Sept./Oct. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Toni Scott
Photos by Bryant Anderson III
Family hosts community, wildlife on eco-friendly farm
Family is at the cornerstone of the Alexandres' model of business, and every family member plays a role in their dairy. Pictured from left are Joseph with wife Alexa, Vanessa, Stephanie, Blake, Christian, Savanna and Dalton. Photo courtesy of Callie Brodt.
Living in a small rural town, Kellee Peeples is always looking for ways to keep her young daughters active. So when she heard about a dairy inviting children to learn about and care for calves in her coastal home of Crescent City, Peeples thought it would be a great antidote to childhood boredom.
What she found was more than just an outlet for her girls. She built a connection to the dairy, the cows and the family behind it all: the Alexandres.
Blake and Stephanie Alexandre and their five children, Joseph, Christian, Vanessa, Savanna and Dalton, own and operate Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms, nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the towering California redwoods in Northern California.
Dairy cows, beef cattle, chickens and even bison make their home alongside the Alexandres, a few miles from the Oregon border.
The family business includes raising 3,500 dairy cows for milk production at four locations—two in Humboldt County and two in Del Norte County—as well as producing organic eggs through their Alexandre Kids Eggs label (see story below). The family also raises organic, grassfed beef and grows hay on a Modoc County ranch.
The Alexandre home ranch in Crescent City sits on one of the most serene stretches of the California coast, with the cool coastal fog often resting on the farm's fields. Bald eagles, Aleutian geese and Roosevelt elk have been known to frequent the property.
The unique setting is one of the reasons Blake Alexandre cites for adopting sustainable and organic farming practices. He says he farms the same way his great-grandfather and grandfather did, with a focus on sustaining the land for future generations.
"It's important to me to teach not only my kids, but all of our employees, that we need to have a very respectful relationship with the environment," he said. "It just makes the ranch we live on a more pleasant place to work."
The Alexandres seek to teach other families about life on a dairy through a "bucket calf" program that provides hands-on learning opportunities for local youth. As Stephanie Alexandre explains: "We love it when the public comes around. We think it is important that, as a family business, we show them what we do."
The ranch is also something the family seeks to share with the public by inviting community members such as Peeples to the dairy. They open their doors to tours, 4-H meetings and anyone who wants to learn about farming and conservation.
"We love it when the public comes around," Stephanie Alexandre said. "We think it is important that, as a family business, we show them what we do."
Part of that education comes through the Alexandres' "bucket calf" program, which Stephanie Alexandre began 20 years ago and still runs today. The program provides local children the opportunity to "adopt" one of the Alexandres' calves for the summer. Most of the calves are just a few months old when the children meet them, and are called bucket calves because they can be fed out of buckets at their young age.
During the summer, children meet at the farm once a week, for eight weeks, to care for and learn about their adopted calf. At the end of that time, the children can show their calves at the Del Norte County Fair during a special competition solely for program participants.
Peeples and her school-aged daughters, Hope and Hollee, are among the families that have taken part in the program. Peeples says the experience made an impact on her children.
"They learned about responsibility. They learned commitment. They learned about following through," she said. "These are all the things I'm trying to teach them as their mom. It was a parallel to my parenting."
Peeples, who knew little about agriculture before connecting with the Alexandres, says she gained insight as well.
"I definitely look at milk in the grocery store differently," she said. "If you just think about the number of people they have to employ to take care of the cows, feed them, everything, every day, it's incredible."
That reaction and experience has become commonplace as the Alexandres continue to invest in educating the community about their farm. Throughout the years, at least 1,000 families have participated in the bucket calf program and even more have visited Alexandre Family EcoDairy.
Opening their doors is a way for the family to give back, Stephanie Alexandre said. Open doors and a willingness to teach others about the dairy also helps sustain a strong future for the farm, making the public a partner in ensuring its perpetuity.
"It makes an impact," Christian Alexandre said. "They never are going to forget the time they raised a calf and learned a little bit of the farm life."
Wildlife such as great egrets abound on Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms and coexist alongside grazing dairy cows and other farm animals.
A lasting legacy
The Alexandres have lived and worked on this land for more than 20 years, with the Alexandre children the fifth generation to farm. Blake and Stephanie were both raised in farming families—Blake also served as a California State FFA officer—and wanted their children to learn the same lessons they did growing up.
"We just knew it was a great way to raise a family and be a family," Stephanie Alexandre said. "The learning opportunities are endless. Our kids don't remember the time we've taken vacations, but they remember the time when we were all together and made hay."
Joseph, Christian and Vanessa have graduated from college and are active in the day-to-day operations of the dairy. Savanna, who is still in high school, and Dalton, who is in college, plan to follow in their paths, returning to the dairy after earning their degrees.
The legacy of carrying on the family business is one that 23-year-old Christian Alexandre said he's honored to be a part of. He oversees the family's egg business, started by his brother Joseph when Joseph was a young teenager, in addition to contributing to tasks on the dairy.
"It's always meant long hours and hard work," Christian Alexandre said, "but there's pride in everything we do."
Much of that pride comes not only from building a successful business, but also from fostering environmental stewardship in all aspects of their farming practices.
The dairy transitioned to producing organic milk in the late 1990s. The Alexandres raise their dairy and beef cattle on grassy pastures in harmony with the natural environment that surrounds the farm.
As a result, Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms is a regular stop among local birdwatchers. At various times, their pond offers views of sandhill cranes, golden eagles, Aleutian geese and other birds. The dairy has also taken an integral role in rebuilding and preserving habitat for wildlife and waterfowl in the region, with conservation a core value to the Alexandre family and business.
Vanessa Alexandre, shown with her father Blake, says having cows on the land promotes more wildlife in the area, adding, "We manage our grazing patterns to encourage that."
Vanessa Alexandre, who works primarily with the dairy's calves and young cows, said even where the cows graze is a decision made with purpose toward preservation. When cows eat certain grasses in a particular field, it can make room for the growth of other grasses and plants that birds and wildlife feed on or use for habitat, attracting them to the ranch.
"It's a blessing to have all this nature around, and it's something we're always working at," she said. "The cows actually promote more wildlife in the area and we manage our grazing patterns to encourage that. It's an intensive process and really means managing for all: the dairy cows and the eagles, the geese and the herd of 150 elk that are on the farm."
It's a lasting connection to both the farm and the natural habitat that the Alexandres hope to foster for generations to come.
"We hope that as we keep doing what we're doing, our kids will think like we do and make their own mark, but continue to carry on our philosophy," Blake Alexandre said. "The community is our partner in the process as we learn and continue forward, and we learn from them just as they learn from us."
Kids build eggstraordinary business
Christian Alexandre and the family's two Great Pyrenees guard dogs keep watch over the chickens that lay eggs for the Alexandre Kids Eggs business.
A little more than 10 years ago, the Alexandre family took a trip to the East Coast and wound up meeting a family who raised chickens in a pasture. When the Alexandres returned to their Northern California dairy, the children decided they wanted to try their hand at the same thing and started raising a small brood of chickens for eggs. Joseph, the oldest of the Alexandre children, 13 years old at the time, started the venture. Younger brother Christian, then 12, soon joined in.
The project evolved into a viable business, under the label Alexandre Kids Eggs—and now, the egg operation includes 30,000 chickens grazing on 180 acres of pasture. Though it was once his FFA project, Christian Alexander now runs this part of the Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms business.
"It just keeps growing every year," he said. "It's something that as kids, we could do ourselves as a fun project, but now, it's a full-time business and there's room to grow even more."
The chickens often roam alongside dairy cows, grazing in the lush fields on the farm. Portable chicken coops with nesting boxes are moved every few days so pastures are not overgrazed, yet still benefit from the fertilization the chickens naturally provide. A Great Pyrenees guard dog is kept at each mobile coop to protect the chickens from predators.
Once the chickens lay eggs, they are collected, washed, sorted, sized and packaged to be sold at local farmers markets and Northern California grocery stores.