By MARG JACKSON
With just 100 chickens running around the property a few years ago, the family-owned and operated Stueve Organic Family Farms on Bentley Road outside Oakdale has seen that number explode to 30,000. And along with it, the business has branched out with sales of organic eggs, pasture raised organic beef, cheese and milk.
“We have almonds, too, but the Claribel and Bentley location is the main farm,” explained Jake Townsend, a Stueve son-in-law who handles the outside sales portion of the family business.
With patriarch Lloyd Stueve, the operation also includes sons Gage and Guy along with Townsend. The Stueve Organic operation outside Oakdale covers about 850 acres.
“We have pasture-raised high quality chickens,” Townsend explained, which leads to the popular Stueve organic eggs. “We started with 100 birds and now we have 30,000.
“We are doing a really good job with maintaining the chickens.”
The organic pasture raised arrangement allows the chickens to roam on pesticide-free land, in the pasture, alongside the cows, their movements unrestricted.
The dairy, which has roughly three dozen employees, has to adhere to strict guidelines to maintain the ‘organic’ standing.
“We go through a third party inspector, they follow the National Organic Procedures, NOP, to make sure we are doing the things we should be doing,” Townsend explained. “They come on our property to make sure, they hold you accountable for what the law says; it is a process like anything.”
Adding that the farm has been certified organic “for a couple of decades now,” Townsend said it’s not necessarily easy to maintain that status but the family is committed to it, since they feel it is better for the overall health of the animals and, ultimately, their customers.
Stueve organic eggs are available in a wide-ranging area, from Colorado to Arizona, Mexico to Nevada and multiple locations in California.
“I just got back from Denver,” Townsend said of a recent sales trip. “Basically west of the Mississippi, that’s where we’re going to be.”
Future plans include selling their beef locally with Save Mart and the eggs are already in stores such as Whole Foods, O’Brien’s Market, Andronico’s in San Francisco and more.
As far as the family dynamic, Townsend said that is unique as well, with a son in-law being accepted as a major player in the business.
His wife, Betsy, is a younger sister to oldest brother Gage and Guy.
“I married into the family in 2006 and moved to Oakdale, I met my wife down south,” Townsend said. “My involvement with the farm has been the last four years.”
Prior to the sales of organic farm products, Townsend was a firefighter. He got laid off from that job and said while it’s difficult to replace that, he has found some correlation between the two careers in that each day brings new challenges.
“It’s never the same,” Townsend said of his work with the organic dairy operation. “It’s evolving, dynamic, ever-changing, hard work and customer service.”
He also said it requires attention to detail.
“There’s a lot of thinking on your feet, being a good manager,” he said.
Family patriarch Lloyd Stueve remains a constant presence – “still a voice” – Townsend said, contributing to the business while leaving the day to day operations to sons Gage and Guy and son-in-law Townsend.
“If there’s a farm tour, he is there with the horses and he’s ready to go,” Townsend added of Lloyd hitching up the famous Stueve wagon, well-known around the Central Valley. “We do quite a few farm tours, from schools to different companies, the San Francisco Chronicle came out, we had a USC student that came out, a film major that was doing a project.”
At the business, Guy oversees the dairy and does all the farming; Gage is on the financial side, handling the banking and forecasting milk prices and keeping the numbers straight. Gage also recently started a milk co-op, Organic West, in Ripon with a couple of partners.
“I handle 100 percent of the chickens, from the operation to sales to marketing,” noted Townsend. “Now I’ve also taken on the beef sales, cheese sales and milk sales along with eggs sales.”
His recent trip to Denver focused on cheese sales, while the operation is also proud to be the second rated organic egg producer in the U.S., as determined by the Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit organization that regulates organic operations.
“We work really, really well together, being an in-law and part of a business could be tough but we complement each other,” explained Townsend. “My hand in the business is as equal as Gage and Guy; we just have our own part of the business we control.”
Hailed as the first biodynamic farm in the United States, which focuses on a holistic, ethical and ecological approach to raising and treating the farm animals, Townsend said the entire family works hard to maintain the integrity of the products and the viability of the farm.
“It’s in our blood, we’re not going to quit. The next five years you will see a huge difference, more and more retailers steering clear from conventional products and focusing on animal welfare, animal health,” Townsend said. “They want it to be a healthy product; they want transparency from the farms they buy from.”