Abe and AJ Stobbe, dairy farmers in Mara, BC standing in front of the geothermal heat exchange system that heats their milking parlour and their homes
What began two decades ago as a creative way to overcome the lack of natural gas available at a new dairy farm has emerged as a cutting-edge example of environmentally-sound food production - and sparked new innovations across the farm.
The Stobbe family started their dairy farm in Abbotsford back in 1953, with just one cow received as a wedding gift. Over the years the farm grew, but in 2003 rising cost and limited availability of land prompted them to uproot and move the multigenerational family farm 400 kms northeast to Mara, BC where they now milk just over 200 cows. However, the region did not have natural gas, which the family used to heat their milking parlour and home in Abbotsford. Propane was the only immediate solution, but it wasn’t appealing because of the expense involved.
The Stobbe family’s dairy farm, Serene Lea, located in Mara, BC
After some research, Abe Stobbe and his son AJ landed on a solution inspired by some leading edge dairy farms in Europe - installing a geothermal system that draws heat from fresh, raw milk to rapidly cool it from 38°C to 2.5°C and stores that heat in underground piping. Located in their milk house, the geothermal system uses the captured energy to heat the barn, the milking parlour, the offices, and their family house through in-floor heating. As a bonus, it can be reversed and provide air conditioning in hot weather.
Today, the farm doesn’t use any fossil fuels other than diesel in its tractors.
“Sustainability in farming is about protecting the environment for the future, “ says AJ Stobbe, who was a teenager when his family made the move, and heads up the family’s farm operation today. “But it’s also about finding ways to ensure that consumers and farmers have mutual understanding, so local farms can continue to operate and provide food for their communities. We're actually really proud of the milk that we produce."
AJ Stobbe entering a loader in front of grain bins. The Stobbe family do as much as they can themselves on-farm, including milling their own grain.
In addition to the energy savings, the system also has benefits when it comes to milk quality, as the milk is cooled rapidly through a system of pipes, ensuring that its quality and safety is preserved.
Milk quality and the health of his cows are related passions for AJ - the family even operates their own small grain mill in order to customize their cows’ feed rations for optimal health and productivity.
“I like coming into the barn and seeing cows that are happy, chewing their cud with their ears perked up and their heads held high,” AJ says. “It’s super satisfying to have healthy cows. I’m proud of that.”
AJ Stobbe walking through the barn at his family dairy farm in Mara, BC
The family has carried that same approach to a recent addition, one allowing them to interact more with local customers and residents - blueberries raised with no insecticides.
Since 2015, they have operated a 60 acre blueberry farm, called Madalea Growers, on their property. In addition to providing delicious blueberries for the local community, the family made the decision to make their blueberry farm a haven for natural pollinators.
“That's something that's close to my heart,” AJ says. “It's really neat because we're the only blueberry farm in the Okanagan of any significant size, and when our nutritionist comes in from the coast, he's blown away by how many natural bees and bumblebees and dragonflies we have pollinating the blueberries. I'm actually really protective of that.”
AJ has also found a lot of satisfaction in connecting with the consumers who enjoy their blueberries, and talking with them about farming local food. It’s a connection he would like to build on as a dairy farmer as well. “Sometimes I wish that I could meet the people who are consuming it and talk to them about it. As dairy farmers, we get up at 4 a.m., and usually in the summertime, we don’t finish working until 8 or 9 p.m. We work hard, we treat the cows the very best we can, and we don't cut any corners when it comes to milk quality. We take a lot of pride in being able to feed a high quality food product to our community.”