Dairies dry up in Seattle's shadow
'When it was good, Dad put it away for when it's bad'
By STEVE BROWN
BUCKLEY, Wash. -- Less than 50 years ago, about 150 dairies thrived in Pierce County. Today there are two.
Brian Anderson grew up on the farm his father started in 1967, so he's been dairying all his life. But the industry has been vanishing around him.
"This is now a suburb of Seattle," he said. "Some land is now in warehouses and housing developments. Some is just sitting empty, and the county bought up some for wetlands."
A straightforward business strategy has helped keep the dairy healthy, he said.
"When it was good, Dad put it away for when it's bad," he said. "Everything is paid for."
The biggest challenge he has seen is not having control over input costs. Before so much corn went into ethanol production, he could wait for the best price to book his feed for the entire year. Now prices might jump overnight because a customer in China buys some.
"I'm competing against foreign countries, and exporters buy up all the best hay," he said.
He also sees too much milk in the market and wonders: "Who let that many guys produce milk? The burden of cheap milk comes back to me. How efficient can we get before we're broke?"
To survive, the industry will have to go to a quota system -- "Not one chance in heck it will please everyone" -- and better weather would certainly help.
"Is there ever a wish list that doesn't get bigger?" he asked.
Lynne Schmoe, at the Washington State Dairy Products Commission, knows what keeps Anderson going.
"He appreciates what his father has built, and he wants to preserve that," she said. "Adversity isn't something that knocks a dairy farmer down right away. They love what they do, they love their animals, they love the lifestyle and bringing up children in the country."
Also, she said, dairy farmers are versatile. "I've been amazed at how they solve myriad problems on a daily basis."
Anderson milks his cows 14 hours a day and loves it, but when he can't dairy anymore, he said: "I don't know what I'll do. Others who have sold out and gone into other work say, 'You see people say they're working hard, but they don't have any idea of dairy work.'"
Schmoe said she sees agriculture of all kinds under pressure from urban encroachment, shrinking margins and increasing regulations.
"People move in next to farms, and they don't like the dust and odor, yet they want local food," she said. "That's an interesting phenomenon."
Vern Anderson and Son Dairy
Location: Buckley, Wash.
Family: Brian Anderson, wife Cindi and daughter Maddie
Number of years farming: 50
Cooperative membership: Darigold
Total number of cows: 1,200 to 1,400 (milking 680)
Number of employees: Seven
Quote: "When it was good, Dad put it away for when it's bad. Everything is paid for." -- Brian Anderson