Alan Bjerga: Hello and welcome to the Dairy Defined Podcast. In a podcast last fall, we were discussing the severe drought that had gripped California agriculture. Now we’re back and we’re talking about floods that are bringing hardship in the nation’s number one dairy producing state.
Joining to tell us more is Cory Vanderham, who with his wife, Jaylene, own and operate Vanderham West Dairy in Corcoran, California. The dairy currently milks 4,500 cows, of which 3000 are Holsteins and 1500 are Holstein Jersey crosses. They also farm more than 3000 acres to supply the dairy with its forage needs. Cory’s also an NMPF board member representing California Dairies Inc.
Thanks for joining us, Cory.
Cory Vanderham: Yeah, thanks for the time, guys.
Alan Bjerga: For listeners who aren’t experiencing this, let’s begin at the beginning. What’s happening in Central California and how are you being affected?
Cory Vanderham: We’ve been going through a drought, obviously the last year and a half, two years, and this year the Lord’s blessed us with plenty of rain and an impressive snow pack up in the Sierras, and that snow pack is melting and coming down. And from the very beginning, when it got real wild, it was about middle of March, we got some low snow and some rain on top of that, and it all came down the conveyance through the canals. And people to the east of me and the city of Tulare and Tipton, farther north in Visalia and Hanford, a lot of those people were experiencing some flash flood issues. There’s so much water coming down the canals, the canals couldn’t handle it. And it had to go somewhere so some producers had water coming through their dairies, had water going through their farmlands and stuff. We experienced that as well. But what we’re dealing with now is we have the water that’s coming on top of us and it’s settling on us, and it’s just slowly filling up kind of like a bathtub.
Alan Bjerga: So how are you managing your cows through this?
Cory Vanderham: Yeah, so we had to evacuate our dairy, so we had to move 4,500 milk cows. We got the evacuation order. We waited a day to see and do our own research on it, and yeah, it was time to go. So we made the call at four o’clock on a Friday afternoon, found two places that we could move cows to that I could lease, and then a friend of mine down the road was able to take some cows. So we moved 4,500 milk cows in just under three days.
Alan Bjerga: And how far did they have to go?
Cory Vanderham: The farthest north we went was about 45 miles, and then the farthest south we went, well, my brother actually took some cows to Bakersfield, so that’s about 60 miles. And then the other milk cows were about 20 miles to the south and 45 to 60 miles to the north, so we’re currently still a little spread out now. Since this happened, I’ve been able to secure another lease facility, so at least I have control of almost all of my cows and I’m able to have control of the feed and the milk of my cows. But my brother in Bakersfield still has about 150 head. He took all the dry cows, so he’s going to calve them out down there and then put them through his fresh cow program, and then he’ll send them to me after they’re freshened and ready to go.
Alan Bjerga: That sounds like a management nightmare.
Cory Vanderham: It was quite the ordeal. One of the places was a family owned dairy that we had that was vacant, so I sent a manager there and said, “Hey, bud, good luck. Go figure it out. The cows will be there in two hours.” So yeah, he did a fantastic job, got those cows unloaded and milking and did a great job there. The second place was a place that we had never even been on. I actually did not even see the place. The owner of that dairy had sold us cows in January. I talked to him and he said, “Hey, just bring them here, we’ll help you get it taken care of.” So sent another dairy manager up there and said, “Good luck bud,” again, and sent him cows. And I showed up about 24 hours later, I was finally able to make it there once we got all the milk cows moved off the place. And yeah, it’s been a whirlwind. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster, for sure.
Alan Bjerga: How long do you think you could be in this situation and how’s your family holding up?
Cory Vanderham: Yeah, we’ll go with my family first. I would not be able to do this without my wife, Jaylene. She’s been the backbone through this whole entire deal, keeping me going, keeping me strong. I got three young kids, Bentley, my daughter’s 14, my son Dax is 12, and then Harlow our youngest, she’s eight going on 18. She’s the firecracker of the family. But they were out here helping us move cows too, and they’re part of it, they come out every weekend anyways and help on the dairy or help on the farming or whatever, so they know what’s going on. Before we had to move the cows and we were helping other people build levees and canals and stuff, I went 11 days straight without seeing my wife and my kids, just sleeping at the dairy and sleeping in the pickup and it was 22, 23 hours a day that we were going.
And without them I wouldn’t be able to do it. Without my cousins, my cousins showed up on a nightly basis, my two brothers showed up, my stepbrothers showed up. I mean, my dad, he’s going through it too, and we’re just fighting the fight or whatever. But we definitely have a lot going on, but we’re not the only ones. There’s people that have stories similar to mine and there’s guys who who’ve lost all of their farm ground. It’s not just me here, there’s a lot of people in this valley that have been affected and it’s hard to watch and it’s hard to see.
Alan Bjerga: How does this end up affecting the state’s dairy industry?
Cory Vanderham: Luckily, most of the guys who had the flash floods across the dairy, most of those guys are back on, and they’ve moved back to their dairies and they’re producing on their own ranches and stuff, whatever. I’m the only one that’s fully evacuated because my dairy will be completely underwater. Going forward, the feed’s going to be an issue, there’s a lot of farm ground that’s underwater that produces wheat crop, wheat silage, and corn silage, so that’s going to be tough to source out later. There’s a lot of almond trees that are underwater, and we feed the almond halls, which is a byproduct of that. Nobody knows what’s going to happen with those trees. I mean, granted, there’s hundreds of thousands of acres of trees in, but it’s all going to eventually play out. So I can’t give a full answer on that, on what I think is going to happen, but time’s going to tell. This is something that we’ve never had to deal with before.
Alan Bjerga: And this becomes something that you’re going to be dealing with for some time, and the question becomes response. State government, local government, federal government, what sort of resources are you seeing and what sort of resources could be helpful?
Cory Vanderham: So what resources have we’ve been seeing? We’ve been in pretty good contact with our local FSA offices and working on trying to use programs that they have available. I know that the local Tulare County office has been diligent trying to come up with some new programs to unleash some funding. We’ve met with Congressman Valadao and Congressman Duarte, been in contact with Speaker McCarthy about what’s going on and stuff.
Have we seen anything on the federal side? No, nothing yet, and I know that takes some time. Governor Newsom was in town two weeks ago. He toured around and seen everything going on where we’re at, and I didn’t have the chance to meet with him, but some of the other producers did and he’s very well aware of it now. Whether they get acting on it, who knows? But they’re aware of it and I think they see what this is going to do to our local state economy as well. The Central Valley is a big resource for income for these people with the amount of crops that we produce and stuff, and it’s going to affect them pretty heavy too later on down the road.
Alan Bjerga: Now the snow pack isn’t fully thawed yet, so are people still worried about what may be coming next? It sounds like you’re going to have some soggy ground for a while.
Cory Vanderham: There’s a lot of numbers floating around, but to my understanding, the snow pack is only about 20% melted, and there’s an equivalent of about 46 or 47 inches of rainwater when you do the math equation of snow up in the mountains, so there’s a lot more coming. It’s going to help because guys are starting to farm corn right now, so people will be able to irrigate out of the canals and stuff, but we got a lot of water headed our way, and we’re going to be soggy for a long time. I think it’s going to be a good year, to a year and a half, before I actually get back on my facility.
Alan Bjerga: We mentioned at the beginning of this podcast that the last time we’ve discussed California water issues, we were talking about drought, and now we seem to be looking at a very extreme situation in the other direction. What do these immediate crises that California dairy farmers have been facing, what does that say about water management needs in California?
Cory Vanderham: Unfortunately, it takes something like this to really open the state controller’s eyes. We need to do a better job of building these dams, getting these water storages put in place or whatever. And even honestly, a lot of the flooding issues that happened east of me in Tulare, in Tipton, Hanford and stuff, I think a lot of that could have been solved and could have been cured had we been allowed by our local government, had we been allowed to go through there and actually clean up these canals, allow us to go through and get rid of all the brush, allowed to us to go through and get rid of the dead trees, allow us to maintain these canals and fix these squirrel holes.
Literally, a lot of these things broke out because squirrel holes were there. The water gets so high, finds that squirrel hole, leaves past resistant, blows out the canal, and next thing you know the farmer’s got 400 acres of beautiful wheat underwater, or 150 acres of pistachios underwater. A lot of this could have been fixed had we been able to maintain and do the right thing and clean up these canals so the water would have been able to flow a lot smoother than what it did.
Alan Bjerga: Sounds like a lot for folks to digest as the waters start to recede.
Cory Vanderham: Yeah, absolutely. And honestly, some of it is just common sense, in my opinion. But also, I’m a dairyman, I’m not a legislator. But the common sense factor of allowing people to do that, it would’ve saved a lot of heartache and would’ve saved a lot of people’s family farms, for sure.
Alan Bjerga: So how are you gearing up for the long haul?
Cory Vanderham: How am I gearing up for the long haul? I’m just putting my trust in God every day, just asking the Lord every day to show me where he wants me to go. Maybe that’s not going to be milking the 4,500 cows in Corcoran for a while. We’re just taking it day by day, which is actually a nice thing because when we started this deal in the beginning of March, it was literally hour by hour on how we were fighting this water and how we were making these decisions. So going day by day actually makes me feel a little bit better because it gives you some more time.
But going forward, been able to secure some long-term leases on these facilities that I’m renting and leasing, been able to harvest most of my crop that I had planted in Corcoran. We’ve got 3000 acres that we farm out there, and I think as of this morning, I’m actually here right now, as of this morning, we’ve only got about 340 acres that are dry. Everything else is underwater. We were able to harvest a lot of it, but not to the full maturity, we had to take it off early, and we lost probably about six or 700 acres that went underwater that we weren’t able to harvest.
Alan Bjerga: Anything else you’d like to add?
Cory Vanderham: Just for everybody out there, just keep praying to keep everybody safe going through this and to keep plugging on strong as long as we can. This farming community is an amazing community and you don’t realize how strong this community is and how strong ag is until things get wild like this. And when it got wild, everybody showed up to help and it was pretty awesome to see how well-connected everybody is.
Alan Bjerga: We’ve been speaking with Cory Vanderham, who with his wife, Jaylene, and his three children, own and operate Vanderham West Dairy, in normal times located in Corcoran, California, currently dispersed to other places. Cory, thank you so much for your time.
Cory Vanderham: No, thank you. Appreciate it.
Alan Bjerga: To learn more about resources available for California dairy farmers and disaster preparedness and response in general in agriculture, please visit the natural disaster section of our website, nmpf.org. And for more of the Dairy Defined Podcast, you can find and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and Amazon Music under the podcast name Dairy Defined. We’ll talk again soon.