Local dairying continues decline
Wednesday 15 June, 2005
Sequim, WA - Dairying is dying on the Olympic Peninsula. Two area commercial dairies have sold most or all of their herds, leaving only three in Clallam County.
It's part of a longtime trend in area agriculture, said Curtis Beus, Washington State University agriculture extension director for Clallam County. Since 1940 when 949 farms had more than 7,000 milk cows the number has dwindled to just over 1,000 cows on 17 farms in 2002, the most recent year U.S. Census data was available, Beus said. In 2002 there were five commercial farms, farmsteads with a single milk cow for family purposes were counted in the survey data, Beus said. Although modern cows give more milk than their antecedents, the trend is clear, he said.
Lonnie Booth sold the herd from his farm on North Sequim Avenue at the north end of town. Jerry Schmidt sold most of his dairy herd from Blue Mountain View Dairy, the last commercial dairy in Agnew. Both herd sales came within weeks of each other.
Booth did not return several telephone calls and was unavailable for comment. Other than confirming that he'd sold part of his herd, Schmidt had no comment. Both farmers are described as private men.
Troy Smith - co-owner of Maple View Farm on the west shore of Sequim Bay, the county's largest dairy - said the departure of the two dairies could increase costs for the three remaining dairies: Maple View Farm, Smith Dairy and Dungeness Valley Farm.
Smith coordinates the delivery of milk for the dairy farms in Clallam and Jefferson counties to the Darigold facility in Chehalis. He said they've already lost all of the milk from Booth's farm and about 75 percent of the milk from Blue Mountain View Dairy. He said his understanding is that no more milk will be collected from Blue Mountain View by month's end.
"It just makes us less efficient," Smith said.
The milk must be hauled every other day whether the truck is full or not, he said. The area lost about 2,500 pounds of milk per day from the Booth farm and about 8,500 pounds of milk per day from the Schmidt farm leaving about 88,000 pounds of milk produced per day on the northern peninsula, Smith said.
"We're going to try to keep the prices the same by being more efficient," Smith said. However, the profit margin on milk is slim as it is, he said.
Prices paid to farmers have remained more or less stagnant since the 1970s while operating costs have risen, Smith said. The high cost of land in the Sequim area and on the Olympic Peninsula in general outweighs the benefits of a mild climate and marine air that attracted the area's original dairymen.
As more land is developed, farmers lose land they once leased for crops and to feed their herds. With high land prices, it's almost impossible for farmers to buy land for agriculture.
"One of the biggest reasons that dairies and farmers are going away is that we don't have the open fields to farm anymore," Smith said.
"This is a big concern of ours," said Bob Caldwell, president of Friends of the Fields, a nonprofit farmland preservation group.
Caldwell said he always felt Booth's farm was endangered - situated as it was within Sequim's Urban Growth Area - and expected it to be developed some day. While he said the loss of the Booth farm is regretful, Caldwell said he hopes it makes people more "urgent to protect what little we have left."
On the other hand, protections are in place at Blue Mountain View. In March, Schmidt sold the development rights on 44 acres of his farmland to Clallam County and entered an agreement with the North Olympic Land Trust to keep the land perpetually in agriculture. At the time, he said that he had 100 acres of land less than last year available for crops and was looking into creative options to grow crops on smaller parcels to make up the difference or of switching to organic farming to make the existing land more profitable.
The national trend is for farms to expand to survive, Beus said, That's not an option locally, area farmers and farm experts said. Instead, farmers must get creative to stay in business.
For example, Jeff Brown of Dungeness Valley Farm and his family are trying to switch to direct marketing raw milk and selling to a fledgling artisan cheese industry that hasn't yet taken flight (see related story).
"Personally to survive we felt we had to go to direct marketing and enter a niche market, otherwise we'd have to continue to grow," Brown said. With land prices what they are, that wasn't an option, he said.
Likewise, Smith said his family farm has had to adapt to changing conditions by buying barley instead of growing it after rented fields got sold for development, replacing equipment with more fuel-efficient models, diversifying into related businesses and the like.
--by Leif Nesheim
Gazette staff writer