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.

Central California dairy milks a wedding trend

Column One

Weddings rescue a struggling Calif. dairy

Bride Anna Silva Thompson, 25, stands in a horse carriage before her wedding at the Double T ranch in Stevinson, Calif., in September. More photos

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

October 24, 2013

Aleggy 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."

Tony Azevedo says the weddings at the dairy farm "bought us time to go organic, which allowed us to stay small." More photos

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."

Now Tony and Carol depend on the wedding business, and half a dozen other farms in the Central Valley have started hosting events. Azevedo said he's proud to see others following them into a form of agri-tourism. He's not worried about competition because they already book more events than they want.

Adam Azevedo, 32, follows his cows into the grass field on the Double T Ranch where the cows will feed. More photos

The cows belong to Adam.

"He's just like I was when I was his age — angry. He's got all these friends in his ear telling him that if you don't grow your business 15% a year you're dying," Tony Azevedo said. "My father always said, 'More flour more water. More water more flour.' Sometimes the trick to happiness is knowing when you have enough."

Antonio Azevedo died in 1995 on the ranch he'd bought 60 years earlier.

"I figured out what I needed to keep and what I had to do to keep it. Now, Adam has to figure it out for himself. I can't tell him," Tony Azevedo said. "But sometimes I do tell him, 'Look around, Adam, look all around you. It doesn't get any better than this.'"

Weddings at a California dairy are a new source of income for a farmer.

About half of the couples who marry at the dairy are from urban areas.

"The ones from the city are in total awe," said Carol Azevedo. "Last week there was a little boy, so excited, pointing and saying, 'Dad, look there's a cow.' But it was a horse."

When city couples call to book, their first questions are always about whether there is a smell.

Tony Azevedo tells them if they're worried about the "God-awful stench" of a thousand cows under one roof, it's not there. But grass and dirt and crops and a little manure — that's just a good farm scent. The Azevedos provide everything but the cake, flowers and minister. An average wedding for 150 people costs $10,000.

The couple marrying on this night, Anna Silva, 25, and Cole Thompson, 26, were born to country life.

Anna's father, Manuel, came from the Azores at 15 and worked and saved for his own dairy. He and his brothers just bought the Couto dairy. They'll soon be milking 2,000 cows.

Slender, dark-haired Anna grew up down the road from the Double T. When she entered high school, all the boys in school noticed her, recalled childhood friend Michael Mardones.

"But no one was as sweet on beautiful Anna as Cole. Back then, he was just a skinny kid with a goatee. We all laughed at him because we didn't think he had a shot," said Mardones, now a Las Vegas-based videographer for mixed martial arts.

At 18, Cole got a job with Anna's father, a self-identified taskmaster.

About 500 wedding guests gather for dinner following Cole and Anna Thompson's wedding. More photos

"Her dad turned me into the man I am, and I'm grateful," Thompson said. "I just want to work hard and love Anna."

In the late afternoon, the light slants down in golden sheets. The preacher has been found. Tony Azevedo picks up Anna and Manuel Silva in a horse-drawn carriage. The overflowing crowd in the barn whoops and cheers when they see the bride in her shimmering, backless white gown, worn — of course — with cowboy boots.

After the vows are said, night has fallen and glasses are raised in dozens of toasts, Anna takes the microphone, tears streaming down her face.

"Me and Cole have been together for a long time — we were 16. And now to look out and know every single person I see. I'm so happy that you came and we love you," she tells 450 guests.

The music in the barn is heavy on boot-stomping country and a few traditional songs from the Azores. Everyone, old and young, dances.

Adam Azevedo had told his sister Arlean earlier in the day that he probably wasn't coming. He wasn't really into weddings.

She had smiled and said, "You look more like Dad every day."

Now he's at the barn, greeting old friends with a clink of their beer bottles, his 3-year-old daughter riding on his shoulders.

Kristy Azevedo holds her 5-month-old daughter, Audrey Azevedo, on their horse as they relax on a Sunday afternoon at the Double T ranch. More photos

The next morning was like all the other Sundays. Adam came over with his wife and three children, including the baby. Their house is on the same ranch.

Tony's dog, Guido, slept with his head on his master's boots. Adam gave the kids a ride on Ruby, a 13-year-old draft horse.

There was an easy peace, even if during the rest of the week there's an undercurrent of father-son tension.

It's just like with the weddings, Tony said.

There are always nerves and the dramas. But there is always a moment after the vows have been said when everyone just relaxes and enjoys one another's company.

"I often find that what's important," he said, "is the stuff that happens after you get done with what you think is important."

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