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Dairy where Flo the Cow lived will be no more

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Dairy where Flo the Cow lived will be no more

Manteca students visit a dairy south of town.

Bulletin file photo/

POSTED August 5, 2013 1:09 a.m.

Melvin Luiz is ready to throw in the towel. Like several dairy farmers in the area, the Manteca High School graduate is giving up the family business that his parents started several decades ago south of the Highway 120 Bypass.

Before the end of the year, the 40-acre family farm where he was born and raised will soon be replaced by a new residential development.

“It’s a very tough – very, very tough business, not like it was 15 years go,” said Luiz who, as the only child of his parents – Melvin Sr. and wife Mary – had to singlehandedly take over the family’s livelihood after his father died. His 88-year-old mom lived at the family farm until recently when she had to move in with her son and his family in Modesto due to illness.

After his divorce from his first marriage, Luiz moved to Modesto to be close to his twin daughters but still came to Manteca every day without fail to take care of business at the dairy. His daughters did the same thing, feeding the cows until they graduated from college and had their own families.

“You’re married to those cows. I remember my dad telling me that years ago,” said Luiz laughing. He said he did not comprehend what his father was trying to say at that time, but over the years he realized what he actually meant.

“You can do everything right in the business and still not make it,” said the grandfather of five. That’s because there are so many factors that are beyond your control as a dairy farmer, he said. “You can take care of your cows, do everything the right way the best way you can and have good crops and still not make it because you don’t have control over some aspects of the business.”

The cost of repairs for the tractors goes up, and the price of milk seems to go up one day and down the next, making it “awfully hard” to project next year’s expenses because you don’t know what the milk price will be the next year, he said.

He was able to keep the family dairy afloat “because I’m small and I do a lot of the work myself, although I have one or two employees. You try to cut every corner you can,” Luiz said, adding “a little bit of luck” helped him, too.

But it’s grueling work. “For me, it’s seven days a week, 365 days a year – lot of worries, lot of stress,” said Luiz who starts his work day before the sun is even awake on the eastern horizon.

“Dairy business, big or small, is a tough business right now because you don’t really have control of what you’re being paid for your product; no control for what you have to feed to the cows, and all the other stuff – fertilizer, diesel. If they go up, you still got to pay them. If the price (of milk) goes down, you really don’t have control,” he said.

Normally, the business owner passes on the extra costs or losses to the consumer. But in the dairy business, “you don’t have a way to pass it on. You can absorb it for a little while but you can’t keep it up year after year. It’s your whole livelihood.”

One can’t stay in the business “just to pay the bills and still lose money every single month,” Luiz said. So the only thing left to do is to get out of it, he said.

His twin daughters Melissa and Kristy, as well as their husbands were interested in continuing on the family dairy business.

“They wanted to take over but they do much better in their jobs. They’ve got retirement benefits, their 401(K). In the dairy business, there’s nothing. It’s working for yourself,” said Luiz.

Son-in-law Michael works for the City of Modesto in the maintenance department. Daughter Melissa is now a nurse at Memorial Hospital in Modesto. Daughter Kristy Navarro works for a credit union.

“They loved it (working at the dairy),” Luis said of his two daughters. “They miss it. But it’s a hard job.”

Having everyone in the family involved in the farm was about the only good thing coming out of the dairy farm.

“Having the family involved – that’s the fun part. You kind of grow up with it. You learn to respect the animals and the business. You become very well-rounded. To be on the farm and to work and get dirty and all that stuff – you get the best of two worlds,” said Luiz, laughing.

What’s next after the dairy? Luiz remains a farmer at heart. “We’re looking into buying a nice almond orchard and do almonds and walnuts, and maybe (raising) beef animals (with) maybe 30 to 40 animals – probably Angus or red-white or black-white faces.”

Hopefully, he can “make a little play money” and still have a farm where his grandsons can “play a little bit.”

The Luiz Dairy and Flo the Cow

The Luiz dairy farm, one of several small family-owned dairies in Manteca and surrounding communities, was accidentally thrust in the national and international limelight during the New Year’s floods of 1997 which inundated most of southwest Manteca for months. The natural calamity received worldwide coverage from various news media including CNN, thanks to Flo the Cow from the Luiz dairy. The cow was stranded for days on top of one of the trailers at the Islander Trailer Park that was floating in Waltham Slough.

The cow, who was christened Flo by the news media, was one of the few lucky animals that survived when the Luiz’s grazing property at Williamson Road, a low-lying land along the San Joaquin River, went under water for days.

During the long days Flo the Cow was stranded atop a bobbing trailer at Waltham Slough, several people delivered hay to the animal by boat. Days later, she was rescued and was taken to the Luiz dairy at Woodward and Oleander avenues.

Sadly, what the floods could not do, the poisoned tip of an arrow ended it all for Flo. One night, an unknown person with a bow and arrow struck the cow in the corral under cover of darkness. The bovine survivor was found dead in the morning. The case was never solved; the culprit was never found.

Manteca — land of diminishing family farms

The Luiz dairy farm is just one of the family-owned farming business properties that have been turned into residential and commercial developments.

In north Manteca, part of what is now Del Webb on the west side of North Union Road was once site of the DeGroot dairy farm and almond orchards. On the east side of North Union Road at the corner of East Lathrop Road was another dairy, first for cows and then for goats.

South of Woodward Avenue, what was once the Silveira dairy on the corner of South Union Road is being readied for more residential construction. Several pieces of heavy equipment are now busy installing underground infrastructure. Farther down Woodward across the street from Luiz is the now vacated Dutra dairy waiting for the first dirt to be broken for another new residential development.

They are not the first, and certainly not the last, of Manteca’s small family dairy farms to make way for urban sprawl.

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