Organic dairyman finds volunteer work helps industry thrive
By MITCH LIES
GERVAIS, Ore. -- Volunteering comes naturally to Jerome Rosa.
The fourth-generation dairy farmer grew up believing in the importance of participating in community functions.
"I went to a small public grade school," he said. "We had about 75 kids; and if you weren't involved in 4-H, and you weren't involved in student council, and if your parents weren't involved in PTA, the school would close.
"I think that instilled in me that if it's small and you're not doing your part, the likelihood of it folding is pretty good," Rosa said.
Today Rosa is president of the Oregon Beef Council, immediate past president of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, and he recently was named to the Oregon Board of Agriculture.
Rosa's service to Oregon agriculture started when, new to the state, he attended an Oregon Dairy Farmers Association meeting.
"They were looking for somebody to testify on the 1992 Farm Bill in Tulare, Calif.," Rosa said. "They were saying, 'We need to get some young producer, because all they see is our old faces all the time.' And I'm thinking, 'Oh crap, I hope these guys aren't talking about me.'"
Later, after testifying at the hearing, the association sent Rosa and two others to a training session in Tampa, Fla., called the Holstein Foundation Young Dairy Leaders Institute.
"After that, I felt like they had invested time and money in me, and so I thought, 'I need to repay them for that effort,'" he said.
Bernie Faber, former chairman of the Oregon Board of Agriculture and a leading figure in the Oregon dairy industry, said Rosa's contributions to the industry have been invaluable.
"He has always been willing to contribute all the time that he possibly could to the dairy industry and agriculture," Faber said. "I don't think we could ask anybody to do any more than what he has done.
"One of the things I've complimented him on is the way he helped cattlemen and dairy farmers work together," he said. "They're working together better than they had in the past, and I am really impressed with that."
Serving on boards and commissions can be enjoyable and occasionally fruitful.
"Sometimes, when you're on the farm, you're not getting the big picture. You're just kind of involved in your personal business, and you get out and go to some of these things, and you talk to farmers about what's working and what's not working, and you get a lot of ideas, and it makes you a lot more open-minded," he said.
"It has opened up opportunities," he said. "I think if I hadn't of been on the board of (Farmers Cooperative Creamery) in the late '90s and started hearing about the opportunities of going organic, I might not have switched to organic."
Rosa shocked his family when he announced he was leaving the family's northern California dairy and moving with his wife, Carole, and young daughter to Oregon.
The family had assumed Rosa would take over the dairy after his father retired.
"My thought was no matter how hard I worked and no matter what I did, it would always be, 'Well, you got there because of what your dad did, or what your grandpa did.'
"So I thought, 'Well, I'll either sink or swim, but at least I'll give it a try,'" he said.
While he wouldn't change a thing, there were times when he wondered if he made the right decision.
"The first week I was here, I didn't have any help and I remember being in the barn, and it was 7 degrees outside, and all the water troughs were frozen, and I remember sitting down for a minute and thinking, 'What have I done,'" he said.
Rosa started Jer-Osa Dairy as a conventional dairy with 63 cows he purchased from the previous owner. Today he operates a 300-cow organic dairy, with replacements.
Being organic helps Rosa receive a premium for his milk -- and helps keep him in business.
Like the decision to move to Oregon, he views the decision to go organic as a signature moment.
It happened in the late 1990s after he learned the dairy industry was expanding in Eastern Oregon.
"When the Boardman facilities went in, I thought it was going to be really tough to stay in the dairy business in the Willamette Valley," he said.
Large-scale Eastern Oregon dairies, he feared, would dilute the Class 1 milk pool to a point he wasn't going to be competitive.
"I thought I was going to have to either move to Tillamook or go organic, because being a conventional dairyman in the Willamette Valley, I felt we were terminal," he said.
"The cost of doing business here (in the Willamette Valley) is just not competitive -- with what the land prices are and the environmental costs of dealing with this amount of rainfall," he said. "You either have to be huge, or you have to be niche."
"There have been a lot of ups and down since I moved here," Rosa said. "But if I had to do it all over again, I would."
Occupation: Dairy farmer
Education: Bachelor's of science from California State University, Fresno, with a minor in dairy science
Family: Wife, Carole; one son and two daughters