Ever since the Plateau’s hops crop failed in the early 1900s, Enumclaw has been a dairy town.
In fact, the city’s Cooperative Creamery — founded in 1899 — played a not insignificant role in the founding of Darigold, which continues to be owned by nearly 500 dairy farmers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.
But the face of the dairy industry is changing, says Leann Krainick, co-owner of Enumclaw’s Krainick Dairy with her husband Mike, and there are many challenges ahead.
Since the fall of 2019, six of Enumclaw’s dairy farms — defined by Krainick as having around 500 or more cows that are the sole or primary source of income for a family — have closed, leaving only ten more around the city, and 12 total in King County. Pierce County has one remaining dairy farm, found just outside Buckley.
“Every time we go into town, people say, ‘What’s happened to all the dairy cows? Where have all the cows gone?’” she said in a recent interview, adding that many people are assuming these farms have gone bankrupt like so many in the Midwest. “In the Midwest, farm bankruptcies are common, primarily because Dean Foods, which is the largest milk supplier for liquid milk — milk that you drink — and Borden Dairy is the second, they declared bankruptcy, so those farms had nowhere to go.”
That’s not to say some of the reasons why Dean Foods and Borden Dairy had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy aren’t plaguing local farmers as well. According to the Department of Agriculture, milk drinkers per capita has fallen 26 percent over the last 20 years. Additionally, Walmart has been producing its own milk since 2017, which has also made business difficult for dairy producers.
All in all, around 2,700 dairy farms went out of business in the year and a half leading up to Borden’s bankruptcy, the Washington Post reported.
But what’s happening out here is a little more simple than the changing tastes of the American people and the consolidation of dairy producers.
First, the average age of the King County dairy farmer is 62, Leann said — not exactly prime years — and there’s been a lack of interest in the industry.
“Those that did retire, they either had no children, or they didn’t have any family that wanted to continue, which is very common,” Leann said.
Selling farm land in King County can be difficult as well. County voters approved the Farmland Preservation Program initiative in 1979, which allowed farmers to sell the developments rights of their land to the county. In exchange, farmers could no longer sell parcels of their land or develop it for other uses — it’s now for agricultural use only.
Some of the farms that are still in operation — which includes Wetzel Family Dairy Farm, Gwerder Swiss Acres, Lanting Dairy Farm, and the Van Dam Dairy — have been able to absorb some of that farmland, while the retired farmers have sold their cows to dairies in eastern Washington to pay off debt and secure some form of retirement, Krainick said.
This could help some local farmers grow their herd and make a little more money, she continued, but both Darigold and Organic Horizon (the two dairy processors that use local dairy farms) can only process so much milk at a time, meaning there’s very little room for dairy farms to grow their business and bring in more income.
And simply deciding to switch from dairy to another product is extremely difficult, since vegetable farms need to procure water rights in order to operate.
So faced with declining milk drinking rates, increasing business costs, a lack of space and an inability to expand, how are local dairy farms expected to survive?
CHANGING PRODUCTS, CHANGING MINDS
One of the first things dairy farmers — and in turn, their processors — can do is to stop producing so much liquid milk, and increase the production of other dairy products.
“Consumers want more… value-added products. Cheese, yogurts, ice creams, those types of things,” Krainick said. “In order to make those, the processing plants have to reconfigure themselves… Darigold is working on that right now.”
For example, Darigold has a new milk product called Fit Milk, advertised as having 75 percent more protein and 40 percent less sugar than regular whole milk, with the addition of being lactose free and shelf stable. Although sold at a comparable price to regular milk, the producer spent around $70 million to remodel its Boise, Idaho plant to make it, Krainick continued.
“It’s a big risk they’re taking to do that. Hopefully they’re not too far behind the eight-ball,” she added.
But maybe even more important than innovative dairy products is encouraging students and young adults to be interested in the farming business.
Krainick understands why kids these days don’t consider farming to be a workable career.
“Farming is pretty much, you have your retirement, you have all your current assets, you go to Vegas, put in on black, and spin the wheel,” she said. “It’s kind of what’s happening.”
Luckily, there’s a ray of hope here.
“We need to get more kids excited about farming and let them learn. FFA does a great job out here doing that, and it’s finally starting to come around,” Krainick said. “Decatur High School in Federal Way, Jordan Lybeck — who went to Enumclaw High School, and still lives out here — is their advisor. Five years ago, he started with 10 kids that were interested in agriculture. Last year, he had 390 students sign up for ag classes.”
WHY SUPPORT LOCAL FARMS?
With all the difficulties local farms are facing in order to stay in business, some may figure it’s just not worth it anymore — and consumers, when comparing prices, may ultimately decide to go with a less expensive product.
“I’m scared the local food movement is going to get outweighed by people wanting cheaper food that’s imported from other countries. It doesn’t have the same high standards that we do for safety,” Krainick said. “It’s important to keep all the green space, and it’s OK to pay a little more for a local product.”
From a personal health standpoint, Krainick said milk products made in the U.S. are simply better for consumers because of the country’s stricter regulations.
But on a larger scale, farms have an impact of local economies, and when they go under, job numbers can suffer and local dollars go elsewhere.
“Just our farm alone, we have 25 full-time employees,” she continued. “And we have another, I called it combined economic impact — these are other people like veterinarians, truck drivers, things like that — we have another 50 that we rely on.”
Local dairy farms also contribute products to nonprofit organizations like Northwest Harvest, which distributes food and necessary supplies to food banks all around Washington.
“I don’t know of a processor, a co-op, that doesn’t donate milk to Northwest Harvest,” Krainick said, adding that producers also just started donating butter since last year. “We donate hundreds of gallons of milk to them every year.”
MILK TODAY, MILK FOREVER
It’s likely you’ve heard that milk is good for growing strong bones, or that it helps people lose weight. Unfortunately, there are more than a few myths about the health benefits of milk.
Still, Krainick is a big believer in her product, even with several of its supposed benefits debunked.
“Milk is, penny for penny, the best source of protein that you can buy,” she said. “When you’re a growing child, and you don’t have enough food at home, it’s important.”
A cup of dairy milk contains approximately 8 grams of protein, according to Dairy Nutrition, whereas a cup of almond milk contains only 1 gram, despite the fact a simple serving of almonds, a quarter of a cup, has far more protein. Another alternative, soy milk, has the same amount of protein, but lacks in calcium and potassium.
“Dairy foods such as milk, yogurt and cheese are considered nutrient-dense foods because they provide a high level of nutrition for relatively low calories,” Ashley Rosales, an RDN and program director of community health and nutrition science at the Dairy Council of California, said in a 2019 Dairy Foods article. “Additionally, research confirms that milk, yogurt and cheese offer a unique package of nutrients — calcium, vitamin D, potassium, protein and more — that work together to provide multiple health benefits, including optimal growth and development in children and reduced risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes.”
“As farmers, we take pride in that,” Krainick continued. “It’s important that we’re still around to keep the local people fresh and help create healthy bodies.”