As our road trip continued across the Southwest the scenes had a similar theme – windmills, scattered cow herds browsing on sparse winter pastures, and trains rumbling across the base of hills for miles. Some of those trains had as many as five engine cars.
The road was lined with semi-tractor trailers locked in at the legal speed limit of 75 miles per hour. Wind-tattered billboard signs with only a hint of what they were advertising remained from a time when road trips were more common. Silver-haired drivers commandeering their 5th wheel recreational vehicles were a common sight as retirees headed for warm weather in their transportable dwellings.
I searched for a story along the way by contacting farms through their websites, to see if I could schedule an interview. De Smet Dairy in Bosque Farms, New Mexico, was more than happy to oblige. They are New Mexico’s only Grade A dairy farm that doubles as a bottling facility for raw milk as well as pasteurized non-homogenized milk and yogurt. New Mexico is a retail raw-milk state, meaning it’s legal to sell raw milk on the shelf. The cows at De Smet dairy are grass-fed year-round, and grazing-based during the growing season.
I wondered if we’d found it as Wendy and I drove past the dairy. It was nothing like a Wisconsin dairy farm. We unknowingly wound our way around the back of the farm, where a group of Jersey cattle were browsing pasture remains and eating hay from a portable bunk feeder. I called Mike De Smet; he verified it was the place. So we drove around and met him at the parlor-bottling facility.
It didn’t take long to realize that De Smet and his wife, Erica De Smet, are not afraid of a challenge. They maintain a 125-acre grass-based dairy where they milk 50 cows once each day to produce their dairy products. Mike De Smet did a tremendous amount of self-driven learning to arrive where he is today. Their farm is located next to a village of residential homes in the town of Bosque Farms. The couple owns and resides in one of those homes directly across from their farm property.
The marriage of farm and village is a happy one. The residents enjoy the farm’s presence; they responded positively when the De Smets decided to market their own dairy products. In the early days they were selling milk on weekends at a local farmers market. Folks would wait in line to buy it; the demand outpaced production. They now have a cooler in their facility that stores milk and yogurt products along with eggs from their layer hens. It’s a self-serve system with customers paying for what they take on an honor system.
De Smet said he’s looking forward to adding cheese curds to his product line this spring. He made that decision after a recent trip to Wisconsin. Cheese curds are unheard of in New Mexico but he feels they will be a real hit. He plans on adding a southwestern flair to them with red and green chilies.
He worked hard to produce a yogurt his customers are happy with. He says they desire an earthy natural taste with the benefits of full fat. He didn’t want additives in his yogurt, which made obtaining the right consistency a challenge. He finally discovered Bacillus Bulgaricus starter and the problem was solved. It’s a cream top yogurt with a distinctive fat layer because they don’t homogenize the product.
The concept of milking once each day has been a positive move since they started the practice five years ago. It has huge lifestyle benefits and works well for niche dairy producers. But it wasn’t easy to pull the trigger on the decision. De Smet laughed at how he worried that the cows would respond poorly to the switch – but there was never any negative backlash. He’s a soft-hearted dairy producer who loves his cows. He says when a cow needs to be shipped, he puts her in the pen but can’t be around when the trucker comes.
The 125-acre farm is flat. De Smet told me it’s laser-leveled at a slight slope. That’s to accommodate the method of irrigation used in the Bosque Farms area. As landowners the De Smets are granted a certain amount of water rights based on their acreage. Surface water is managed in districts along the Rio Grande basin and allotted to farmers. Snow melt provides a big percentage of what’s available. Droughts in the region affect the availability of water; that’s particularly true when Colorado is dry. Large ditches run along the edge of the farm with water allocated to fields by opening ports along the ditch.
By experimenting with different seed mixes De Smet hopes to increase the soil health of his farm while providing grazing at the same time. He has moved to using a no-till drill for nearly all his planting. His goal is to never have bare soil on the farm.
The De Smet Dairy was a great way to round out the farm-visit portion of our road trip to Palm Springs. The young couple’s courage and entrepreneurial skills have kept them thriving in a rapidly changing dairy industry. It was an honor to spend time learning about their lives.