Got milk? Whatcom County sure does. According to the 2017 census of agriculture among all the counties in the state producing milk from cows, Whatcom County ranks second in the state —and 38th nationwide — and dairy has the largest share of agricultural sales in the county.
Behind all this production are the farmers, and their animals. Many farmers are multigenerational, farming on the land their parents and grandparents farmed on. But the business of dairy has changed, with increasing costs for land, equipment and labor; new technology; and competition from the world market.
With these changes, the number of dairy farms in the county is decreasing, as farmers retire or move elsewhere because the costs aren’t worth it.
But family farms remain in the county — and many are surviving changes in the industry by making changes of their own. Some have started selling their products directly, surpassing the price they get paid for bulk sales set by the government. Some have partnered with local cheesemakers to boost other small businesses in the local economy. And others? Well, instead of cows grazing on their fields, they’re now farming goats.
Changes in the industry
“When I was in grade school, growing up here, there were probably 2,500, 3,000 dairies in the county and today I think I’m hearing there are around 50,” said John Steensma, a third-generation dairyman who has farmed west of Lynden for over 40 years.
From 1950 to 2017, the number of dairy farms decreased by 97.5%, according to Whatcom County agriculture statistics reported by the Whatcom County Washington State University (WSU) Extension. From 2002 to 2017, the number of dairy farms decreased by 62.1%, from just under 250 to just under 100.
Even though the number of dairies has gone down, John said, the number of cows has stayed close to the same, as they have been consolidated into larger farms. The number of cows in the county over the 60 years evaluated by WSU has increased, by just over 20%. Milking around 130 cows, like John did in college, used to be average in the county. Now, he says, the average is closer to 600 to 800 cows. The Steensmas have 200 cows on their farm.
“It’s much more difficult to compete against a 5,000-cow dairy when you’re only milking 300,” said Fred Likkel, executive director of Whatcom Family Farmers, explaining part of the struggle for smaller farms in the county.
Dairy farming has become bigger farms with more cows producing more products. But Kate Steensma, John’s daughter and a fourth-generation dairy farmer, sees a place for smaller, family farms in the future of dairy.
“We’re going to have sort of a bimodal dairy industry, where there’s really huge farms who are making this commodity product and riding really thin margins [small profits] and having lots of cows and producing a lot of milk,” Kate said. “And then there’s going to be smaller farms diversifying.” [Editor’s note: Corrected “thick” to “thin,” Dec. 6, 2021]
What’s been affecting dairy
Flooding in November in northwestern Washington had devastating impacts on dairies in Whatcom and Skagit counties. In one case, The Seattle Times reported on a family farm in Mount Vernon that lost 44 cows during the flooding.
The Steensmas evacuated around 70 cows as the waters began to rise southwest of Lynden. Pastures, machinery and buildings were also damaged around the region. Many farmers missed milking cycles, which can harm cows and set back production long term, and feed supplies were disrupted and manure no longer managed.
Likkel said the higher rainfall on this side of the state is always a struggle for farmers who must handle water in their barns and on their property.
Before the floods, there was the pandemic, when the price farmers got for milk dropped sharply.
For farmers, the price of milk is by the hundredweight, or dollars per 100 pounds of milk, about 12 gallons. This price is set regionally by the government for companies that buy milk from farmers, Likkel said.
The current price is about $17-$18 per 100 pounds, John said, but when the pandemic hit, it dropped to $12 — less than the $13 they were getting when he started farming in 1981.
Floods and pandemic aside, the money paid to farmers for milk hasn’t kept up with rising costs to farm, which are influenced by competing on a world market, as well as economies of scale. In areas across the states where there is more open land for farming, John said farms will have 20,000 to 30,000 herds of cows.
Technology advances, like rotary milking parlors, have allowed for farms to have more cows with less labor costs, Kate said, but the upfront cost of the technology might mean some farmers can’t compete with farms that are able to afford this technology.
Other farming operating costs have increased. John said his father used to pay about $200 for an acre of land, whereas their recent purchase of adjoining property cost about $20,000 an acre. Tractors that used to cost $3,000 are now going for $100,000.
Is the business of family dairy farming still worth it?
The farmers in Whatcom County seem to think so.
Smaller farms like the Steensmas’ might be in some ways the ideal operating size. The Dairy Margin Coverage program, which started in 2018, “offer[s] protection to dairy producers when the difference between the all milk price and the average feed price (the margin) falls below a certain dollar amount selected by the producer,” according to the USDA website. John said this subsidizes 5 million pounds per year, which roughly translates to 200 cows.
“So I am at the sweet spot there,” John said, adding that the program was started out of the goal of protecting smaller farmers.
Direct retail sales is another strategy Whatcom County farmers are turning to. In 1997, 196 of 1,679 farms in the county did direct sales, roughly 12%. As of 2017, that’s now closer to 14%, or 256 out of 1,712 farms in the county.
The Steensmas recently formed Steensma Creamery, through which they sell their products directly to consumers and therefore get to set the price themselves.
Kate said they’ve only been at this for a month, but she sees it as an option to survive as a family dairy farm. She said around nine other dairies in the county are producing products to sell directly to consumers.
Ferndale Farmstead on Aldergrove Road has 680 cows, which produce the milk that go into the cheese they craft in the Italian style, according to their website. The dairy is owned and operated by the Wavrin family, who purchased the farm in 2009, and started construction on their creamery in 2013.
Twin Sisters Creamery on Portal Way in Ferndale crafts their cheese exclusively with milk from Twin Brook’s dairy, just south of the Canadian border near Lynden.
“Milk supply to a cheesemaker is incredibly important,” said Lindsay Slevin, who owns and operates the creamery alongside her husband Jeff.
The dairy is just 12 miles from the Slevin’s creamery and Slevin said having a nearby, small family farm to buy milk from enabled them to open the creamery.
Since Twin Sisters Creamery is a raw milk cheese producer, Slevin said they needed to have a single source for the milk for their cheese, and they wanted to use milk from Jersey cows, because of the quality of milk these cows produce and fat content. They found this at Twin Brook.
With consolidation and population increases, Kate Steensma said people are more removed from where their food comes from, yet there is a desire to know. Dairies can market on this by selling their products directly to consumers and setting their price.
For the Slevins, connecting with the community is an integral part of the business.
“The community’s support for local products, and knowing where it’s made and how it’s made and who’s producing it, is very strong in our communities,” Slevin said.
In addition to the support from consumers, Slevin said the cheesemakers in the county support each other, and that they sell all the other cheeses produced in the county in their creamery store. The dairy farmers are supportive of each other too, and Slevin agrees that this is what has led to the success of family farms in the county.
“Connecting with other small businesses and families is an important part of this whole process to us,” Slevin said.
Not just cows
And cows aren’t the only members of the small family dairy community. Ashton Beanblossom is a fourth-generation farmer on her family’s dairy, Beanblossom Acres, west of Lynden, which is now one of two dairies in the county producing goat milk, along with nearby Grace Harbor Farms.
Beanblossom recently made the shift to goats. For three generations, the family had run a cow dairy. But this was getting increasingly expensive — the cost of labor had risen and purchasing new technology to alleviate the need for labor was too big of an investment. After negotiating with Darigold which bought their milk, her parents retired.
A local processor told Beanblossom he was seeing more of a market for goats’ milk, and wondered if she would start milking goats on her farm. It was a proposition Beanblossom found quite funny at first, but after doing research, she found many of the same practices applied from her work as a herdsman with her parents’ cows.
“Goats cost less, the equipment was a lot less, they take up less space, they eat less feed,” Beanblossom explained.
Beanblossom could effectively manage the farm on her own, with a little help from her husband and three kids. So she purchased goats and started milking in May of this year. Beanblossom sells her raw milk to Grace Harbor, which processes the product for consumption. Currently, she’s milking 55 goats and hopes to bring that to 120 next year.
“I really saw the value in adding goat’s milk to the market. It was more doing something that’s not being done around here, but there is a market for it and there’s a need for it,” Beanblossom said.
Since she’s just started, she’s not sure exactly what the future will look like for her goat dairy. She thinks farming will continue in the county, but it will have to evolve.
“It is hard, but you know, there are ways of doing it,” Beanblossom said.
For now, pursuing this allows her to keep farming, something she loves to do.
And Likkel sees the farming community’s innovations as very welcome in the county.
“What is fortunate is that we also live in an area with a population that is really looking for some of these different products. So there are certainly opportunities out there,” Likkel said.
— Reported by Lauren Gallup
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