Farming Better Through Partnership

“We are constantly asking ourselves—how can we do our best?” says Jana McClelland. Constant evolution, learning, and care for the land are at the heart of success for McClelland Dairy. It is reflected in day-to-day operations, as well as the transition of the farm from father to daughter through partnership.

Jana is the third generation of McClellands farming in Sonoma County, California—her Dad’s parents bought the farm in Petaluma in the 1960s. Today, Jana runs the farm in close partnership with her parents, George and Dora. Jana takes the lead on milking and managing the cows and managing the team while George leads on the silage, pasture management and compost. Jana says, “my parents are not ready to retire, this is a good thing. I am forever learning more from them and we balance each other out.”

Jana knew she wanted to go back to the farm since high school, when she did a Future Farmers of America project on creek restoration. When Jana returned home from Cal Poly, she jumped right in, “No break! Not even one day,” says Jana. Looking back, she would consider working someplace else before coming back to the farm, “to gain new perspectives, from a different type of business or industry.”

Her parents transition planning started with increasing cow numbers so there were options for both Jana and her brother. They eventually set up Jana’s brother with his own ranch nearby. They worked with a family planner, an attorney and an accountant to create a transition plan. Jana recommends, “Put it all on paper—even if you talk a lot, there’s a difference to putting it down. It’s important to write down both immediate goals and then the goals further down the road. The longer term goals may seem really far out, but you blink and it’s here.”

On the successful transition of the farm from one generation to the next, Jana has this advice: “Keep the end in mind–everyone needs to know how to get out of the partnership if needed. And, remember that different generations handle things differently, it’s not bad or good but life experience is just different. Communication, and dealing with team members, is different. We’re used to everything moving more quickly with technology, but we also need down time. The next generation has different ideas of what’s possible.”

Jana’s family knows that a successful future for the farm is about more than the plans on paper—it is also about caring for the land. In 2003 they transitioned to organic and in 2011 they joined Organic Valley Cooperative. “We really started seeing that healthier soil meant healthier cows,” says Jana. “We saw small changes making a big impact, and started doing more, evolving more. The small changes began to all click together. We started rotational grazing and no-till seeding. We’ve now gotten almost completely away from tilling, because it’s all about the worms. My Dad’s particularly fond of the worms and will say, ‘don’t break up the party.’ They do all the work for us.”

“Farmers love the land, it’s time to quantify the benefits they are providing,” Jana says. These benefits are starting to be recognized through California’s Healthy Soils Initiative. Working with Organic Valley, the McClellands received funds from the grant program for new creek restoration plantings and compost application on pastures. These are considered “carbon farming” practices, because they increase carbon storage in the soil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

As Jessica Luhning, Organic Valley sustainability manager, says, “Many of our farmers are already implementing practices that remove excess carbon from the atmosphere and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We see firsthand the benefits carbon farming brings to soil health, water quality and quantity, on-farm biodiversity and long-term farm viability. Organic livestock farmers are natural leaders in the carbon farming movement and we, our farmers and our business, believe in being part of the solution.”

As Jana says, “We all need to do our part for the planet. They don’t make any more land, and if you take care of it, it takes care of you.”

Visit Rogue Farm Corps’ resources page for more information on farm transfer.

by Ashley Rood

Photo by David Nevala for Organic Valley