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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.