJong eventually returned to the dairy and made a life of it.
The family tradition remains intact at the dairy, as two of DeJong’s daughters and three of his granddaughters work at the store and at farm-related tasks. DeJong’s son helps with the milking. DeJong’s feed store worker has been with the firm for nearly 20 years. The man who milks the cows has been on the job for eight years. Numerous local teenagers have also found part-time work at the dairy, which features a fenced “animal viewing area” populated by pigeons, peacocks, geese, goats, rabbits, ducks and other farm animals.
It was a petting zoo before insurance adjusters raised liability concerns. Another brush with regulations ensnared DeJong in litigation with a handicapped rights activist who cited concerns over access to the family’s store.
“I can’t tell you what he settled for,” said DeJong. “It was a lot.”
Over the years, DeJong grumbled over the construction of a regional animal shelter a short distance from his farm. He also cheered Wildomar’s push to become a city, an on-again, off-again effort that finally took effect in July 2008.
After that occurred, DeJong’s farm and store became part of Wildomar. The southern boundary of Lake Elsinore, where offices and warehouses have sprouted in recent years, flanks the north side of Corydon Street across from the dairy.
Incorporation has placed the fate of Garden Street, which is little more than a line on the map, in the city’s jurisdiction rather than the county.
Wildomar inherited the road alignment when it adopted the county’s general plan shortly after incorporation, said Matthew Bassi, city planning director. Bassi said there are no plans any time soon to build the road—which could someday create a link between Corydon and Bundy Canyon Road and I-15— because no development projects have been proposed nearby.
That’s fine with DeJong, as he remains hopeful that Wildomar will remain rural, a status that could allow him to continue farming for another 15 years or so.
“They (city officials) want to work with me, it seems,” said DeJong. “They’re like me. They want Wildomar to stay rural.”