Hero Image

Milk cow blues

Press Democrat - May 21, 2007
Loss of Petaluma dairy testimony to challenges of local farming

A longtime Petaluman dairyman sold his cows and locked up the milk barn last week. Don Silacci found himself unable to afford the cost of abating an environmental hazard that began life as a good-faith effort to protect the environment.

As the last Holsteins were loaded into the trailer, Silacci, 59, told Staff Writer Paul Payne, "There's a life's work down the drain."

In the 1950s, Silacci's father, following the advice of local farm officials, installed old tires as a way to control erosion on the family farm south of Petaluma.

By the 1990s, Californians had learned through hard experience that stockpiled tires pose the risk of toxic fires and serve as a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

"There are a lot of things that were permitted in the past that aren't allowed now simply because we know better," said a spokesman for the Integrated Waste Management Board, the state agency that ordered Silacci to remove the tires.

Silacci figures he spent $360,000 trying to comply with a state order to remove the tires and complete a costly restoration of the site.

Now he says he has no choice but to sell his stock or risk losing the 164-acre farm.

When it comes to dairy farming, nothing comes easy, even as Sonoma County residents proclaim their determination to preserve agriculture.

Milk prices are flat, and milk farming is more expensive here because land costs more, feed costs more and taxes cost more.

And sometimes the city guy who bought the nearby ranch loves open space but hates the smell, noise and dust associated with real-life farming.

Plus, small local farms are asked to compete with sprawling industrial dairies in the Central Valley.

If dairies are giving away to wine grapes, it is because a farmer in Sonoma County has a better chance of not losing money on grapes.

Over the past four years, 16 local dairies have closed.

Others survive by specializing in organic and gourmet products, but their success will continue to require a public commitment to encourage and support agriculture.

It's not enough to embrace the picture-postcard image of the family farm. Communities must also promote public policies that allow farmers to make a living.