Califonia Bountiful

Cream of the crop

September/October 2017 California Bountiful magazine

Family finds creative ways to keep dairy farm thriving

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During school tours of Van Ommering Dairy, students have access to educational activities that relate to dairy farming. Photo: © 2017 Paul Savage

With its miles and miles of coastline and balmy weather, San Diego County is famous for being a tourist destination, one that also maintains a rich agricultural presence.

At last count, the region supports a whopping 5,732 farms—more than any other county in the nation. And yet, you won't find too many dairy cows here, even though milk was the county's No. 1 agricultural product some 70 years ago and remained a top commodity into the late 1970s.

Dairy farms have virtually vanished from this part of the state, as the region's population exploded and land became more valuable. Most dairies in the area closed their doors or moved to the Central Valley years ago, but Van Ommering Dairy in Lakeside has persevered in large part by embracing one of the region's main economic drivers: tourism.

Nestled in the western foothills of the Cuyamaca Mountains, Van Ommering Dairy is one of only three commercial dairy farms left in San Diego County. Brothers Dave and Rob Van Ommering operate the family dairy, while Dave and his wife, Brenda, also run the tourism side of the business, which includes school tours of the dairy in the spring, a pumpkin patch in the fall and a Christmas tree lot in the winter.

In describing why the family became involved in agritourism, Dave Van Ommering said, "I love talking about agriculture and discussing it with people."

He also acknowledged that it was the economics of the dairy business and other factors that first forced his family to be creative and diversify from only milking cows.

Brenda and Dave Van Ommering sit on hay bales at their farm, which also offers a pumpkin patch in fall and Christmas trees in winter. Photo: © 2017 Paul Savage

Decades of change

When his parents, Gerrit and Gerry Van Ommering, emigrated from Holland to the area in 1953, the San Diego County dairy business was still enjoying its heyday. The couple got their start working on a dairy in the once agriculturally vital Mission Valley, where Qualcomm Stadium now stands.

"They were an American success story," Dave Van Ommering said. "They were able to save enough money and they purchased the farm we're on in 1960."

But the region was undergoing major changes that would later influence the type of agriculture that would take hold, explained Eric Larson, executive director of San Diego County Farm Bureau.

"Post-World War II, San Diego experienced this amazing growth boom and it created a huge demand for milk and dairies," he said. "At that time, they were still servicing just the local community."

This was not unique to San Diego County, Larson added. Before major freeways were built and refrigerated trucks became common, milk was produced, processed, sold and consumed locally.

Even though San Diego County's population continued to swell, providing a robust market for milk and dairy products, small dairies became unprofitable, Larson said. Increasing urbanization and regulatory restrictions also limited existing dairies from expanding.

At the same time, other agricultural crops such as avocados, citrus and other tree fruits gained prominence, thanks in large part to construction of the Colorado River Aqueduct, which first delivered water to Southern California in 1941, allowing for greater urban development and a shift in the region's agricultural makeup.

For those who milk cows for a living, business has seen some tough times, especially during the last 10 years. Milk prices, Rob Van Ommering said, have not kept up with the costs of running a dairy, particularly in his region.

"At the same time, people are hungry for the nostalgia of getting closer to their food," he said, making agritourism a good fit for what the family was doing.

The decision to open their farm to the public started informally in the 1980s, when a local teacher approached Gerry Van Ommering about letting her class visit the dairy. With her Dutch accent and wooden shoes, the Van Ommering matriarch became an instant hit with students and teachers, as did her homemade butter cookies, a treat each guest received at the end of the tour. Word spread and soon other teachers came knocking.

"My mom, if you knew her, was a very shy person in public," Dave Van Ommering said. "To this day, I'm still blown away by her ability to do the tours. It was kind of the genesis of our agritourism. We just didn't know it at that time."

Attractions include a mountain of cottonseeds, top left, which is used as feed for dairy cows. After school tours, which include the chance to see cows being milked, above, students are treated to ice cream, a popular dairy product, top right. Photos: © 2017 Paul Savage

Agritourism creates connections

By the 1990s, Brenda Van Ommering joined her mother-in-law in giving the tours. Realizing that income from the dairy alone could no longer support the Van Ommerings' growing families, the dairy opened Oma's Pumpkin Patch ("oma" means grandmother in Dutch) in 2000 and then added the Christmas-tree business in 2009.

When Gerry Van Ommering passed away in 2007, Dave and Brenda Van Ommering decided to restructure the tours, adding a hayride, a mountain of cottonseed for children to play in, and other activities. Instead of butter cookies, visitors now receive ice-cream cups. Together, their agritourism businesses now draw thousands of people each year.

"I know that Gerrit and Gerry would be very pleased with the progress we have made," Brenda Van Ommering said. "Their dream was to start the dairy and eventually pass it on to the next generation. I think they would be proud of the way we have been creative in keeping the farm here. Even when they were alive, they were open to new and improved ways of doing things."

Not only has the agritourism business helped to keep the dairy going, Dave Van Ommering said, but it gives him a platform to talk about agriculture—and it allows students, teachers and parents to see a working farm up close and ask questions.

"I always refer to it as touching the farmer," he said. "The kids are so much fun because they're just sponges as far as picking up information."

The Van Ommerings encourage questions and have gotten some funny and memorable ones through the years. Brenda Van Ommering said she often hears children refer to udders as "gutters." She's also gotten a lot of adults who ask if bulls give milk. (That would be no, because bulls are male.)

"Every year I get one starry-eyed little boy tell me I am the prettiest farmer he's ever seen," she said. "It's most likely I'm the only female farmer he's ever seen, but I'll take the compliment."

Ching Lee 


Oma's famous butter cookies

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