California’s ‘Most Sustainable’ Dairy is Doing What’s Best for Business

California’s ‘Most Sustainable’ Dairy is Doing What’s Best for Business
Oct 04, 2022

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By Grace van Deelen

Steve Shehadey waved at the front desk crew, walked past white walls filled with plaques and awards and settled into his office, piled high with papers: invoices, permits, spreadsheets. On his desk, there’s a milk crate he found in an antiques store and an old butter-churning machine. 

As owner of Bar 20 Dairy Farms, Shehadey oversees all operations at the sprawling family enterprise. The farm covers about 5,000 acres of crop fields in California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley, husbands thousands of dairy cows from infant to milking age, and offers very, very little shade.

This summer, the dairy won a major sustainability award that has attracted plenty of media attention and made Bar 20 the paragon of sustainability in the industry. Shehadey is proud of the distinction. 

He says he’s trying to make Bar 20 as close as possible to having no environmental impact, which in the age of climate change requires him to master the vagaries of agricultural efficiency and become an energy entrepreneur, turning vast quantities of methane captured from cow manure into biogas he can sell or use as fuel. Yet none of it will ever be enough in the eyes of the environmentalists and academic experts who say the only real way to keep dairy farming from warming the planet is to stop the practice altogether. 

For all his climate and environmental consciousness, Shehadey isn’t going there, and thinks about the existential issues of dairy farming like this: “We feed our valley, the Central Valley of California.” 

Between meetings and correspondence—which he’s had to spend much more time on since the dairy was recognized for its sustainability this year—he drives loops of the farm to get out of the office. Sometimes a water pipe breaks, or a cow gets loose. It’s just good to have an eye on things, so he makes his rounds a few times a day.

With less than an hour to spare between calls and meetings, he hurried down the stairs from  his office on a scorching summer day, wearing blue jeans, dark brown work boots and a gray T-shirt with his farm’s logo. He bumped into Jose Contreras, one of his supervisors.

“Jose, how we doin’? How many loads of tomatoes?” Shehadey asked.  

“We’re over 100,” Contreras replied, delivering the good news. Shehadey planted tomatoes for the first time this year to take advantage of high prices.

He could see those fields stretching out before him as he turned down a dusty concrete driveway in his blue Chevy pickup truck. Straight ahead were the faint outlines of the mountains that separate the Pacific Coast from the San Joaquin Valley. Farms like Bar 20 are numerous here; the valley boasts more dairy production than any other region of the U.S. 

Shehadey’s family has been farming this land for over 70 years, since his grandfather, a soap salesman, moved to Fresno County in the 1940s. Shehadey raised his kids in nearby Fresno, and his daughter is an undergraduate at California Polytechnic, where she studies dairy science. For the last couple of years, she has worked at the farm, too, and she’s expected to follow in her father’s footsteps. The family’s roots are deep.

“We care,” Shehadey says. “We give back to the community.” He says he’s donated to local hospitals and universities and tries to follow the advice of his grandfather to always “do the right thing.”

Beyond his farm, he worries about air quality and smoke from forest fires in the nearby mountain ranges. According to an analysis by the California Air Resources Board, which is responsible for regulating air emissions in the state, most of the particulate air pollution in the region results from ammonium nitrate, a chemical that results when nitrogen oxide from trucks and farm equipment combines with ammonia released from dairies and livestock. The San Joaquin Valley has some of the worst air in the country and has consistently failed to meet air pollution standards set by the EPA. 

While Bar 20 is a family farm, it bears little resemblance to bucolic notions of small-scale, rustic agriculture. Today, it is a farm ruled by efficiency—the only way, Shehadey says, that a dairy can survive. In California, milk production per cow has increased more than 50 percent since the 1980s. That’s been made possible by tiny tweaks in cow nutrition and the automation of certain processes, like milking. Such strategies allow Bar 20 to produce almost 100 pounds of milk per cow each day. 

Sustainability, to Shehadey, is as much about sustaining his business as it is about the environmental impacts of the operation. To that end, he’s always looking for the next best investment to make. Some of those investments—LED lighting and high-efficiency fans in his barns, and two solar fields—have happened to conserve resources and cut emissions, too. 

To Jeff Sebo, a professor of environmental studies at New York University, those two goals conflict. “The only way to build a humane, healthful, sustainable food system at scale is to dramatically phase down animal agriculture globally, dramatically phase up plant agriculture globally, and pursue just transition programs for humans who currently rely on animal agriculture for food or income,” he says. 

A small but growing number of livestock farmers have chosen this other option for sustainability—of both the planet and their businesses—by decreasing the number of animals they farm. For example, programs like Transfarmation have helped various livestock farmers abandon animal agriculture entirely and repurpose their equipment for plant-based agriculture.

Matthew Hayek, an environmental scientist and professor at New York University, said dairies still don’t restrict emissions from feed production, including the negative effects of applying fertilizers, transporting feed or clearing land. Methane from cow burps, which accounts for almost half of the methane released by cows, doesn’t get captured, either.

Though he knows this, Shehadey has no plan to abandon dairy farming. “You’re not going to eliminate anything 100 percent,” he says. Eliminating greenhouse gases from the manure lagoons with his prized methane capture operation, he says, is “a good start.” He hopes that future technology advances, too, could help emissions from dairies to fall. 

Across Highway 180 from the farm’s current expanse sits a reminder of how it has changed in recent years: an abandoned barn structure, overgrown with dried-up vegetation. This was Bar 20’s previous dairy headquarters, which produced its last milk in 2016. Shehadey still debates what to do with the defunct dairy; right now, he says, there’s too much manure left in the ground to make planting anything there a good idea. 

Financial restrictions govern the decisions Shehadey makes for the farm; milk prices fluctuate constantly, and energy is getting more expensive in California. In a good year, the farm pays off some of its debt to the bank. In a bad year, the bank borrows it back. The bank helps out with loans, but the state does, too: Bar 20 received $3 million from a program run by the California Department of Food and Agriculture for the farm’s most recent venture, the $13 million manure digester that captures methane emitted from cow manure and then processes it into biogas for use on the farm and sale as fuel. 

The CDFA program has given out nearly $200 million in incentives for dairy farmers like Shehadey, although the program has come under fire from community groups for helping to institutionalize a polluting industry and encouraging farmers to grow their herd size. Though he could, Shehadey says increasing his herd size would be a hassle he doesn’t want to deal with. 

To his left, heading south on a concrete farm road, an array of cream-colored plastic shelters house newborn cows, segregated from one another because they’re most vulnerable to disease at this stage. At any given time, the hutches house 700 to 900 calves that will either become dairy cows themselves or be sold for rearing as beef cattle.

Shehadey peered into the field of calves, then pulled over to let a feed truck pass. His employees almost always wave when they see him, and he waves back. He called them “good people” and says the dairy industry, particularly, attracts friendly, honest personalities and hard workers who don’t mind starting their day before sunrise. They recently held their employee barbecue, with a spread that included tacos, marinated chicken and carne asada. 

A few minutes’ drive away, on the far west side of the farm, cows not yet at milking age tread on acres and acres of dirt. To make them ready to be milked, they’re impregnated. When they’re about to give birth, herd managers move them to a section of the barns reserved for pregnant cows.

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