Dairyman’s Digest

From Lionza to London to the San Joaquin Valley, the Fiscalini family builds its business on comfortable cows, clean milk and investments in stewardship—like a methane digester—that are future-forward.

By Jamie Cole and Claire Vath | Photos By Jamie Cole

John Fiscalini

John Fiscalini

We’re standing in the dairy parlor at Fiscalini Farms when the flood happens. Gallons and gallons of water rush over the parlor floor, flushing away waste and bathing the placid Holsteins hoof to udder.

The event isn’t that different from what happens in any dairy parlor anywhere. What’s different is what happens to the waste—along with the fact that these cows were unusually clean and calm when they stepped to the milker.

It’s tough being a pioneer, but John Fiscalini comes from a long line of them. Scale his family tree, and you’ll find innovation in the Fiscalini DNA going back centuries.

The dairy business is the taproot of that family tree. But the mountains around the Fiscalinis’ ancestral Swiss homeland—the tiny town of Lionza—often made the transport of fresh milk treacherous or impossible, particularly during the harsh winters. So the family turned to cheesemaking as more than added value; it was a way to avoid wasting the work of the family dairy.

“I have milk in my blood,” says John, who with son Brian runs the 1,500-cow Fiscalini Farms at Modesto, Calif., in the San Joaquin Valley. “Going generations back, it’s all dairy, dairy, dairy.”

Still, John didn’t bring cheese back into the family business until the turn of the 21st century, this time less as necessity than as craft. At the suggestion of the California Milk Advisory Board, John began attending farmstead cheesemaking seminars and “got roped into the sexiness of it,” he says.

The execution was less than sexy. Cheesemaking was new to California, so even finding the equipment proved a challenge, as did finding the right cheesemaker, an essential partner in the process. But John had the dairy part down pat. Attention to cleanliness and comfort of his cows give John’s renowned cheesemaker, Mariano Gonzales, a blank canvas to “work magic,” as John puts it.

“The milk that John produces—it’s very, very clean,” says Gonzales. “There is nothing in there to interfere with the bacteria I use to create the cheese.” After a dozen years working with that clean milk—the blank canvas—the awards have piled up. Fiscalini’s cloth-bound cheddar has won best cheddar in the world twice at the World Cheese Awards in London—very rare for an American cheesemaker. The dairy’s signature San Joaquin Gold, a smoky, Italian-style cheese aged 16 months, took gold at the World Cheese Awards as well.

Cleanliness, Micro and Macro

The parlor is flushed and waste water heads to the methane digester.

The parlor is flushed and waste water heads to the methane digester.

John takes cleanliness quite seriously—no small feat in the dairy business. That took some innovation as well. To hold disease at a minimum, no new cows are purchased from other sources; all these cows in the parlor and the freestall barns are Fiscalinis themselves. Those freestall barns let cows move and lie down comfortably, as well as socialize. Every cow wears a transponder pedometer that allows for frequent checks of everything from daily milk production to how many steps she takes. Soaker hoses help keep cows cool in the summer, along with fans that also shoo flies away. A nutritionist provides carefully prepared rations for the entire herd.

“Well, we’re making a product that people eat,” John says. “So clean cows are important,” especially in the cheesemaking process, which is so dependent upon manipulation of bacteria.

“We’ve pretty much eliminated or controlled the pathogenic bacteria,” he continues. On the other hand, John says, “We are keeping some of the inherent bacteria that actually come out of the cow’s udder in the cheesemaking process. The good bacteria—the flavor-forming bacteria—are still in the milk.”

And if the cows are comfortable, they don’t have as much stress, which can also affect milk quality. “A cow that’s under a lot of stress will likely have high somatic cells—white blood cells that we normally have in our body to fight off infection,” he says. A low somatic cell count is an indication of a healthy cow, and clean milk.

The Fiscalinis’ attention to cleanliness makes for a good story, especially in light of the big-picture environmental impact of dairying in this part of California. Stagnant summer weather patterns with very little rain, along with the natural bowl shape formed by mountain ranges on three sides, help trap pollution in the Valley. A 2013 American Lung Association report ranks Modesto on its “worst” list for pollution, with the Valley’s 1,500 or so dairies contributing to the problem. In a much-discussed and disputed 2005 story, the Los Angeles Times reported that cows had passed cars as polluters in the Valley, and that the region had “some of the dirtiest air in the country.”

Though dairy groups took issue, the Fiscalinis took notice. “We wanted to be progressive and proactive,” says John’s son Brian, general manager at the dairy.

A single dairy cow produces about 120 pounds of wet manure a day. Scale that up with Fiscalinis’ 1,500-cow herd and you have a lot of … well, byproduct. So Fiscalini Farms began researching methane digesters to convert that waste into renewable electrical energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The savings looked promising too: methane to power the entire dairy, plus enough electricity to sell back to the grid to juice 200 homes.

The idea seemed feasible. But here again, the execution … not so much. “We had a pretty decent amount of difficulty getting permits,” explains Brian, who says “the permitting and bureaucratic process is much slower in California.”

And then there was financing and finding a company to undertake the construction process. The Fiscalinis were able to tap into federal and state grant money, along with some local dairy industry funds to share in construction cost, “but we’ve paid the majority by far,” says Brian of the $2 million it took to get the first phase of the digester built.

Cost of Cleanliness

John with wife, Heather, and the rest of the Fiscalini family.

John with wife, Heather, and the rest of the Fiscalini family.

In 2009, the digester came online. After the Fiscalinis got all their initial permits in place, state air-control officials later said that methane digesters produced nitrous oxide pollution and required an overhaul to meet and exceed requirements. “We were required to meet certain air-board permits, which meant significant additional investments for emissions standards,” Brian says.

VIDEO: How A Methane Digester Works

Another challenge: Maintenance. They expected oil changes, general repairs, etc. Like a car on a hot day, the engines run and can overheat. “But our biggest problem,” Brian says, “has been sand accumulation. We don’t bring sand intentionally onto our operation, but between soil type and feed, sand gets in.”

And sand, as it turns out, finds its way into the two 26-foot-tall tanks, and is abrasive to agitators and pumps. “There’s no easy way to remove it from the towers,” Brian says. “We have to use a crane to clean it out.”

As “productive” as the dairy is at feeding the digester its “fuel,” the volume is not quite great enough. “Cows are already pretty efficient digesters,” says Brian, “so we have to add things other than manure to the digester.” So other stuff—spoiled feed silage, whey from the cheesemaking process, off-site restaurant waste—also goes into the tanks.

The original $2 million investment has ballooned to abut $3.5 million. The digester, which at present isn’t running at full capacity owing to ongoing maintenance issues, powers only about 90% of the dairy’s electricity. “At this point, we’re cash-flow negative; we’re paying to keep the lights on,” Brian concedes.

But the system certainly has the capacity to handle more, and the Fiscalinis remain hopeful. When all the kinks are worked out and the digester runs at full potential, it will produce three times the amount of power the dairy uses.

John knows investments must be made, and more often than not they pay off. The will to keep the digester running isn’t that different from the will to run a clean dairy. “We may spend more money on cleanliness and sanitation than we get in monetary bonuses, but longevity and comfort in cows is hard to measure,” John says.

And he makes no bones about his top-quality product demanding a top-quality price. “When we make cheese, it’s an expensive proposition,” John says. “We use only the highest quality products, including the milk we produce ourselves.” Fiscalini’s cloth-bound cheddar can go for $20 a pound or more in stores, “and it’s a bargain at that because of the way it’s made and all of the environmental attributes that it has.” Not to mention its award-winning taste.

John knew it could take a decade or more to see the desired returns from the digester, but long-term investments are nothing new for a 100-year-old dairy with roots in the ancestral past and an eye on the future. With son Brian in the business, a fourth generation carries on here in the San Joaquin Valley, ever innovating.

Keep It Genuine

Rick Gray with Brian and John

Rick Gray with Brian and John

“Well, we don’t baby these things,” John Fiscalini says of his Massey Ferguson® equipment—all utility tractors in the 80- to 90-hp range. From the newest, the MF491, to the vintage MF285, these are tractors already known for longevity and durability; but John and his dealer Rick Gray from Stanislaus Implement and Hardware still offer keys to keeping hard-working equipment up and running:

Genuine AGCO Parts. “Our guys [at the dairy] do a lot of the maintenance and service, but if something breaks down, we don’t want to put an aftermarket part on there or something that’s gonna be defective or not the high quality we expect from AGCO,” says John.

Cleanliness. Not a surprise, given John’s mission at the dairy; but keeping the tractors clean is important to keeping them running. “Cow manure isn’t something you want stuck to parts for many, many months at a time,” says John.

Rick encouraged him to invest in a steam cleaner. “It keeps the tractors clean and keeps ‘em moving,” Rick says. “Believe it or not, it makes a big, big difference.”

Good relationship with the dealer. “I’ve known John and his family for more than 30 years,” says Rick. “He is more than a customer. He is part of the family.”

John says the relationship with Stanislaus Implement is generational. “Rick’s father took care of my father,” he says. “They take care of you. The value of these tractors is the support behind them, end of conversation.”