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Generations Deep: Oregon Supports Dairy Diversity

Dairy in Oregon began back in the 1800s, and there are more than 200 dairy farms of all different types and sizes in the state today. While many of the farms have changed and evolved over the years, most have been in the same families for several generations. These are some of their stories about where they came from and where they are today.

DRAWN TO DAIRY

Darleen Sichley of Abiqua Acres, a 100-cow dairy in Silverton, Oregon, wasn’t sure she wanted to return to the family farm after graduating from high school. Upon further review, however, the choice became obvious.

“I spent a year after high school working odd jobs in town,” she said. “Then I decided I wanted to come back here. The lifestyle – working for myself, and being able to work with my family and with animals that I enjoy – I decided you can’t beat that.”

A similar story played out at Hurliman Dairy, an 85-cow dairy in Cloverdale, Oregon, with Spencer Hurliman taking a year off after high school before deciding to return to the family farm.“I didn’t really know if I wanted to come back to the farm,” Hurliman, now in his mid-30s, said. “Then I spent a year traveling after high school, and when I came back here, it kind of made me realize that this is what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be.”

As a fifth generation dairy farmer, Bob Ross of Lee Valley Dairy, a 280-cow organic dairy on the Southern Oregon Coast, never doubted he was going to spend his life on a dairy farm. He admitted to being a little unnerved, however, after going into debt to purchase his dairy.

Louie Kazemier, who manages the 1,700-cow Rickreall Dairy in Rickreall, Oregon, grew up in San Diego, far from any dairies, but found his way into the industry through marriage.

“I met Lori (Wybenga) on my 18th birthday,” Kazemier said. “We met in August, and by April my father-in-law offered me a job. Before that, I had never touched a cow in my life.” Kazemier has been dairy farming ever since.

Notched into every Oregon dairy are backstories like these that help define an industry built on family values, work ethic and multi-generational sustainability. The stories resonate on small and large dairies, alike, and provide an authentic insight into an industry that is at once traditional and highly evolved.

EVOLVING TO THRIVE

The stories cut through decisions to install solar panels, methane digesters and low-energy lighting systems to generate power and cut energy costs.

“We have a lot of sun over here on the east side of the state,” said Warren Chamberlain of Dairylain Farms, a 500-cow dairy in Vale, Oregon, who has installed two 10-kilowatt solar panel systems. “Solar panels just seemed like a natural fit for us.”

The stories can be found resonating behind decisions to build sophisticated water conservation systems that capture and conserve water for multiple uses, such as a system Kazemier installed at Rickreall Dairy. And they are at the leading edge of decisions, like Ross’s to conserve wildlife habitat on his farm.

“We’ve got some ponds that we’ve developed, some bird boxes, and we just finished a job where we set the fence back 50-feet from the ditch and planted a lot of native bushes, along with some blooming and colorful plants,” Ross said. “The waterfowl love it.

At the 25,000-cow Threemile Canyon Farms dairy in Boardman, Oregon, a full 23,000 acres, or slightly more than one-fourth the total farm, is dedicated to habitat preservation for four threatened species. The preserve, which is managed by the Nature Conservancy, has been used as a model by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and others for how private interests and public agencies can work together for effective environmental preservation.

ALL ABOUT COWS

The backstories can be found behind decisions to install cow comforts.

“Cow comfort is our number one responsibility, and our number one priority,” said Tami Kerr, director of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, who also has a dairy farming background in the Tillamook area. “Healthy, happy cows produce a higher quality milk, and Oregon has consistently been in the top five states nationwide for milk quality, which shows we practice good animal husbandry.”

Oregon dairies work with veterinarians and nutritionists, Kerr added, who typically come out to farms twice a month, to ensure cows are healthy and well fed.

Threemile Canyon even hires an animal welfare advocate to stay on the farm for days at a time and issue quarterly reports to help the dairy see where it excels and where it can improve. And the farm hires an independent auditor to score the operation based on USDA animal-welfare standards. The farm, incidentally, consistently scores better than 95 percent, a mark rare in the industry, and recently notched one of the few 100 percent scores ever recorded.

GREAT DAIRIES NEED GREAT EMPLOYEES

The stories are behind decisions to treat employees with respect, provide them with good pay and good working conditions.

“Our producers are paying well above minimum wage, and treat their workers with respect,” Kerr said.

“Without good employees, we would not have made it to where we are today,” said Kazemier.

“I’ve got 300 families that are very dependent on what we do here,” said Marty Myers, general manager of Threemile Canyon Farms and fifth generation Oregonian. “They are paid well. They make a good living with living wage salaries. And they are obviously in a sustainable business, so don’t have a threat of losing their jobs because of mismanagement.”

A TRADITION OF HIGH STANDARDS

Oregon dairies are made up of thousands of backstories that help the industry embrace standards of waste management unheard of in other states.

“Oregon is the only state in the U.S. that requires both the CAFO, or Confined Animal Feed Operation permit, and the Animal Waste Management Plan,” Kerr said. “Some states require one or the other, but to my knowledge, Oregon is the only state that requires both.”

“We have very diverse family businesses across the state,” Kerr said. “Some are organic. Some are conventional. Some are small. Others are large. But all are family businesses.”

And all, she might have added, have backstories that resonate across generations.