ESCONDIDO — The last dairy farm in San Diego County nourishes its underground livestock just as much as its happy cows and heifers above.
Where there were once more than 100 dairy operations in San Diego County, two remain on record, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
However, The Coast News confirmed that T D Dairy in Ramona is in the process of selling its herd — leaving the hundreds of cows at Frank Konyn Dairy as the last of their kind in the area.
T D will continue to survive, though in other ways, showcasing an ability to pivot and adapt that is naturally grown in the farmers of San Diego County.
In 1962, Holland-born Frank Konyn Sr. established a dairy in the San Pasqual Valley of Escondido on 250 acres leased in an agricultural preserve through the city of San Diego.
Now, decades later, the Frank Konyn Dairy is the last family-owned, self-sustaining dairy farm in the county. It is one branch, along with Konyn Dairy Farms, San Pasqual Valley Soils (SPVS), under the Frank Konyn Dairy Inc house.
Since 1962, the farm plus dairy operation now consists of 300 acres of irrigated and dry-farmed forage. Recently it leased an additional 290 acres for cut eucalyptus production, which brings its total acreage to about 700 acres. (This is in sharp contrast to the average farm size of 4 acres in San Diego County, nearly 350 for the state and 440 nationwide.)
“[We] continue to survive through innovation, diversity and a stubborn commitment to the principles of sustainability and hard work,” said Craig Kolodge, SPVS manager of business development and sustainability.
The Frank Konyn Dairy is approaching business and stewardship a little differently.
Typical soil in the area contains less than 1 percent organic matter. Organic matter is a major indicator of soil health.
This small percentage of microbial livestock is putting in work to loosen up the soil and retain what little water and nutrients it can in San Diego County. The Frank Konyn Dairy group practices regenerative agriculture, which builds soil health.
More than 15 years ago, a pile of manure sparked a unique composting business that would become an integral part of the survival of the Konyn Dairy, which is now owned and managed by Frank Konyn Jr. By 2007, SPVS became a state-permitted composting facility, converting cow manure and recycled landscape trimmings into soil amendments for organic farming and landscapers in the county.
But the dairy doesn’t just supply this unique compost. In order to feed its massive herd, Foraging Manager Ernie Klemm and his team apply compost — some in part stemming from zoo waste — to the forage acreage at Konyn Dairy Farms.
Frank Konyn Dairy now leases about 700 acres, 300 of which are dedicated forage land to help sustain the cow’s diet. Driving through its land, which is nearby several other farms, one may notice Klemm’s fields don’t buckle in the way his neighbors do.
Locally, when it rains, some may see rain puddle and run-off fields, gardens or lawns. When soil is compacted, water has nowhere to go but out. However, when soil is healthy, water can infiltrate the soil and soak into the ground.
A one-percent increase in organic matter has the ability to increase water storage potential by more than 20,000 gallons, according to the Natural Resource Defense Council.
For six years, Klemm has land-applied locally produced compost from SPVS to increase and sustain organic matter between 4 and 6 percent on both irrigated and dry-farmed fields of Konyn Dairy Farms.
This has resulted in a “tremendous increase in water holding capacity of the amended soils” Klemm said, “although not nearly enough to offset the reduced rainfall in the area.”
“Alfalfa takes 19 to 32 inches of water to grow a harvestable crop,” Klemm explained.
The jump in water retention on Konyn Dairy Farms’ compost-amended fields allows alfalfa to be cut up to 10 times per year. Typically, without compost-amended fields, farmers can average between four to six cuttings per year. Even despite reduced rain events this year, Klemm said the dry-farmed crops are maintaining steady production.
At Konyn Dairy, forage crops are responsible for approximately 15 percent of the nearly 150 pounds of feed in the cows’ diet. (A small — but growing — percentage of feedstock to support the dairy’s young developing cows comes from recycled grains from more than a dozen local breweries, as well as discarded bakery goods and fruit pulp from local juice businesses.)
“Feed to support the dairy is the largest cost for sustaining this livestock operation in San Diego County,” Kolodge said. “The amount and cost of food needed to support quality milk production is an ongoing challenge to all dairies, especially ones located outside large, rural agricultural communities.”
“[Konyn Dairy] functions on a sustainability model that depends on diversification and attention to not only the health of the dairy cows but also the health of the local land,” Kolodge added.
Like the Konyns and many others in North County, Klemm comes from a long line of farmers.
Even though Klemm joined Konyn Dairy Farms less than a decade ago,
Konyn Sr. predicted Klemm would one day join his operation when he was only a teenager.
In the 1930s, his grandfather immigrated from Zurich, Switzerland, to Imperial County and set up a dairy farm, which he would later move to Mission Valley in San Diego County.
Then, under the name Sweet Haven Dairy, the family was forced to relocate through the process of eminent domain in 1974, eventually landing in Fresno. Today, Klemm’s cousins still operate a successful milking farm with approximately 2,000 cows.
Urban sprawl has taken bites out of the county’s agricultural land for decades and is expected to continue. While San Diego may be the eighth-largest city in the United States, its agricultural preserve remains a unique and vibrant part of the future of farming locally.
“The long-term goal of the dairy … the soils and farming operations is to continue to be a valuable resource for sustaining the values associated with the survival of local farms,” Kolodge said.
Support from the urban communities within which the farm co-exists is an essential piece to that, he said, adding that the dairy would eventually like to start making products on site for those in the community.
“We can only accomplish that with strong support from the city and local citizens committed to the survival of local agriculture,” Kolodge said
Through the San Diego County Farm Bureau, Kolodge is holding a webinar on the balance between urban and agricultural communities. For information, visit the SD Farm Bureau’s website.