Over the past 100 years, the Van de Graaf family has been synonymous with the cattle industry in Central Washington.
Ever since retired owner Dick Van de Graaf’s parents emigrated from Holland to Sunnyside in 1918, the family business has revolved around raising some of the finest beef cows in the Northwest and a commitment to being good stewards of their land.
Today, under the name Midvale Cattle Company, the family oversees a cow herd of more than 2,000 Angus and Angus-crossbred cows on both irrigated and dryland pastures. This is a family that needs little introduction in the Northwest cattle farming community.
“My dad is a legend. He really is,” said Karen Van de Graaf-Erickson, who now owns Midvale Cattle Company with her husband, Steve Erickson, and her brothers, Rod and Rick Van de Graaf. “He is so well-respected in the agricultural community because he’s done so much for the cattle industry. A lot of what’s being done today can be traced back to my dad’s work over the years.”
Dick Van de Graaf, 87, started working on his family’s farm in White Swan at age 13 and eventually settled in Sunnyside with his wife, Maxine. In 1958, the couple started Van de Graaf Ranches on the same ranch where Midvale Cattle Company is based today.
The Van de Graafs have owned the 4,000-acre Kittitas Valley Ranch in Ellensburg since 1967, and they still maintain a ranch house there.
In the spring, they calve along the Columbia River on about 18,000 acres of dryland before moving the herd to ranches in Bickleton and Ellensburg for the summer. In the fall, the family feeds and backgrounds their cattle on one of three feedlots in Sunnyside. The calves are also weaned there.
In addition to being known for producing first-rate beef cows, the Van de Graafs have earned a reputation for their tireless advocacy of sustainable farming and ranching practices, as well as the humane treatment and handling of livestock.
“There aren’t a lot of ranch families like us left anymore,” said Dick Van de Graaf, who lives in Sunnyside and owns all of the ranches. “There used to be a lot more of us in Kittitas County, but today it’s all hay around here.”
After years of feeding fat cattle on his three lots, Van de Graaf — along with Van and Arvid Monson — founded Washington Beef Company in Toppenish, now known as AB Foods-Agri Beef.
The Van de Graafs also expanded their influence in the agricultural community by becoming active with the Washington State Beef Commission, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Washington State Cattle Feeders Association.
Van de Graaf-Erickson echoed her father in saying there are few families like them in Central Washington anymore.
“Being family-owned and -operated like we are is pretty unique,” she said. “We’re almost fully self-sustaining. We protect our own grass and ranch lands, and we even fight our own fires.”
While raising cattle remains at the heart of the family business, the Van de Graafs have tried to diversify in recent years. They now grow most of their own hay and have expanded their business model with a manure composting service called Midvale Organic.
It’s still very much a family business. Van de Graaf-Erickson handles the administrative tasks and compost operation, while Rick Van de Graaf manages the herds, cowboys and ranches, and Rod Van de Graaf oversees the feedlots, hay operation and equipment.
Dick Van de Graaf remains involved on a limited basis, but he says it’s hard for him to walk away from the only business he’s ever known.
“I still like to be involved as much as I can because this is what I’ve always done,” he said. “We have always produced some of the highest-weight calves to come out of this area (Ellensburg) — some are 800 pounds — and that’s not by accident. There’s something special about this land, and it continues to be good to us after all these years.”