Disappearing Dairies

Stephanie Haugen ’12 grew up on a farm in Washington County. As a journalism major at Pacific University, she used her senior project to explore the changes in agriculture in her home county and to tell the stories of the farmers who are neighbors to the University. With her permission, Pacific magazine is publishing excerpts of her seven-story investigative series.

Fred and Janet Wismer of Gaston are one of only a few dairy farming families left in Washington County.

The Wismers milk 200 Jersey and Holstein cows twice a day, everyday, at 5:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. During the winter, they’re up before the sun rises and done long after it sets. Like all dairying families, they can never take a day off—for a holiday, wedding, vacation or illness—without making arrangements for their cows first. They spend every day maintaining the farm, milking, planting feed crops and managing animal waste. The work on a farm is never done.

Milk prices are good right now, but the Wismers never know when the tide will turn. The once thriving Washington County dairy industry has been reduced to a handful of operations. Urban sprawl, government regulation and high land values have all contributed to the decline, as has a lack of interest in younger generations. Many family-operated farms have had trouble keeping up with the changing world, and the number of larger corporate farms is increasing.

Dairy is still an Oregon business. In 2011, the dairy industry was Oregon’s second most profitable agricultural commodity, with about $524 million in sales. But Washington County is home to only 2,000 of the 68,000 milking cows in Oregon’s northwest. While 25 years ago there were 70 dairies in Washington County, today there are 11.

So where have all the dairies gone?

Many have moved to eastern Oregon, where land is cheaper, there is less rainwater filling manure tanks and less mud in the pastures, where hay is closer and cheaper, and where there are fewer neighbors to complain about smells.

Others have simply called it quits.

Jim Krahn is the executive director of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association. He has lived in Oregon for 20 years and says he has seen land use change dramatically. Farms aren’t passing to the next generation as often as they once did, and it’s easier for farmers to retire and sell their land for development or residential use, or for other agricultural purposes, like nurseries, Krahn said.

Since the late 1980s, more than 22,00 acres of farmland in Washington County alone has converted to other uses.

“The more urban sprawl there is, the less land there is for dairies,” Krahn said. “People are going to have to understand—we can’t get that back.”

Troy Downing, dairy specialist for the Oregon State University Extension, agreed.

“It’s not a place we are going to see more dairies because of the high cost of ground and urbanization,” he said. “There are a lot of other pressures and uses.”

In addition to urbanization, dairy farmers face pressure from new neighbors, who complain about odor, dust, noise and equipment on the roads. Stringent waste management laws require sometimes expensive steps to mitigate potential pollution or runoff. And both the prices that farmers receive for their milk products, and the prices they pay for animal feed, equipment fuel and other expenses, is ever changing.

“In the last three years, we’ve had the highest highs and the lowest lows,” said George Marsh, who operates a family dairy on Cornelius-Schefflin Road.

His land has been on the family since 1852, when everyone produced their own food and milked their own cows, processing milk at a nearby creamery. George Marsh took over the farm at 26, after his father died. He was attending Pacific University, his father’s alma mater, but had to drop out to take over the dairy.

He started with 40 cows but expanded in the 1980s. His father built the milk tank in the ‘50s, and he added a new milking parlor years later. Today, he and his family—wife, Judy; daughters, Anna, Amy, Brandy and Robin; son, Will—milk 120 cows on 180 acres. The work is physically demanding and the business provides challenging, but they wouldn’t trade it in—at least not yet.

Back in Gaston, the Wismers are holding on, too. Fred Wismer started farming after World War II had has been dairying full time for 33 years. He and his wife, Jane, raised their children on the farm, where days were spent together, working as a family.

“You have to stay encouraged,” Fred Wismer said. “What you put into it, you get out of it.”

Their sons, Adam and David, work on the farm full time and will take over for their parents someday.

“It always just felt right,” said Adam Wismer. “It always just felt like home.”

Dave Schoch is taking a different approach. After years of struggling with his traditional dairy business on West Union Road in Hillsboro, Schoch is creating his own on-farm processing facility.

He’s sold many of his 200 cows and now milks just 14 Swiss, Jersey and Hosteins. He’s pasteruzing the milk in his house and selling directly to customers on his property. Once his processing plant is set up, he will be able to pasteurize, bottle and sell on a larger scale.

Schoch says people enjoy picking up their milk directly from the farm and seeing where their milk originates. As interest in local food grows, he thinks he may have a niche customer base for homegrown milk.

Still, even with changes in the industry, experts doubt a resurgence in the Washington County dairy scene.

“It would be surprised,” said Krahn, of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next five to 10 years.”

Related Stories:

The Future of Agriculture in Washington County
Disappearing Dairies
Bulbs and Blooms
Wine on the Vine
Finding New Markets
Bounty in a Basket