LYNDEN, Wash. — Larry Stap has advice for fellow dairy farmers.
“We probably can be a little more transparent in how we handle our nutrients,” he says. “If we’re doing a good job, what do we have to hide?”
By “nutrients,” Stap, of course, refers to manure, a substance of substantial interest in Washington state.
The Lummi Nation’s polluted shellfish beds in Portage Bay are downriver from a cluster of Whatcom County dairies, including Stap’s.
The shellfish beds were contaminated in the 1990s, but the bacteria levels dropped after the state and county adopted manure-handling rules.
Over the past few years, however, unhealthy bacteria levels have returned. Dairies are fretting about being singled out and sued, even though cities, wildlife, septic tanks, other farms, rural development and economic activities upstream in Canada are among other potential pollution sources.
“If there was an easy answer to why (pollution) levels are increasing in Portage Bay, we would have identified it and fixed it,” said Andrea Hood, the state’s coordinator of the Whatcom Clean Water Program. “The strategy is to look at all the sources and address all the sources and concentrate on where we have opportunities for improvement.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Department of Ecology has taken the position last year that standard manure lagoons leak. From this proposition flows regulatory possibilities.
On top of this came What’s Upstream, the Environmental Protection Agency-funded lobbying campaign by the Swinomish Indian tribe and several environmental groups for mandatory 100-foot buffers along rivers and streams.
Photos of dairy cows standing in creeks figured prominently in the campaign’s imagery, even though the pictures weren’t taken in Washington.
In response, a farmer advocacy group, Save Family Farming, was formed to counter the allegations that farmers are unregulated polluters. Stap serves as the group’s president.
He jokes about being railroaded into the position, but also says finger-pointing at dairies “kind of got my blood boiling.”
Whatcom County has fewer dairies and fewer cows and handles manure better than in the 1990s, he said.
“How can a diminishing factor be increasing the problem?” Stap asked. “It didn’t add up to me at all.”
He said that over the years he has become more of an industry advocate. “Not many others were very involved in telling our story,” he said.
“I also,” he said, “have a brand to defend.”
Stap, 62, owns Twin Brook Creamery with his wife, Debbie, and their son-in-law and daughter, Mark and Michelle Tolsma.
His Dutch immigrant great-grandparents Jacob and Tryntje Stap cleared the land near the Canadian border in 1910.
Until about a decade ago, Stap belonged to the Darigold cooperative. The farm has about 180 mature cows. Rather than try to expand the herd, the family decided to add value to what they produced.
Twin Brook Creamery looked for stores to sell slow-pasteurized, non-homogenized Jersey milk in glass bottles.
“It was an uphill battle, to be honest with you,” Stap said.
One grocery store chain picked up Twin Brook milk, though, and the phone started ringing. The milk is sold in Western Washington and Portland. Stap said he spends about an hour a day answering emails from customers.
“You get direct consumer interaction, which is absolutely rewarding,” Stap said.
Embracing his advice on transparency, Stap hosts farm tours and speaks in videos to showcase dairy practices.
In a recent Facebook video, Stap talked about his three new robotic-milking machines. Each represents a $250,000 investment.
Because the machines are always ready, the cows choose when to step up and get milked.
“No human is involved in the decision when they get milked,” Stap says on the video. “It’s been fun to watch our girls develop from a herd mentality to an individual mentality.”
Within days, the video had been viewed on Facebook nearly 100,000 times. More than 100 people left comments.
Many were impressed by the technology and liked the idea of cows controlling their schedules. “OMG! What will they came up with next!! It’s really great for the cows!” read a typical comment.
Stap said the comments were unexpected, amazing and welcomed.
Less high-tech but more to the point of controlling manure is the dairy’s 1.4-million gallon above-ground steel tank, which replaced an earthen lagoon in 2014.
Back then, a mole burrowed a hole in the lagoon. Manure slurry ran out and pooled near the lagoon, about 20 feet from a ditch that runs into Fish Trap Creek. The creek runs into the Nooksack River, which empties into Portage Bay.
“Boy, did that make you nervous,” Stap said. “I didn’t need that kind of liability. What if (a leak) happened in the middle of the night?”
Stap said the tank cost about $300,000, with two-thirds paid by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“The general public is demanding water quality. This is one way their taxpayer dollars can go to meeting water-quality standards,” Stap said.
Business: Owner, Twin Brook Creamery in Lynden, Wash., with wife, Debbie, and their daughter and son-in-law, Michelle and Mark Tolsma.
Positions: President of Save Family Farming; president of North Lynden Watershed Improvement District.
Quote: “I over the years have become more and more of an advocate for our industry as not many others were very involved in telling our story. It now has become even more of a passion.”