Farmers share a love of family and passion for the lifestyle
By CARL SAMPSON
When talking with dairy farmers, the most common refrains include words like "family" and "multi-generational."
And "love" and "passion."
Clearly, being a dairy farmer is not a typical job. The work is relentless -- seven days a week -- and the pay depends on scores of factors, most of which are beyond the farmers' control. A farmer receives only 30 cents of the retail price of milk.
A dairy farmer doesn't set the price of milk, hay, feed, fuel, seed, fertilizer -- or anything else, for that matter. Yet he -- or she -- and the family will persevere and do their best to make it all work.
These are family farms, most of them. Some 97 percent of the 49,000 U.S.dairy farms are family-run, and 74 percent of them have fewer than 100 cows. The average herd is 115 cows, according to the U.S. dairy industry.
But the size of the farm changes as economics change. A parent, or grandparent -- or, in some cases, great grandparents -- started the farms with a small herd and a dream. With lots of hard work and a little luck the farms have flourished.
Sometimes the dairies have moved -- in some cases, several times -- across the state or across the region to make the economics of running a dairy with its tight margins and growing list of regulations pencil out.
This year, Capital Press asked writers around the West to talk with dairy farmers in California, Idaho, Washington and Oregon and ask them about their operations. Inevitably, the conversation turned to a discussion of their family and the values they have learned running a dairy.
Karen and Jason Sheehan, who run J&K Dairy in Sunnyside, Wash., with her parents, Tony and Brenda Veiga, want to build a future for their four children.
The work is hard and involves long hours in the milking parlor or growing and handling feed.
But it's good work, said Jason Sheehan.
"It's a passion," he said. "It's not a job when you wake up and you're happy to go in to work.
Caring for their herds is a top priority for all dairy operators, who know a healthy cow is also a productive one.
"Our job it to make their days boring," said Alan Mann, who operates Abiqua Acres Dairy with its registered Guernsey herd near Silverton, Ore.
His wife, Barbara, and their daughter and son-in-law, Darlene and Ben Sichely, share the work.
Monica Hilt does the books on the Hilt Dairy, which she operates with her husband, Chuck, near Gooding, Idaho.
But it's more than a job for her and Chuck.
"I'm proud of my husband," she said, "Not only is he a good family man, but he's the hardest working man I know. He does the electrical work, he's a farmer, mechanic, milker, and he manages people. I feel bad because he has to go through all the weather, when it's freezing cold, or 100 degrees. But he loves it. He loves his animals."
With the hard work comes a certain level of nobility, and pride. When Jamie Bledsoe was a student at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, he saw that dairy transcends a love for cows.
"I just thought dairymen were noble people with a noble cause. And it's something I still believe," he said.
Ben Anderson, who runs two dairies with his family near Declo and American Falls, Idaho, summed up the feelings of many dairy farmers in three words:
"I love it."