The Whatcom County dairy community is passionate about persevering in a challenging climate
Whatcom County’s dairy community is a tightknit group of families who take great pride in what they do. As with most entrepreneurs, the decision to own a business is driven by passion. Family, animals and the land drive this passion for dairy farmers. Most local farms are multigenerational endeavors that see family members working shoulder to shoulder, day in and day out.
“There are some rough days once in a while, but I’ve never woken up one morning and thought, man, I don’t want to be a farmer,” said Galen Smith of Coldstream Farms. “I love what we’re doing. One of the great things that we have as a family business is working side by side with my brother, my father-in-law, my wife, my sister-in-law and my kids. That’s a lot of fun. I mean, it can be challenging, but we have to be mindful of how we treat others because we’re going to go sit down and have Christmas dinner together.”
For Shannon Smith of MyShan Dairy, animals are a huge part of the draw.
“My favorite thing about being a dairy farmer is working with the animals and seeing my grandkids working with the animals and getting to see them grow,” she said. “They get to see what hard work really is. For everyone that works the farm, it’s a passion besides a job.”
Enjoying the lifestyle is a must if someone is going to be a dairy farmer. No one gets into the business because it’s easy. Every year, the dairy community faces new challenges just to get its products into the stomachs of customers. Selling milk is not as simple as saying, “my expenses are X, so I am going to sell my product for Y.” Prices are often locked in, and the farmers have little or no control over what the price of milk is. They work their farms as efficiently as possible, hoping that at the end of the year, they have turned a profit so that they and their family can do it again the following year. The number of overall farms has been dwindling, and those that still exist have done so with innovation and business acumen.
“In 2006, our daughter and son-in-law asked if they could join our dairy,” said Larry Stap of Twin Brook Creamery, a fifth-generation farm that started in Lynden in 1910. “You’re always pretty thankful that you have another generation that wants to farm, because too many farms are on their last generation. Instead of getting bigger, which would entail more land, more storage, more power, more everything, we looked at can we do something to add value to our raw commodity?”
What the Stap family chose to do was to begin bottling milk themselves in glass bottles. While the initial purchase of this milk is higher, people are able to return the bottles to the store for a credit, and Twin Brook Creamery can wash and reuse those bottles over and over again. Unfortunately, innovation can lead to new problems. Of late, some local grocers have stopped carrying Twin Brook milk because the product had become a target for shoplifters stealing the milk to get the bottle refunds.
Coldstream Farms has chosen to stick with the model of selling to the co-op distributor Darigold. In order to survive in the slim-margin milk business, the farm has turned to scale and technological innovation. Over the years, it has added to its herd while implementing new methods to help the cows and the land be as healthy and efficient as possible.
“I would say we’ve become less like farmers and more like businessmen trying to manage the day-to-day operations,” Galen Smith said.
With the price of milk becoming more volatile, dialing in all the pieces necessary to create a gallon of milk must become more precise. It all starts with the animals, who want good feed, land and consistency. Coldstream Farms implements cutting-edge methods for protecting the land and ensuring their cows get what they need. Each cow wears a health tracking device to upload its individual information. Not only does this provide vital health information, but it also teaches the farmers a lot about what the cows want. While there is a large feeding time at Coldstream Farms, with the cows able to choose when they come to eat, each individual cow has its favorite time and shows up within three to five minutes of that time every day. This told Galen Smith that, above all else, these habitual animals want consistency.
That consistency has been challenging lately, as supply chain issues have scrambled the acquisition of critical products. Everything is harder to get, from feed to cleaning supplies to tractor parts. When products can be garnered, they are at a higher price, as inflation has hit the dairy community hard.
“Everything has gone up,” Shannon Smith said. “I was getting 50-pound bags of sugar for $22 to make our chocolate milk, and the price has increased to $65. That was just in the last six months, and people don’t understand why prices are going up at the grocery store.”
Inflation in diesel prices and labor costs also has significantly impacted family-owned farms. The increased diesel prices directly influence the cost of feeding cows and transporting milk. Increased wages, while understandable to the farmers who are often employing family and friends, make everything in the process cost more from start to finish.
While many of these challenges are felt by other business owners outside of dairy, another dramatic influencer of dairy farmers is the land itself. In addition to Mother Nature often throwing curveballs, regulation from various government branches has jeopardized local dairy farming. Whatcom Family Farmers is a local advocacy group that helps unite the voices of individual farms. Most people don’t get the opportunity to see what happens on a farm, so voters often don’t have a complete picture when electing officials and implementing regulations.
While many collaborative efforts have been put in place, those efforts are often ignored, with top-down regulation being forced through. The proposed imposition of wooded buffers around streams and ditches leading to salmon-bearing streams is one of many examples.
“When you look at what the mandatory buffer ideas would do, it’s troubling because it would put a lot of family farms out of business,” said Dillon Honcoop of Whatcom Family Farmers. “We know that when farms go out of business, there is a pressure for pavement through urban development, which creates pollution. We need a healthy rural farming community that can be stewards of the land.”
Local farmers want to be a part of the solution to keep improving habitat and protecting our water. Through continued innovation and use of the latest science, farms can thrive alongside nature, and both our beautiful county and our generations of local farmers can be preserved.
The alternative is that our dairy becomes produced overseas in places where the treatment of animals, land, people and product is given less care. Dairy is one of the cheapest protein sources in the world. It is needed to feed our ever-growing worldwide population.
“When you’re hungry, little else matters,” Larry Stap said. “If we aren’t producing it here, we’ll just have to import all our food.”
Whatcom County’s dairy farmers have been feeding the region and the world for well over 100 years. While these local families continually face new challenges, they are determined through innovation and perseverance to ensure that future generations can feed their communities and work with the land and animals they love.