Last Lakeside dairy sells its cows

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It is a case of good news and bad news for the Van Ommering Dairy in the El Monte Valley.

Bad news first: the last dairy in Lakeside is no longer milking cows for commercial purposes. The good news? The local business icon is not going anywhere.

It is a case of good news and bad news for the Van Ommering Dairy in the El Monte Valley.

Bad news first: the last dairy in Lakeside is no longer milking cows for commercial purposes. The good news? The local business icon is not going anywhere.

The dairy was established by Gerrit and Gerry Van Ommering in 1959. The couple had emigrated from the Netherlands as newlyweds six years earlier. Though neither initially spoke a word of English, the couple made their way to Lakeside and, in 1955, purchased 59 cows from another local dairyman. The Van Ommerings bought the current ranch site four years later.

Lakeside has a rich dairy history. According to “Lakeside Dairies 1886-2008” (published by the Lakeside Historical Society), some 155 dairies have been documented in the area. While many operated for only a few years, a few lasted for decades. When the Van Ommerings arrived on the scene, there were six dairies left in Lakeside (and about 130 across the county – with only three now remaining).

Dairy farming is a tough business, operating 24 hours a day, every day throughout the year. It is often a family business. Gerrit and Gerry had four children on their ranch – two sons and two daughters. When the older couple passed away, the brothers took over the operation. But recently, one brother has decided to opt out of the business, leaving Dave Van Ommering and his wife Brenda to run the dairy themselves.

The decision to end milk production was neither quick nor easy. The pressures that influenced the decision were literally on a global scale. Simply put: milk prices are down and feed prices are up, resulting in an untenable business situation.

“When my mom and dad started, you could buy a milk cow and make money,” said Dave Van Ommering. That all changed about ten years ago, when Europe removed their milk quota caps and Australia started making milk powder. “Ninety-five percent of (Australia’s) milk goes into powder, so you take the water out of milk and you can ship the powder all over the world.”

The powder can be used for everything that you might use milk for, including re-constituting it as milk.

“Moving forward to 2015, ’16, ’17 – there’s too much milk and the price has gone down,” said Dave. “In our specific market in Southern California, we buy our feed from the Imperial Valley. The Chinese are buying alfalfa there because they want to get their dairy industry going. The price went way up, so it put us at a huge competitive disadvantage, because the milk price is low and the hay price is high.”

The economics do not look to be changing any time soon.

“We decided in March (2018) that we weren’t going to milk cows anymore,” said Dave.

They sold off 100 cows this past May 3.

 “We just didn’t have the stomach for it,” Dave said, with disappointment clearly in his voice. “We just didn’t see a future to keep milking cows.”

There are still two dairies left in San Diego County: in San Pasqual and in Ramona. It appears both will be staying in the business for the time being, but they get their feed from the Imperial Valley as well.

However, both of these dairies have more cows that the Van Ommerings did, so they may be in a better position to weather the milk storm.

“Now, down the line we may be able to go back and do it,” Dave said, considering the prospect of reopening the dairy operation. At that point, the dairy would probably go into milk processing and eventually even make cheese on the farm.

The couple has been talking about opening a cheese creamery for the past few years. Ironically, a week after the Van Ommerings decided to sell their cows, the County granted them the permit to build the creamery. Because of the timing and other family considerations, they decided to put the cheese idea on hold for a year and then reevaluate the possibility.

“That gives us some breathing room and time to figure out what is next as far as the creamery is concerned,” said Dave.

So what is the future of the farm?

“We would love to stay here,” Dave said without hesitation. “We love this area. I grew up in Lakeside, our kids grew up here.”

The dairy is in a state of transition right now, with many decisions yet to be made. The Van Ommerings do not take such decisions lightly, not only because it is their livelihood, but also because they are aware of the affection and support they have in the community.

“I think what we would like to say, first of all, is thank you,” said Brenda. “We don’t want the community to feel sorry for us, but we do want to encourage them to continue supporting us.” The couple wants Lakeside to know they are not going anywhere. They will continue to honor their arrangements and partnerships. But there will be some disappointment. When the word got out about possible cheese production, the excitement shot through Lakeside like an electric current.

“That’s something we kind of had to work through,” said Brenda, “the failure of not getting to that step after promoting it [the creamery] for several years and having to say, ‘nope, it’s just not the right time for that,’ and now seeing what doors are opening rather than looking at the ones that are closing.”

The saving grace for the Lakeside dairy may be its “agri-tourism” component: the dairy tours (now “farm” tours), the Christmas trees, and most importantly, the pumpkin patch.

“We believe that that will sustain us moving forward,” said Dave. “We see that as our future.”

But the vision for what the diary could be is only growing.

 “Our vision for next year is to start being open throughout the year,” said Brenda. “We want people to come here and feel that this is a safe place for them, even beyond the education part of it. It’s a place for families, it’s a place for nostalgia, a place where you can come and have a cup of coffee and watch your child play and spend an hour or two. And you can come back next week or next month.”

Another consideration is monthly festivals, which might spread out the crowds that arrive for their pumpkin patch. Other possibilities included event gathering, family reunions, corporate events – the list goes on. Fewer cows means more time for the family to plan and prepare for new programs.

“We’re excited about it,” said Brenda of the future. “We’ve kind of mourned the ‘no more dairy’ thing, but it is going to change the whole dairy tour season and what that’s going to look like.”

Another change will be in the name of the business. “We’re looking at renaming it ‘Van Ommering Family Farms’ and encompassing all of agriculture.”

As for the future of the dairy, Brenda reports her 13-year-old daughter, the youngest of their three children, may be the future of the business.

“She’s so into all of this,” said Brenda. “She likes the people aspect, the business aspect, and coming up with ideas.”

The couple’s two older boys have different plans, but their involvement in the family business is still a possibility down the line.

Dave and Brenda Van Ommering said they have truly enjoyed their work and business, but times have changed and the couple must change with them.

Change is a challenge and can be painful, but the Van Ommerings have great plans and a solid history to sustain them. Things may be a little different the next time you visit them, but the important thing is that you can still visit them.

8 COMMENTS

  1. How about this idea? We have
    How about this idea? We have so many fire-prone areas in the east county. Turn from cows to goats. Hire them out in herds to neighborhoods to reduce fire fuels. Milk the goats and make your cheese. No cost to feed them! Supervisor Jacob are you listening? Set aside some county funds to grant to neighborhoods to help pay for this venture. Someone can run the numbers on cost savings between destroyed homes and firefighting costs. We need to start thinking outside of the box.

  2. The Dairy had been a Big ,
    The Dairy had been a Big , no a huge part of our lives. Since My Husband and I decided to move to Lakeside to raise our Family we followed my parents out to East county 21 years ago. We will always have a deep appreciation for the Van Ommerings . Oma , Dave , Brenda and the Family always have had a open door that has a hospitality that has no second always showed great Friendliness and true convection for the Dairy . My Mother and Father have now Pasted as For Gerry and her Husband but in my Moms final years with her struggle from MS her life was so much More enriched with the farm. My Moms dream was always to live on a farm not realizing when they chose to come put to Lakeside her life would be headed toward that horrible desease ,So when we started our preschool trips out to the Dairy she was so so happy watching our four Children, her four grandchildren really gaining knowledge and an appreciation for what the Van Ommerings have been able to keep alive for us and the rest on our community goes without saying You Guys have been a blessing to us We all Love You and will support. You as long as we are Breathing here on earth and beyond God willing.
    Thanks for all ypur Hard work and we will be there for all of the festivities you offer. Love From the Van Burens and Thanks so much❤️

  3. I’m 67 years old raised in EL
    I’m 67 years old raised in EL Cajon an it saddens me when a part of History is gone ,My Mother still lives in El Cajon, so much has changed from when I remember it, I keep in touch with people I know an am in contact with by FB , moved to Denver in 1999 , I will put this notice in the Dairy Farm from the Lakeside History socity book. Gary in Denver