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Central Valley dairyman in it for long haul


For the Capital Press

Dairy farming is good in California's San Joaquin Valley, but farmers should plan to stay in for the long haul.

LODI, Calif. — Jack Hamm grew up in Calexico in California’s Imperial Valley, milked cows for his neighbors and wanted to be a dairyman.

After meeting his soon-to-be wife, Patti, who was also from a dairy family, he followed his dream.

“I met Patti when we were students Cal Poly (California Polytechnic University-San Luis Obispo) and got married,” he said. They moved to work on Lima Ranch Dairy, which has been in her family since 1938.

“The dairy began with 100 acres,” he said.

They took over as operations managers in 1992 and started expanding the farm.

They both take pride that they are third-generation dairy farmers and consider San Joaquin County the best place for a dairy.

“It’s hard to explain, but one of the advantages is the good weather,” said Hamm, who is also president of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation and a member of the Western United Dairymen.

“Although the drought is bad we are close to the Delta and not far from the Sierra Nevada so we have access to water resources,” he said. “There are some lean times, but overall San Joaquin shines.”

He has one concern.

“The price of ground here is outrageous,” he said. “The high prices are good for our bottom line but it’s very tough for a young person to get started in dairy here.”

The upfront costs and equipment costs are high. Those who have been in the industry for years are doing pretty well and are on profitable footing, he said, but the last five years have been brutal with feed prices skyrocketing.

Fortunately, he said, milk prices have doubled and the price of beef has increased.

The cost of feeding his herd amounts to 60 percent of his overall income. Hamm predicts that because of the drought costs of feed will continue to be a big issue this year. Some dairymen living farther south are trucking silage to their farms, he said.

However, “the biggest challenge facing our industry is regulations. We are the most over-regulated sector of the ag industry,” he said. “Under the Food Safety Modernization Act there are all kinds of food safety rules and most are outdated and has little to do with actual milk quality.”

Lima Ranch Dairy sells its milk to nearby Hilmar Cheese Co.

“There is no crystal ball in the dairy industry and forecasting volatility (of feed and milk prices) is difficult,” Hamm said.

“I have a buddy who jokes that sometimes he has too many cows to milk and other times he doesn’t have enough,” he said. “So, you can’t be in ag and worry about the future. Agriculture is not for the faint-hearted. You have to plan on being in for the long haul.”

Lima Ranch

Established: 1938

Family members involved : Wife, Patti; children Mike and Jennifer; and mother-in-law, Helen Lima

Number of cows: 1,800


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