Island farmers must import hay

With no highway access, farmers on the islands in Washington's Puget Sound either grow their own feed or bring it in by ferry.

Capital Press

Published on October 8, 2013 9:24AM

VASHON ISLAND, Wash. — Hauling a truckload of hay for two miles costs only a few cents. But if those two miles are aboard a ferry, it can run $50 or $100 or more.

Livestock owners who live on an island in Washington’s Puget Sound have to figure that into the cost of operation.

Vashon Island, for instance, which is in the same county as Seattle, is accessible only by boat. Most farms on the island’s 37 square miles are small, producing vegetables, eggs and milk.

“What hay you can grow here is poor quality,” said Gary Headley, co-owner of VI Horse Supply. For 16 years he has sold feed for dairy cattle, beef cattle, sheep, chickens, turkeys and pigs. The island of 10,000 people also has about 1,800 horses.

Headley pays $21.50 a bale for timothy, about what retail customers pay in Ellensburg, which is in rich timothy country 120 miles across the Cascade Range. Once he has driven and ferried that hay onto the island, he sells it for $28 or $29 a bale.

“People here love their animals,” Headley said. “They’ll pay the extra cost.” He has grown from selling 1.5 tons of grain every month to 3 to 5 tons a week.

On the same island, George Page specializes in grass-fed animals at his Sea Breeze Farm.

“We grow good-quality grass and graze year-round, rotating our stock to different parts of the island,” he said. “The hardest part is in the summer because there’s no irrigation.”

He imports hay for his cows, sheep, pigs and poultry then, and again in the winter.

“We are totally dependent on ferries,” Tom Schultz, who for the past 20 years has been director of Washington State University Extension in San Juan County, said. “As a matter of fact the Extension office is gatekeeper for priority loading for commercial livestock and 4-H livestock on the ferries. There’s a WAC (Washington Administrative Code) that allows that priority.” 

Livestock accounts for more than half the county’s main farmgate industry, Schultz said. About 15,000 people live in San Juan County, most on the largest four of more than 400 islands and rocks above mean high tide. They share their 208 square miles with cattle, horses, sheep, goats and pigs.

“Most of the animals are fed with local pasture grass and hay,” Schultz said. “And most farmers are growing their own. Some farms produce more, and they sell to smaller owners.

“Of course horse people want timothy, and we can’t grow it here.”

A feed dealer buys both local feed and gets shipments on a small scale. Supplemental feed comes from the mainland. Pastured poultry farmers are all organic, he said, and they team up to truck in their organic feed.

A USDA mobile slaughter unit comes to the islands on a regular schedule. Island Grown Farmers Cooperative then takes the meat to a cut-and-wrap facility in Skagit County, and farmers make their own deliveries.

San Juan Island also has custom slaughter available.


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