Dairy farms drying up in Jefferson County- Only three dairy farms
remain - 'No money in it' - too many environmental regulations, says
"Take a picture quick" advises dairyman Gerald Bishop. "It won't be here much longer."
The Bishop Dairy is one of the last three dairies in Jefferson County. The other two are Phil Huntingford's Out Our Way Farm and George W. Huntingford's Gee Gem Dairy.
Roger Short of Valley View Dairy and Gloria Brown of Chimacum Dairy have sold their milk cows in the past month and ceased their long-standing dairy businesses.
"It's too hard and there's no money in it," says Brown, 70, after 52 years on a dairy farm. "My son and my husband wanted to keep things going," she says of the late Brad Brown and B.G. Brown, respectively. "I don't think anyone wants to take it over."
Brown plans to stay in her home but has leased the farm behind the Chimacum Cafe to someone who plans to raise crops there. She's keeping about 35 heifers until they're ready to sell this fall, she added.
Short sold half of his herd of 300 milking cows in December 2002 just to meet his accounts payable, he says. He sold the rest of the herd a month ago but still has 250 heifers on his 500 acres. "There will never be money in it again on the peninsula," he says.
Bishop, 60, isn't sure how much longer he can keep at it. "The pay is nothing," he says. According to Bishop, current milk prices are less than what he was getting in 1973.
That was before current environmental regulations and regulators got into the picture. "They talk to me like I'm some sort of criminal," he says of Washington Department of Ecology (DOE) employees who enforce rules related to salmon and other environmental issues.
Bishop says that one reason he can continue operating is that he doesn't have any debt. "If I owed bank notes, I'd be finished." Instead, he can at least keep "spinning my wheels." Bishop says the future of his dairy business is uncertain.
"In a few more years - a few more months - I'll be quittin' too if prices keep going down."
"I don't think anyone would want to take it over," George W. Huntingford, 60, says of his dairy. Regarding the price of milk, he notes, "When you see it [milk] in the store, you wonder who's making it."
Huntingford has also had a hard time dealing with state environmental rules. "Our ditch is all fenced" to keep cows out of salmon streams, but DOE contemplated requiring him to build a $100,000 pond to retain cow manure. Last summer he had a heart attack.
George W. Huntingford's 85-year-old father, retired county commissioner George H. Huntingford, drove a milk truck when he was a junior in high school in 1934. Back then, he recalls, he picked up at least 120 cans of milk a day from 40 to 50 dairies all over Jefferson County, seven days a week.
"I'd hate to be in the dairy business right now," the elder Huntingford says. But one reason his family has been able to stay in business so long is that family members help each other. Nephew and current County Commissioner Glen Huntingford and his wife, Barb, help out with the family dairies when needed, Glen Huntingford says.
Looking ahead, Glen Huntingford wondered how long anyone can continue dairying. "The further you go, the less you're going to have for your business," he says.
A big part of the problem, Short believes, is Jefferson County's isolated location and the lack of what he calls "dairy infrastructure."
"Our milk has to leave the peninsula," he notes. Not only does that add delivery costs, but it affects the cost of producing the milk, he says. Every day, Short was importing three to four tons of grain to feed his cows. Transporting the grain by ferry adds an extra $15 per ton to that cost, he says.
Just maintaining an inventory of spare parts is a challenge in a county with few dairies. "We got something from UPS every day to keep the farm going," he explains. Another problem was not having a veterinarian who specializes in cows. Short used a vet who came all the way from Snohomish County.
Perhaps the backbone of the local dairy infrastructure is the truck that Gary Smith drives seven days a week from Sequim to the Darigold Creamery in Chehalis. Smith picks up his own milk at Mapleview Farm and four others in Sequim before making three stops in Jefferson County.
Now that he's picking up from eight farms instead of 10, a second truck that used to make the run every other day is no longer needed, he explains. Smith notes that with fewer dairies, the cost of delivery for each one goes up.
Smith, 63, says he's in a partnership with his two sons and they're interested in continuing the farm he married into more than 30 years ago. "We have family interested in continuing the farm. The question is the economy." Smith hasn't broken even on milk production in more than a year, he says.
In addition to the cost of fuel, feed and environmental regulations, milk prices have fallen because production is increasing, says Smith. He notes that cheese demand falls during recessions, and with larger domestic dairies and the importing of foreign milk, prices keep dropping.
The $9 "floor price" set by the federal government per hundredweight (a hundredweight is 100 pounds of milk) of "class 3" milk is a few dollars less than his cost of producing it, Smith says.
Smith is especially concerned that the federal government continues to allow the importing of cheaper and sometimes subsidized milk products from Australia and New Zealand, among other places.
"We're going to end up importing most of our food if we're not careful," Short says. Bishop shares that concern: "Exporters [to the United States] are getting rich on it and our farmers are going broke." Short estimated that by not curtailing imports in 2002, the cost to his farm alone was about $60,000.
Six months ago, Short says there was "no way" he would have sold his herd. "I've had tears," he says, noting that the struggle to keep the dairy running strained his marriage.
Now he's beginning to think about the future of his land. Today, he has scheduled a meeting to explore the idea of an easement or lease with a conservation group that could preserve the farm as open space benefiting ducks and trumpeter swans.
Short is toying with the idea of starting a "producer/handler" dairy with just 25 cows, selling the milk and other products onsite. "I can keep busy," he says, "putting in my 80 hours a week."
Another possibility for Short is starting a composting business. He would sell compost made from cow manure and yard waste, perhaps raising red wrigglers on the side. Like Brown, he anticipates growing more hay than he's grown in the past, but marketing that product is likely to get tougher too, he says.
Whatever he decides to do from here on out, Short is sure of one thing: "It's not going to be for peanuts like I've been working for."
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