Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Alexandre Family Farm

Alexandre Family Farm(opens in new window) in Crescent City, CA is America’s first certified organic regenerative dairy farm. The journey to that started about 29 years ago when Blake and Stephanie Alexandre learned about the importance of organic matter for the health of the soil. Five years later they switched their farm’s form of production to an organic model.

Blake says, “I grew up here on the north coast of California. My great-grandfather started a farm in Ferndale 100 years ago that our son manages as 5th generation on that dairy today. We’ve been grazing cows there for a lot of years, way before we were ‘organic.’ So we had been leaning on grass and pastures. But 28 years ago, when we got into organics and understanding the soil, is when we really started to learn about how to build organic matter and how to appropriately graze and grow tall grass, and graze it off rapidly [Holistic Management]. So all of that has been part of our world, and we just kept honing this skill and getting better and better at it. And then all of a sudden in the last few years, along comes this new word called “regenerative” and it was something that we immediately embraced and became early adopters of. We started working with two groups who were creating certificate programs [Savory Verified Land to Market(opens in new window) and Regenerative Organic Certified(opens in new window)]. We were a pilot farm for both of them at least three years ago and that’s how we became America’s first certified organic regenerative farm.”

Stephanie adds, “Early on . . . Blake became a student of Gary Zimmer by reading a book called “The Biological Farmer(opens in new window).” That really opened Blake’s eyes and then he became a soil and grass enthusiast, and he would work with John Snider, our agronomist—who a lot of people in the Chico State arena know, organic dairymen all work with him. But we started working with him in ’92 and finding those grasses that do well in our climate so that we can concentrate on being grass-based dairy farmers.”

Blake and Stephanie Alexandre and their family currently manage around 5000 acres and 4500 cows on multiple properties in Del Norte and Humboldt counties plus they grow hay for additional feed in Modoc County. They produce A2/A2(opens in new window) milk, cream and yogurt and pasture-raised eggs. 

 cows grazing in a pasture

Regenerative Practices Used on the Farm

The heart of their approach to regenerative farming is planned grazing of both their cows and chickens and holistic management that places a premium on the health of the grasslands that support the animals. Integral to that is supporting the soil that feeds the grass. Utilizing the cows own manure was an important first step in that as was composting. They have also added in cover cropping and green manure crops, and rarely till (only for specific rehabilitative purposes).

Stephanie: “Something that really benefited us was when we did this huge irrigation project with Pacific Power in 1994. It was a low interest financing loan and we replaced all our irrigation pumps, and in doing so we also put new pipeline in that enabled our nutrient water from our manure lagoon to be irrigated on all of our fields. And this was even before we were organic. This is a natural amendment source that now we put in all our contiguous 2500 or more acres around our farm and we apply that to our other farms as well. In doing so we could always see the benefit to our grasses.”

“That was one thing we did. The number one thing that everybody should be doing is composting. When you are composting, you’re using any natural nutrients that you can get. That could be waste products from restaurants. For us, it’s manure but we also use fish waste from the local fisheries and the bedding that we use for our calves and our maternity barn which is wood shavings from a local lumber mill. And we use anything else that naturally needs to be composted–maybe a dead animal, a dead chicken, a dead calf or something that unfortunately happens on the farm level. So we’re going to compost all that and turn it and temperature it—in order to call it compost in the organic world we do need to document time and temperature. That is beautiful food for the soil system. The soil system is the gut of the plant. It needs to be alive and well. Just like people, if they’re paying attention to their health, it needs to start in the gut.”

Blake: “We use cover crops and green manure crops primarily as we’re taking over some new land that we recently leased or purchased and we’re bringing it from a conventional management system to what we’re trying to do. We need to wake up that soil and we need to build the microbiology back. We’ll use and lean on a lot of our compost and nutrient water (manure water)—we get that out there. And the green manure and cover cropping has been part of that process in healing the soil. Sometimes we’ll do that for 2-3 years, multiple seasons per year. And then we can really change the neighborhood fast, if you will, building that organic matter!”

“Typically in our permanent pasture setting, with our milking cows, heifers and dry cows, we don’t do a lot of farming and tilling. But we have created what we call a 3-X treatment where, say, if it’s the lower 10-20% of our ranch that needs a bit of a facelift, what we’ll do is graze it down real hard, and then we’ll “aerway” it (vertical tillage equipment), towing a harrow behind it. That’s scratching it up—and exposing some soil, and then we can broadcast some seed over that with a simple process of using a 4-wheeler and some new seed. And after that, we’ll apply compost and then water it all up or let the rain do it. That’s what we primarily do, we’re just kind of lifting our pastures as we see fit as much as we can when needed every year.”

elk in the pasture

As stewards of the land they operate on, the Alexandre family has also put effort into caring for the wetlands, riparian zones, and land surrounding the part they actively farm. The result can be seen in the 240 species of birds (including rare bald eagles and once endangered Aleutian Geese) that nest and stop on their migratory journeys on land the Alexandres help preserve. A particular delight is that in 2009 a herd of Roosevelt Elk crossed the Smith River onto their property. There are currently about 200 of them—and they do compete with the cows for the grass!

Blake: “Absolutely! They are absolutely here competing for the grass. We welcome that. We accept that. . . We really enjoy them! We look at it as tithing to nature.”

Stephanie: “They are beautiful. One day we were coming home from church, a couple of years ago, and our daughter Vanessa who runs the dairy said, “Aghh, the elk are in the field I was going to move the cows to!” But we still moved them to that part of the rotation because they’re always in and out. The Elk seem to always know where the best feed is and where we’re grazing next.”

Blake: “I’d also like to point out that they’re one of those indicator species, much like the American bison, that have been part of a regenerative system for thousands of years. We’re here to learn from them—to try to rethink everything from the industrial revolution in the last 7 to-8 decades that’s been taking us in one direction. I think we need to turn around and look behind us and see what great-grandpa used to do that worked and apply that knowledge to the understanding that we have today to our farms and to our world one acre at a time. Ultimately, it’s paying attention to God’s system, and that natural process is really what builds yields and profitability.”

Profitable Benefits from Regenerative Approaches

Blake: “We knew that organic matter would ultimately grow us more yield and save us more water and we’ve seen that happen as our organic matter on this ranch here that was 2-3% organic matter 28 years ago. Today it’s more like 8-15%. So we have a lot more water in the soil, water holding capacity, with nutrients more available. And it literally saves us money on irrigation during the five months of dry season.”

It’s also been extremely helpful from both a carbon sequestration and marketing point of view.

“It’s going well,” Blake says. “‘Regenerative’ is a term that most consumers are somewhat aware of. I guess I would simply define it to people who might be hearing it for the first time as what it means to me—that we’re regenerating soil as opposed to degenerating soil. And, literally, I think of it as our ranch getting taller every decade by an inch because we’ve built good organic matter into the soil. And that organic matter is 56-57% carbon so that’s a really beautiful story that we can tell—that we’re sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere and making it a long-term permanent part of our ranch . . . Our tests show that we’re sequestering a ton and a half per acre on the low end, and up to 3 ½ tons per acre would be the high that I’ve seen. Plus there is a whole other footprint with tentacles that go out from other things that we do or don’t do that also improve our carbon footprint as well. It’s a complex equation ultimately, it depends on how deep you want to keep looking.” 

The Alexandres also breed cows for the A2 gene (the same as what is found in human breast milk) to produce dairy products that are much more digestible. It’s part of their commitment to gut health and improving people’s relationship to the food they eat. They have found a market for their A2/A2 products but the fact that their dairy is regenerative has made their marketing far more successful.

Blake: “We started our own dairy brand and label about five years ago. And primarily we were the first A2/A2 organic milk supply available in the store. And marketing that has been quite the uphill battle. We totally enjoy telling that story and educating consumers and being part of that new category, if you will. Then along comes this regenerative label and, most recently for us—we were certified in January—and it’s been a lot easier to tell the regenerative story! People already have an awareness, most brands have tried to work that into their sustainability department, and there’s just a tremendous buzz about it. That’s really fun for us. Because now we’re being asked to talk in regards to that and we get to talk about everything all at once.”

“I also think that it is important that consumers understand that all this comes with extra effort. Not extra equipment, extra effort. There are lower yields in the beginning and things build over time and progress over time. Consumers need to understand that we’re trying to give them the best products that we possibly can coming off of the most healthy soils that we can possibly create. And it might cost more and it does cost more. And we’ve had, I think, a wonderful response from consumers. We don’t feel a big push back on price. Ultimately, as we get the price right, we get rewarded for what we’re doing. It’s truly what makes our family operation here, our brand, sustainable. We can’t be sustainable if we can’t be profitable and pay our bills.”

Stephanie: “Good food is going to taste better and organic regenerative is going to taste better and be better for you. Our whole food system—when people go towards cheap food and industrial models and things like that—there’s a cost to the healthcare in America. The processed food is costing the healthcare in America. So we’re convincing people to go back to the farm instead of the pharmacy. And pay that extra for something better that is better for you, too, and in the long run not only is it better for the farmer but it’s better for their own personal health, too.” 

Blake: “And better for the community! And better for the local economy and the ecology and, ultimately, we’re sequestering carbon and it's better for the planet. It’s part of the healing process to get greenhouse gasses turned in the other direction. So it’s really exciting to be part of that and to see how it plays out right here on the ground and on the farm. It’s just a very positive experience and it’s exciting that we’re getting attention for that.”

Blake holding pasture soil

Advice for others

Stephanie: Do no harm to your soil. That’s part of the regenerative practice. Compost everything you can. And find a niche market! Don’t compete for bottom dollar. Have your community get to know that you’re their local farmer. Hopefully, you’re next to a city and close by. People want to know where their food comes from. That’s a method for surviving. One of the things I wanted to add to this conversation is to highlight special things about your farm. For us there are many things but one of my favorites is that when our kids were really little we started fencing off the riparian zone and planting trees. The kids don’t even remember this activity but they see the pictures. And now today 18-20 years later, we’re walking in that area, we take our family picture there, because there’s so much heart and soul in that progress. And it relates to everything that’s going on—the genetics that have changed on our farm, the soil, the changing grasses as we learned, and the beautification of the riparian zones. And “build it and they will come.” Now we have Coho salmon flowing though those streams. We have a bald eagle’s nest in the corner of our ranch and Roosevelt elk and frogs. And we highlight those stories, we tell those stories. People want to know what the farmer is doing. Now on our social media, we’re doing a composting series—how we do it and what we do. And we’re getting a lot of hits on that because people want to know. It’s something different. It’s not something they’re reading in their New York Times or San Francisco Chronicle.”

Blake: “My advice to other farmers would be to come and compost. It doesn’t matter if you just have one garden bed hanging out your window in your apartment in the city. Start a little composting and feed the soil and then pay attention to the biology. Learn about the bacteria and fungus and the protozoa and nematodes and microarthropods and earthworms and all their little friends.”

Stephanie: “And on that, save those eggshells for calcium! I think I learned that from your own Cindy Daley. All nutrients ride on the back of calcium.”

Blake: “It doesn’t matter what level or what scale you’re composting at. It’s absolutely what our planet needs and what the system should be doing. Recycling nutrients in that direction is the right move.”

The Alexandres invite people to visit their farm to learn more(opens in new window).