On a soft and dewy winter morning in north Marin County, a lone Holstein stood facing away from an antiquated milking barn as commuters buzzed along Highway 101 just beyond the rolling, emerald green hills that characterize the North Coast’s prime dairy belt.
As she turned her head toward some visitors, a yellow ear tag crept into view, revealing her number: 101.
“One-oh-one; there’s kind of a story with her,” said Jerry “Goog” Corda, who has, along with his family, run Lester Corda & Sons Dairy since 1975. “She got kind of sick when she was young…”
Due to the special care she received as a calf and her serendipitous tag – matching the highway that at one time ferried traffic past as many as 50 dairies between the Golden Gate Bridge and Petaluma – 101 is a favorite within the sprawling, 1,100-acre Corda Ranch that straddles the Sonoma-Marin county line.
And so on this Jan. 17 morning, five days after the last of the dairy’s milking cows were loaded up for sale at the Petaluma Livestock Auction Yard following one final milking, 101 lingered – a lone reminder of the way things were on a ranch that at one time carried on more than 130 years of family tradition.
“It’s something that’s been in our blood forever,” Goog said, pointing to his great-grandfather, Joseph Corda, who was also in the business. “A Corda milked his first cow here in 1884, and we were the last Cordas to milk a cow in 2022. That’s a pretty long stretch.”
The exodus of the Corda Dairy from the region’s food shed is just the latest example of the industry’s dwindling presence in Sonoma and Marin counties, where the number of dairies has fallen to less than 70 from nearly 300 in the past half-century.
You don’t have to be a dairyman to see it. At one time, Highway 101 commuters could spot 50 dairy operations in the 30-mile stretch between Petaluma and the Golden Gate Bridge. The Corda Dairy was the last of them.
There are a hundred reasons a dairy might close, said Brian Dolcini, president of the Marin County Farm Bureau. Maybe there’s no next generation to pass on the family business. Maybe a dairy’s property value was such that selling just made sense. Maybe it was the drought, or a failure to modernize.
For Lester Corda & Sons Dairy, it was the hay.
“It was a financial decision, basically,” Goog said, adding that the escalating cost of hay, driven in part by the local impacts of drought, had made turning a profit nearly impossible. “When you think about it, we’re one of the few entities that buys retail and sells wholesale.”
At the ranch two weeks ago, Goog offered a quick tour of the facilities, all of which are located on the Marin County side of the property. Off to the east, across a vast plain, traffic whirred quietly along Highway 116. The Petaluma River snakes nearby, as does the once-disputed path of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit commuter train, which for years cut off easy, regular access to part of the Corda herd.
That dispute is in the past, much like the old milking barn, and even the more modern, 10-stall setup nearby with its hoses and drains and vacuum pumps.
At one time, the conventional dairy operation here was home to 300 head of cattle producing 800 to 1,000 gallons of fresh milk each day.
As Goog stood beside a stainless steel, self-cleaning tank – the symbol of a modern dairy – he explained how a milk truck would pull alongside the building and retrieve the day’s offering before making its way, most recently, to the Petaluma Creamery in downtown Petaluma.
“Not hearing the sound of that vacuum pump any more is going to be the sad part,” he said. “It’s something that went on every day for – for as long as I can remember.”
The shuttering of the Corda Dairy, with its conspicuous place along the Highway 101 corridor, marks another blow for a reeling industry, beset not just by rising costs and dwindling water supplies, but by the rise of non-dairy alternatives and growing environmental pushback against commercial dairy farming.
Twenty miles west, at Point Reyes National Seashore, environmental groups have targeted generations of dairy ranching, seeking to return the park to a more natural state, protect existing Tule elk populations and decrease climate change-causing methane emissions – a common concern among those who see no future for the industry.
Jack Gescheidt, the founder of Marin County-based TreeSpirit Project, which has kept a critical eye on North Coast dairy for years, said the dwindling dairy industry is a positive sign of the times.
“I understand the nostalgia for cows and dairies, and people’s sadness when they close, but the world has changed dramatically,” Gescheidt said. “Today’s human population can’t keep consuming milk products and meat at the rate we have for decades – if you believe in science, and thus our climate crisis.”
Sonoma County Farm Bureau CEO Tawny Tesconi, a leading local voice against the dairy alternatives sector, including Petaluma-based Miyokos Creamery, called the trend of dwindling conventional dairies “troubling,” saying that if not for local, accessible processors Petaluma Creamery, Clover Sonoma and Straus Creamery, the threats to local dairy would be more grave.
“We’re fortunate to have processing. But we need to find a way to maintain our dairies,” Tesconi said. “It really is a passion to be in the dairy industry. I don’t know that there’s a more intense farming operation in our county than dairy.”
Goog, a current Marin County Farm Bureau member and two-time past president, recalls dairy work starting at 2 a.m. in decades past. A longtime dairy advocate who has hosted tours of his property for Oakland students and who even a half decade ago had earned a lifetime achievement award from the Marin County Board of Supervisors, Goog said he’s not sure what will come next for the Corda Ranch – but he and his brother, Tom Corda, would like to see it kept in agriculture. And he’d like to stay involved in the regional foodshed.
He wouldn’t close the door on some future generation bringing back dairy cows, or getting those vacuum pumps running again. But it won’t happen right now.
For Dolcini, who lamented the drought-related loss of the McClure Dairy at Point Reyes, losing dairy farmers with decades of experience and advocacy is a heavy loss.
“The worst part about it is you don’t replace the Bob McClures, and you can’t replace the Goog Cordas,” Dolcini said. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”