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Central California dairy milks a wedding trend

Like many other dairy owners in the state, Tony Azevedo was struggling to pay the bills. Then he hit upon the idea of turning his farm into a wedding venue.

October 24, 2013|By Diana Marcum
  • Tony Azevedo, 61, left, escorts bride Anna Thompson from a vintage train car to a horse carriage for her wedding at Azevedo's Double T ranch in the San Joaquin Valley. Drought and high feed prices have devastated the dairy industry in California, but some dairies are bringing in extra cash by hosting weddings.
Tony Azevedo, 61, left, escorts bride Anna Thompson from a vintage train… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

STEVINSON, Calif. —  A leggy bridesmaid smoothed her Grecian-pleated dress and stuffed lipstick and two cigars into her cowboy boots. 

Over by the horses, the best man slipped a flask out of his vest and offered a mare a sip.

The preacher was late, but everything else was on schedule for the sunset wedding at the Double T. The cows had been herded from the pasture to make room for cars, and the barn was hung with white lights and Mason jars.

Dairy weddings are now the stuff of bridal dreams.

"Lately, it's a trend," said Tony Azevedo, the owner of the Central California dairy, which has been hosting nuptials for more than 20 years. "It's just that they don't call them dairy weddings, because people tend to think about flies and manure. It's 'barn weddings' or 'farm setting.'"

In the latest Kelly Clarkson music video, newlyweds share a kiss in front of Azevedo's cows. The dairy wedding photos of another couple are in a video for country singer Jason Aldean. Antique milk cans and bales of hay are objects of lust on Pinterest, a social media bulletin board particularly favored by brides-to-be.

"This Pinterest thing is my new business partner," said Azevedo, 61, with a shake of his cowboy hat. "Everybody wants to get married in a damn barn and have their picture taken with a cow."

California's dairy industry needs all the help it can get: More than 100 farms went out of business last year alone. Dairy families are hoping that love can save the day by paying some of the bills.

Azevedo said it worked for his family and the land his late father bought nearly 80 years ago.

"Weddings," he said, "literally saved the farm."

***

While the rest of the family groomed the carriage horses, grilled beef for dinner and put the finishing touches on tables full of white flowers, Adam Azevedo, Tony's 32-year-old son, checked in at the milking barn. Then he drove to a neighbor's dairy, where everything was being sold.

Beneath a white auction tent that has become a common sight along these back roads, Mike Couto's friends drank at an open bar and made bids on his cows.

"I was born to cows," said Couto, 60. "I've been in business 30 years and today is my last day."

Like many other farmers in the region, his family emigrated from the Azores, an island region of Portugal. They started the 1,200-head dairy with six cows. He's always worked on the farm and knows no other life.

The graying dairymen stood in small groups clapping one another on the shoulders, sprinkling their conversations with Portuguese. They had ample bellies but the muscled shoulders of men used to manual labor. They wore checkered shirts and scuffed work boots. Each was a millionaire — at least on paper.

"A dairyman lives poor to die rich," said Joe Melo, an industry advocate who had come to wish Couto well.

The auctioneer's voice was hoarse; this was his sixth dispersal sale in a month in the 80 miles between Merced and Hanford.

Adam Azevedo looked stricken.

"Mike is a good man, the hardest worker," he said. "And this isn't even one of the bad sales — his children just didn't want to work at losing money. Others walk away with nothing. The bank shows up with the police."

Being a dairyman is a losing proposition, he said bitterly. Drought and high feed prices created by corn being diverted by federal ethanol policy devastated the industry in California, the largest dairy state in the nation.

Nineteen percent of the state's dairies went under between 2008 and 2012, according to the California Department of Agriculture. With the economic downturn, there have been few buyers. Across Merced County, dairies stand empty, with no feed, no cows — just the locks on the gates from the banks.

"I'd sell in a heartbeat," Adam Azevedo said. "I'm the last generation to make a living on this farm."

***

In the 1960s, neighbors' dairies were also closing. Tony Azevedo remembers going to barbecues as a child where neighbors sold their cows, furniture and farm equipment. Developers had bought farms in Southern California and many of those dairies moved north to the Central Valley. 

By the '80s, the mantra was get big or get out, as operations consolidated.

Azevedo decided that he didn't want to "milk every cow in the county," but he was determined to keep a promise to his father, Antonio, an Azorean immigrant, that he would die on their farm.

Azevedo and his wife, Carol, came up with the idea of a wedding venue. Their passion for antiques had already led to a buggy museum, a vintage train and the beginnings of a Western town replica on their 300 acres. 

"It bought us time to go organic, which allowed us to stay small," he said. "I lucked out. I never thought I'd see the day when people would pay more for milk from cows at pasture or that people would want country instead of country club for their wedding."

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