At This Small, Family-Run Dairy, Animal Welfare Comes First | Civil Eats

At This Small, Family-Run Dairy, Animal Welfare Comes First

At Long Dream Farm in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Abrahams allow their heritage breed cattle to live out their lives and serve as partners in food production.

Andrew Abrahams

Andrew Abrahams is explaining how Long Dream Farm works—by treating animals like partners in food production—when he notices a cow nuzzling the gate to the milking room. “So, here’s Emily,” he says. “She’s very smart. She’s going to try to get this gate open, and she’s pretty capable of doing it.”

In the end, Emily doesn’t manage to open the gate. But knowing each cow is just one part of the philosophy behind this no-slaughter farm that puts the highest emphasis on animal welfare. “I can’t conceive of not knowing the names of all the cattle, knowing their histories,” Abrahams says. “It’s important to understand who their friends are, who they’re related to… I wouldn’t want to do this if I couldn’t be completely hands-on, because I think there’s so much value originating from that.”

Andrew Abrahams and his wife, Krista, established Long Dream in 2011 on a 90-acre home farm, plus hundreds of acres of grazing land, in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada foothills. The farm is home to 190 heritage-breed cattle, plus chickens, donkeys, emus, guinea fowl, horses, pigs, seven working dogs, and one alpaca.

At most dairies, farmers are not on a first-name basis with their cows. One farm can have hundreds or thousands of cows that eat in indoor stalls or crowded feedlots. These operations push cows hard to increase milk production, which often translates into twice-a-day milkings, hormone injections, and too-frequent pregnancies, with calves separated from their mothers just hours after birth. After three or four years, when a cow’s milk production starts to decrease, she is sold and slaughtered for hamburger meat.

But Long Dream and other independent farms are beginning to challenge traditional dairy practices by prioritizing animal welfare over high-volume milk production. Under the Abrahams’ care, the cattle at Long Dream live mostly outdoors in large, fenced areas and have daily access to acres of hillside pasture. Rotational grazing provides abundant feed, which the farm supplements with hay, alfalfa, sprouted barley, and small amounts of grain and minerals. They breed cows every two years or less, and calves stay with their mothers for at least nine months. Meanwhile, chickens have free range of the farm during the day and sleep in airy coops at night as farm dogs patrol for predators.

Cattle like “Captain” have their names printed on ear tags, but the Abrahams family knows all of the animals on sight.

Cattle like “Captain” have their names printed on ear tags, but the Abrahams family knows all of the animals on sight.

“We want the animals to feel like they are free, as much as someone working in an office,” Andrew says. “They have some responsibilities. They have some constraints on their existence… But we can have them live really happy lives with their families.”

While Andrew manages the farm operations, Krista works in the farm’s state-certified Grade A dairy and milk products plant known as “the creamery.” Their four children—ranging in age from 5 to 29—handle various farm duties, such as milking cows and collecting eggs. The farm currently milks about 30 cows once a day, and each cow produces up to three gallons of milk per day.

The farm pipes fresh milk directly to the creamery, where Krista makes butter, ice cream, yogurt, and four kinds of cheese. In addition to the Tahoe Food Hub, they sell their products at the Old Town Auburn farmers’ market and online through Amazon and the farm’s website, which touts “dairy re-thought from the cow’s perspective.”

“What sets them apart is the quality of their product,” says Carol Arnold, CEO of PlacerGrown, which runs farmers’ markets and advocates for Placer County produce. “It’s small batch, family owned, and the taste is extraordinary. There just aren’t [many] dairies in Placer County; they’re the only one I know of that sell to the consumer, so it’s really special.”

Disrupting the Status Quo

In challenging what he calls “a house of cards” of large-scale dairy farming practices, Andrew admits there are many details to think through, like how to encourage lactation extension in mother cows. “It’s not just that calves can stay with their moms,” Andrew said. “It’s actually very important for them to stay with their moms.”

The cows chow down on breakfast before being released to the hillside pasture.

The cows chow down on breakfast before being released to the hillside pasture.

“Take a big guy like Lassen here,” he says, pointing to a young bull standing on the other side of the fence. “He’s still living with his mom and still nursing from his mom, even though he’s a year and a half old. That’s part of keeping the milk production going. Why do you want to keep the milk production going? Because otherwise you need to keep producing more animals on a yearly cycle like regular dairies do. And then what do you do with all the animals?”

The latter is a question many ask of Andrew and Krista: On a no-slaughter farm, where the animals would only die of natural causes and not be used for meat, what do you do with all the animals, particularly those not active in milk production? The Abrahams have designed their operations to allow all their animals to stay on the farm for their entire lives.

“Our analysis shows that we can produce dairy products economically while providing a home for all our milk cows, bulls, and their offspring for their natural lives,” Andrew says. “The key factor is to carefully control breeding and calving. As necessary, we can reduce our calf and milk production to guarantee sanctuary for all and maintain the environmental health of the land.”

Andrew and Krista do not know of many farms that manage their animals like Long Dream. “We’ve met enough people and we’ve visited enough places to know that there are not many people practicing things like this,” Andrew says. “There are clearly people who want to. But disrupting something is not for most people.”

“Long Dream is helping to change the perception of dairy,” says Susie Sutphin, director of Tahoe Food Hub, which promotes Long Dream products to 70 restaurants in North Lake Tahoe. “As consumers become more conscious of their food choices, they start asking questions; Long Dream is more than amazing dairy products, but an education in our food system.”

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Surviving a Landscape Designed for Big Players

Andrew and Krista see a market for high-welfare dairy products, and they hope that by de-coupling milk from meat production, their products will appeal to consumers who might currently be purchasing milk substitutes for animal-welfare reasons.

Clara Abrahams points out an alpaca as she leads a Sunday morning tour around the farm.

Clara Abrahams points out an alpaca as she leads a Sunday morning tour around the farm.

Over the past decade, nearly 17,000 U.S. dairy farms—mostly small and family-owned—have gone out of business as the average herd size and overall milk production have increased. In California, which is the nation’s largest milk-producing state, the average herd size is 1,304 compared to a national average of 234. More than half of California dairies produce at least a tanker load of milk per day, or approximately 1.5 million pounds of milk per month.

The way the dairy industry exists in California is a function of both economic pressure—or specifically, farms seeking economies of scale—and regulatory pressure, says Dr. Peter H. Robinson, a dairy specialist with the University of California at Davis Cooperative Extension Service.

“It seems to me the urban population would like to see smaller dairy farms, but the politicians we elect have designed a regulatory system that makes it hard for small operations to stay in business,” Robinson adds. “If we don’t like the system we’ve got—and some people clearly don’t—I think one answer is to simplify state regulation.”

Andrew and Krista have felt the burden of a regulatory scheme designed for large commercial dairies. “To pass regulation, you need to have specialized buildings, specialized infrastructure. You need to pass inspections all the time. There are a ton of regulations to deal with,” Andrew says. “Gradually, we try to get people to understand that one-size-fits-all really does not apply to regulating something as complicated as milk production.”

He and Krista hope Long Dream can serve as a model for what is possible outside the mega-dairy system. “Our view is that there is room for some fraction of current production to come from small, geographically diversified farms where the highest standards of animal care and safety can be maintained,” Andrew says.

Free-range chickens spend the night in airy chicken coops (left) and lay their eggs in cozy red sheds (center), where they feel safe from predators.

Free-range chickens spend the night in airy chicken coops (left) and lay their eggs in cozy red sheds (center), where they feel safe from predators.

He sees multiple advantages to the smaller, regional approach—improved animal welfare, better management of greenhouse gases, lower transportation costs, and faster delivery of products to market.

A Mission to Educate

Although the Abrahams family makes and sells dairy products, they do not view their farm as a typical productional agriculture operation. Instead, these two problem-solvers—Andrew has a PhD in astrophysics; Krista is an attorney—see their mission as two-pronged: education and research. That’s why they offer farm tours on Sunday mornings and overnight farm stays in a four-bedroom guest house.

On a cool Sunday morning in January, four guests arrive for the farm tour at 7 a.m., in time for the morning milking. It’s not quite sunrise, but roosters are crowing from their perch in a nearby tree.

Roosters greet the new day from a tree at Long Dream Farm.

Roosters greet the new day from a tree at Long Dream Farm.

“Our chickens think they are good fliers, so they like to roost high up in the tree,” says daughter Clara, 14, who helps her parents escort guests around the farm.

After a quick visit with the calves, the four visitors join Andrew for morning milking—the top attraction on the Sunday farm tour. Then Clara and her brother, Frederic, lead the tour group on a walk around the farm, with stops to feed carrots to the horses, visit the emus, and see the windowless red boxes where the free-range chickens like to lay their eggs.

Chad Eatinger, his wife Jane Hong, and their three children made the three-hour drive from San Francisco for their third overnight stay in the farm’s guest house. A year earlier, they came with friends who were visiting from Spain. “We came to hang out with our kids and it was too fun, so we keep on coming back,” Hong says as one of her twin daughters asks if a nearby cow is a mommy. Hong smiles and adds, “Obviously, my kids love this place.”

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Chad Eatinger takes his daughter for an early morning walk. The Eatinger family has made three overnight “farmstays” to Long Dream Farm.

Chad Eatinger takes his daughter for an early morning walk. The Eatinger family has made three overnight “farmstays” to Long Dream Farm.

Farm tours will continue to be on the agenda as Long Dream Farm transitions to a nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation, which Andrew and Krista believe will help them expand research and educate the general public about “a superior—in our view—form of human-animal partnership and food production” that is small-scale and geographically distributed.

“All this space can be used in a combination of preservation, recreation, and food production,” Andrew says. “That’s kind of what we wanted to prototype with the nonprofit, to be able to have school outreach and groups coming for educational programs. The basic education is—how do animals work, and how can you interact with them? Because that’s emotionally satisfying. I think it’s therapeutic to people.”

Fredrich and Clara Abrahams hand out carrots so the farm’s tour group can feed the horses and alpaca.

Frederic and Clara Abrahams hand out carrots so the farm’s tour group can feed the horses and alpaca.

The second prong of the farm’s mission—research—takes many forms, including basic observation of animals living long, productive lives within their family groups. Andrew tells the story of a rooster that taught its offspring its own “funny” walk. Krista has observed mother-cows and grandmother-cows helping to raise calves. And then there was the story of a tiny calf that liked to hang out with a huge Scottish Highland bull.

“This tiny calf would dash underneath fences, go under gates, and he would hang out with his buddy,” Krista says. “When you’re trying to exert control, you see a bull as a very dangerous creature. But it’s like he’s a big brother, too. You don’t need to impose a vision of order when animals are organizing themselves…

“There’s a lot more going on while the animals are living their own animal life than we are taught in our picture books,” she adds. “And it’s much more complex.”

This article was updated to reflect the fact that Long Dream Farm includes several hundred acres of land for grazing in addition to the 90 acre main farm.

All photos © Joan Cusick.

Joan Cusick is a Sacramento-based reporter and documentary photographer who focuses on stories that bring generations together. She is a regular contributor to Comstock's magazine, and her photographs have also been published in Edible Sacramento, J. the Jewish Weekly, Outword, Real Weddings, and The Huffington Post. She is a member of the National Press Photographers Association, Professional Photographers of America, and the Sacramento Rainbow Chamber of Commerce. Read more >

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  1. Frances Scott
    Awesome...thank you for including links to where we can purchase to support.
    • Sherrie
      Just recently I went vegan after learning about cows being separated from their mothers. I am interested in visiting your farm as well as possibly buying your products. Can you please advise how to do both?
  2. Leslie Austin
    Doing it this way must mean your products are much more expensive than conventional farms. Are consumers willing to pay the extra? Even many of those that may be prepared to pay extra may be discouraged by the many recent exposures of "high welfare" farms where shocking cruelty has been secretly filmed.
  3. November
    Hi. This all sounds great. But your products are not organic!! Please consider going organic and you would have many lifetime customers! I am mostly vegetarian/vegan but cannot give up my raw organic cheese and butter. I am looking for a local-ish farm that does not keep their cows artificially pregnant and that does not STOP the calves from nursing and ONLY takes extra milk, after the babies have had enough. Where do you stand on EACH of those issues? Would you consider feeding your cows ONLY organic food? You would be making a huge impact on the industry, community and lives of ethically-minded, organic, health-conscious humans.....
  4. Tamara
    This is how it should be. My mother and Grandmother did exactly this. I must come visit.
    Good Luck
  5. Sandra Calderon
    This is awesome, we need to go back to the old ways. The food industry is so cruel. Government tries to box in the food industry like it does people. One box doesn't fit all, some people were meant to be doctor's and they are very good at it, others were meant to be mechanics and they are very good at it. While others are meant to be a chef and they are very good at it, but government wants to force everyone to be the same thing and this is not how it works if you want to live in harmony and peace like your farm does! God Bless you for what you are doing for these beautiful animals. People like to say cows are stupid but I have learned they are not. It's just that the industry doesn't allow them to be who they should be. Loving caring mothers and caring for their young.

    Sandra Calderon
  6. Alexandra Collard
    Thank you - I truly believe we should end the dairy industry to stop the inhumanity but farms like yours give me hope - if only all could be like you
  7. Amazing and inspiring. Thank you for this story. It made me feel that is doing a right thing supporting small dairy businesses.
  8. janie Harrison
    I wish our cows looked cleaner and brushed like the ones at Farm
    Sanctuary. I appreciate what you are doing.
  9. David Ehrman
    We admire your humane practices with your cows. We live in Los Angeles. Do any stores carry your milk here and if not is it possible to get it another way? thanks!
    David Ehrman/Thaya duBois
  10. Judith Powell
    I was so thrilled to read about your farm. After seeing on video some of the atrocities imposed on cows at some large farms, I was trying to think of how to stop milk and cheese altogether. Then I read about your family and your farm. I will only buy from you now as I think you have a website under Amazon. I am an attorney in Los Angeles, but will try to find your site and buy from you. I wish you success and thank you so much for what you are doing. Judi Powell
  11. Julie Goodrich
    Wish you were closer to where we live!! Bravo on what you’re doing!
  12. Nikola Kendis
    wow, that is really amazing. I buy manure from a local dairy farmer and it got me thinking about how unethical and sad dairy farming, even on a small, family-owned scale, seems that the only ethical way to drink dairy would be to do what Long Dream Farm is doing, and to have your own cows. In the mean time, I think that the only way to be ethical is not drink dairy at all, which sucks, because I love dairy so much T_T I wonder if goat dairy is less exploitative?
    6/3/20--Hi--I am a vegetarian who just went dairy-free after stumbling into reading an article about the dairy industry and its horrors, something I'd been trying to avoid. Your approach to humane treatment of farm animals might convince me to try your cheese (and eggs?) if you ship to Massachusetts. Thank you for putting the animals first and allowing them to lead seemingly good, violence-free lives. Hope you can keep up the ethical work and spread the practice around the world.
  14. God Bless your family. I quit drinking milk because of the cruelty to the calves after born and the mom that DOES MOURN THEIR LOSS. Also it's hard to drink milk knowing the cow it came from will be slaughtered.
    I do miss my milk. I sure wish we had a dairy farm here, like yours.
    I live in Eureka CA.
    Bless you all,
    Wanda Waters

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