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Dairy

SHARON DOUGHTY: DAIRY FARMER

Marin County, CA -- It’s not easy running a dairy. It’s a year-round, seven-day-a-week operation. Cows must be milked twice a day, 12 hours apart. Milk, animal health and labor inspectors check in regularly. And then there’s keeping up with the increasing number of local, state and federal regulations that emerge as resources, such as water, become scarcer, and neighbors more numerous.

“There are many times I’ve thought: I’m getting a little bit old for this,” says Sharon Doughty, who owns one of the few remaining dairies in Marin County. The Sharon Doughty Dairy sits on 800 acres of soft rolling hills near Tomales Bay, the long waterway tucked under the protective arm of Point Reyes Peninsula.

Doughty comes by the dairy business naturally. Her Portuguese immigrant grandparents, Joseph Vierra Mendoza and Zena Martins Mendoza, bought a small dairy on Point Reyes in 1920. The Mendozas spawned two generations of dairy farmers. “Farm B”, as it is known, is now owned and run by Doughty’s father and one of her brothers. When Doughty was brought up, in the 40s and 50s, women didn’t run dairies, so she worked as an accountant and teacher. She went back into the extended family business when Bill Bianchini, the dairyman she married, died in 1984.

By that time, many of the estimated 50 dairies in Marin County had been grappling with point-source pollution – manure-laden water flushed from the milking barns and runoff from eroded and muddy corrals surrounding the barns.

To reduce the runoff into nearby creeks, several dairies poured concrete pads around the milking facilities and built loafing barns where the cows could hang out during the cold and rainy winter months. “Even at that time, it was an investment of $100,000,” explains Doughty. They built the barn in stages: the feeding racks one year; a set of stalls the next; two years later, a roof.

They constructed manure ponds into which they pump the water from the barns. On Doughty’s dairy, the largest pond covers seven acres. “The County of Marin was wonderful,” says Doughty. “They wanted to keep their agricultural industry, so they agreed to share the cost.” Upon request of a dairy farmer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, then known as the Soil Conservation Service, provided an engineer to design and place the manure ponds. The farmer installed the pond, the dam, the pumps and drainage system, and the county paid a quarter of the cost.

Twenty years later, Doughty still runs the dairy. Six dairy employees and their families live in small homes on the farm. Steve Doughty, whom she married in 1987, runs a small winery on their property – Marin County’s first – which accompanies a small bed and breakfast inn they opened. “He’s had a lot of experience with tractors and pumps, so we make a really good team,” says Sharon Doughty. “I understand the animals and he understands the mechanics.”

These days, one of Doughty’s biggest headaches is non-point source pollution from water that runs off the farm’s fields and roads. As a result of the California Shellfish Protection Act passed in 1993, counts of fecal coliform bacteria in Tomales Bay, home of several oyster companies, are required to be much lower by 2008 -- 14 per hundred milliliters. (Acceptable levels for swimming are 200; for boating, 2,000). Dairy farmers and livestock ranchers have come under fire as one of the primary bacteria sources to creeks that feed into the bay.

Faced with more regulations, some dairies decided to close. Unlike Doughty, many had not made improvements over the last three decades, and the $250,000 required to upgrade was too costly. Since 1998, six dairies have closed; only 12 remain in the Tomales Bay watershed. Some of the dairies are now cattle ranches.

In Marin County, environmentalists and farmers have a long history of working together. Because the county wants to keep its open rolling hills, which would otherwise go to housing, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust was established in 1980 to purchase development rights to preserve farmland. Doughty has served on its board.

The shellfish act prompted another community-wide effort to find ways to reduce non-point source pollution. The Tomales Bay Shellfish Technical Advisory Committee, part of the San Francisco Regional Quality Control Board, regularly tested the water and began developing a plan in which dairies, ranches, homeowners with septic systems, boaters, cities with storm sewers emptying into the bay, and equestrian centers would all have to comply with new regulations.

Many dairy owners decided to move as quickly as they could. Doughty and about a dozen other dairy and ranch owners formed the Tomales Bay Agriculture Group (TBAG) and assessed themselves $500 each; the Marin Community Foundation provided an additional $114,000 for a research program to identify pollution sources and test solutions. Some TBAG members volunteered to participate in the research program. The University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program and the Sea Grant Extension program also supported the program.

Over the last five years, three UC Cooperative Extension researchers -- watershed management advisor David Lewis, hydrology specialist Ken Tate and veterinarian specialist Rob Atwill –
trudged across farms during rainstorms to gather samples. “We worked with nine dairies and one horse facility,” says Lewis. “We were able to hit two dairies per storm, and get to every dairy two to three times a year.”

Following the researchers’ advice, Doughty guttered all the barns to divert clean rainwater directly into the creeks instead of letting the water first run across the corrals to pick up contaminants. She put in grass “filter” strips below the walkways that cows traverse on their way to pastures. “Fast-moving water takes everything with it,” she says. “If you can slow the water down, it will drop its pollutants and be filtered.”

She diverted a hill culvert from emptying directly into the creek. Now it empties onto a grass strip. She moved a feeding trough, a tank of vitamin-mineral lick, fenced off one stream, and moved calves away from another.

UC Cooperative Extension livestock and range management advisor Stephanie Larson worked with Doughty to develop a farm management plan. As a result, she’s building a new calf barn and manure pit, and is upgrading the septic system for some of the homes of the dairy’s employees. NRDC engineers are designing a sediment basin to filter out dirt before the water runs into Doughty’s creeks. “They have to design it so that it’s easy to clean out,” says Doughty. “It has to be easy to manage.”

With a $5,000 grant from the Renewable Resources Extension Act, which is administered by UC Cooperative Extension, Larson also organized a two-day workshop to show Doughty and other dairy farmers and ranchers how to assess the health of the creeks on their property. “We helped them identify what a properly working riparian area looks like – does it have clean water, the right bugs, grassy banks, etc.,” says Larson.

Preliminary tests on Doughty’s filter strips show that they’re “reducing the concentration of bacteria by three orders of magnitude,” says Lewis. “Where there were hundreds of thousands of bacterial units, there are now thousands.”

At least six of the original 10 cooperating farms have taken steps to prevent pollution. “Most have planted filter strips,” says Lewis, “moved their manure piles to better places, and checked their gutters. A few have installed a whole new set of ponds and manure management system.”

In Marin and Sonoma counties, about 75 out of 95 dairies have made changes to improve water quality on their land, says Larson. “The dairies in our area know that because this is a coastal environment and we have endangered species, that they have to make improvements.”

There is no single solution that works for all farms, notes Lewis. “Learning through monitoring where there are problems has been the most effective way to direct time and money to improve water quality so that dairy operations can continue.”

Soon, Lewis will have the results of sampling in the winter of 2003-2004, so that farmers can evaluate changes, and extension specialists can take the results to farmers in other watersheds.

One of the reasons Doughty works so hard at keeping her dairy is that she wants to preserve the land and pass it on to her children and grandchildren. She likes the community approach to solving problems better than an adversarial approach in which regulatory agencies inspect, issue fines, and leave the landowners to figure out how to solve problems on their own.

“Marin County has always been pretty progressive and our extension service has been very progressive and helpful,” she says. “We don’t get anywhere pissing at each other. We co-exist here.”

-- by Jane Ellen Stevens
April 2004

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