A Sour Taste On The Farm: Longtime Dairy Farmers Look Toward Greener Pastures

Sunday, February 16, 2003

By DEAN BAKER, Columbian staff writer

Ten-year-old Mercy Boldt is the only one of Marty and Michell Boldt's six kids who wants to give dairy farming a try.

She'll have a hard time realizing her dream, however, unless there's a big change in the economy.

That's because the Boldt family's Velvet Acres Dairy -- a family farm for more than 50 years -- has been losing $6,000 a month for the past nine months.

That can't continue forever, says Mercy's grandfather, Gary Boldt, 55. He'd have sold the 80 acres the family owns at Proebstel by now if it could be subdivided into one-acre lots. The five-acre lots required by zoning regulations won't give the family enough profit, he said.

Maximizing family profit would be important because it would allow the Boldts to find new ground east of the Cascades for a bigger farm.

The Boldts milk about 200 cows, keeping another 40 dry cows and 200 heifer calves in line so that when they reach 2 years of age, they'll be bred and become milk cows. A milk cow will remain productive from 18 months to three years before it has to be replaced.

Price drops fast

"There's too many headaches -- environmental things coming on, and these last months there's been no money in it, so why keep going on?"

The price of milk is killing the Boldts. Eighteen months ago, they were in fat city when the price was $17 for 100 pounds. But in recent months the price has dipped down to around $11. Now it's at $10.86, plus perhaps another dime or so for low bacteria counts.

That's 93 cents a gallon, while the farm needs at least $1.25 to break even.

"We need $10.81 a day for each cow," Gary Boldt said. "We're getting $9.76."

Worse, federal milk marketing orders come out monthly, and easily can vary by $1 or even up to $5 or more for 100 pounds.

The stress of these price fluctuations takes a toll, Marty Boldt said.

"It's just not worth it," he said. "There's too many headaches -- environmental things coming on, and these last months there's been no money in it, so why keep going on?"

31 years dairying

Now...with the suburbs creeping toward them and environmental regulations requiring them to spend $140,000 for bigger sewage settling ponds last year...

If they stop dairying in Clark County, they'll leave behind a family tradition of milking cows that started with Marty's grandfather, Harlan Boldt, in 1972.

"He just started milking a few cows," recalled Gary Boldt. "I don't really know why."

Harlan had farmed in Clark County, first raising 40 acres of blackberries on the Proebstel place after moving here from South Dakota in 1951 when Gary was 3 years old. He added the cows 21 years later.

"I kind of always did the milking, and after about three years, Dad went on disability, and that left me holding the bag because the bank called the note," Gary said.

So in 1976, Gary took over. Now the Boldts are feeling squeezed with the suburbs creeping toward them and environmental regulations requiring them to spend $140,000 for bigger sewage settling ponds last year. Feed is difficult to find, and expensive at $120 a ton; they have to truck it in themselves from Christmas Valley, Ore., a 16-hour round trip away.

Hanging on by a thread

Along with other farmers, the Boldts have been able to stay in farming. But the margin keeps getting thinner, and now, the string is about played out.

If the Boldts shut down, they'll join the parade of dairy farmers leaving business in Clark and Cowlitz counties since 1999.

Among those who have left the business are Roy Matson on the Bell M Dairy, Larry and Sandy Kytola, Mike Harvey on Meadowcharm Farm, Joel and Susan Johnson on Paradise Farms, David Hagensen on Rainbow Acres, Robert J. Smith, Boyd and Terri Johnson on Sparkledue Holsteins, and David Hagensen.

Others have left for greener pastures. Edwina Price and her sons, Ted and Joe, moved their 140 cows and Diamond H Dairy to Cloverdale, Ore., near Tillamook, in 2001 and are prospering.

In 1994, Mike Roth, a former longtime Clark County dairyman, moved his operation to Jerome, Idaho, and made a spectacular success. His dairy now spreads over 2,400 acres and is one of Idaho's largest, with 10,000 cows -- 5,000 milking, 5,000 dry.

If the Boldts are to keep farming, it'll likely be on the dry side of the Cascades, they said, where land is cheaper and manure isn't so hard to compost and keep out of the water. It'll be where dairy farmers are wanted, and there's room to grow.

Milk Protein Concentrate

Trade barriers limit the amount of nonfat dry milk that can be imported into the United States. But the quotas don't apply to MPC, a blend of nonfat dry milk, casein and other dairy products. New Zealand, Australia, Canada and some European countries take advantage of the loophole to export 60,000 tons a year of MPC into the U.S. MPC is cheaper than nonfat dried milk and is used to make infant formula, desserts, baked goods, toppings, low-fat spreads, dairy-based dry mixes, dairy-based beverages, sports-nutrition beverages and foods, weight-loss beverages and foods, and some processed cheese products and foods. The presence of foreign-made MPC drags down the price of milk to U.S. farmers.


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