We are partnering with our friends at Farm Journal's MILK Magazine, profiling some of the most progressive dairy farmers in the country.
Today, we’re introducing you to a producer in Chowchilla, Calif. who is diversifying his operation not just to lower milk prices, but also challenges in his area.
Greg Hooker’s farm 2.5 hours southeast of San Francisco boasts diversification out every window, from sorghum to solar energy.
“My dairy itself uses one megawatt per year,” said Hooker. “The rest is used to pump groundwater for the crop.”
These pieces of the business are lining the road to his main investment: a 4,500 head Holstein dairy operation, an industry he married into and the reason he started farming.
“My joke is, ‘How did I end up in California?’” said Hooker. “A woman brought me here!”
Greg met his wife, Jennifer, at a Michigan College. The two moved back to California near her parents’ dairy after graduation. He made the transition from engineer to dairy producer with the help of her family.
“What engineering does is it teaches you a problem-solving process,” said Hooker. “ It gives you skills in problem solving. Any dairy knows there’s problems to be solved on a day-to-day basis.”
“Greg really hasn’t changed,” said Jennifer. “Ultimately, he has wanted to be a farmer his whole life. I joke he fell in love with me when he found out my dad had a diary. And maybe there’s some truth to that!”
After renting a facility, the two bought property in Chowchilla, Calif. and created Diamond H Dairy. Buying was easy. Getting a permit was a challenge.
The process took several years and multiple lawsuits, one even finding its way to the California Supreme Court.
“I’m a realist,” said Hooker. “I know there needs to be regulations to structure society and industries. You just want them to be more common sense regulations. Regulations that protect the environment and not just paperwork.”
Once approved, the Hookers built in phases.
Today, they milk cows in two side-by-side parlors. One, a double 34 herringbone, the other, a double 45 parallel.
“In order to milk more cows and give us more time, we decided to put in the parallel,” said Hooker.
The herd averages 90 pounds of cow per day, and they are milked three times a day.
Through the success of expanding, the challenges of operating a dairy in California linger. Pricing is one, and Hooker says hedging is helping.
“It’s kind of a major medical plan,” said Hooker. “I don’t try to make money out of it. We shoot for having about 50 percent of our milk covered by the time that quarter comes.”
He uses the margin protection program, but Hooker says it’s not exactly geared for farmers in California.
“The way they value milk and feed, it’s a Midwest calculation, which is very different from California.
Like a Midwest operation, Hooker tries to grow most of his own feed on 2,500 acres. In fact, part of his long-term diversification plans include going into the almond business. He says in both acreage and yields, the business has “exploded over the last 10 years.”
“The almonds coming off has balanced the milk check at times and vice versa,” said Hooker.
He says many producers are following suit, and it comes with a bonus. The hull, or fruit, of the nut can be fed to cows and heifers.
Hooker is also making investments in a New Valley Milk Powder Plant in Turlock, Calif. with worldwide shipping.
“When we were looking at it, powder was the way to go,” said Hooker. “Very profitable. Our projections show it will be okay.”
Perhaps his largest investment is in the future. A legacy to pass down to all six of his kids.
“We have quads that are 18-years-old, and twins that are almost 15-years-old,” said Hooker. “Family of six, that’s it!”
“Greg and I are third generation dairy farmers, so it’s my hope to continue on, at least with some of them,” said Jennifer.
That goal drives Greg every day as he works to sustain a future during fluid times in California.
“Just stick with it,” said Hooker. “Tomorrow will be better than today.”