Washington is well known for its agriculture, especially when it comes to growing apples. Yet the vast dairy industry often goes unnoticed. According to the Dairy Farmers of Washington, dairy production is the fourth biggest commodity behind apples. The dairy industry creates a $5.2 billion economic impact and provides Washingtonians around 18,000 jobs.
The Dairy Farmers of Washington is organizing a self-guided dairy tour that spans throughout Whatcom County on June 10 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. This free event is in partnership with other Whatcom organizations, including Whatcom Family Farmers and Sustainable Connections, among others.
Washington is home to 300 dairy farms, said Sprince Arbogast, who runs media relations and is a spokesperson for the Dairy Farmers of Washington.
The inspiration for the second annual tour of Whatcom This Whey & Choose Your Own Adventure came from a mission to educate consumers on where their dairy comes from.
Attendees are able to wander to any of the nine participating dairy farms and creameries throughout Whatcom County to learn more about dairy production and environmental management. All of the stops along the tour will have free samples of their products for attendees to try.
Steensma Creamery is located in Lynden and is one of the participating farms on the tour. The fourth-generation farm is on the exact property that it started on over 75 years ago. The creamery is now owned and operated by Kate Steensma.
“My great-grandparents emigrated from Holland to Iowa in the 1920s,” Steensma said. “In the 1940s, right after World War II, they moved their farm from Iowa out to Washington and they bought the same land that we're still farming today.”
In the 1970s, there were 1,000 dairy farms in the county – now, there are about 50 left, Steensma said.
The tour started last year after Larry Stap, the owner of Twinbrook Creamery, reached out to Steensma with the idea of a dairy tour in Whatcom County, partially because of the decrease of dairy farmers in Whatcom County.
Steensma points out that the variety of dairy farmers in Whatcom County — some focus on milk production, while others make yogurt or cheese — creates a tight-knit community.
So why should the public learn about the dairy industry in the county?
“Farmers are often presented as a monolith,” Steensma said.
She pointed out that every farmer runs their business a little differently, which is some of what the tour hopes to educate the public about. But the biggest issue, Steensma said, is the misconception that many people have about farmers and where their food comes from.
“We're really passionate about doing things well and taking care of our animals and our land because we are participants in the ecosystem we live in,” she said.
Steensma isn’t the only one to point out how imperative the dairy farming business model is to the function of a farm.
Amber Adams Progar teaches dairy management at Washington State University. She also believes the business model is a crucial backbone of a farm.
Originally from Wisconsin, Adams Progar grew up around cattle and eventually focused her career on dairy management. One of the notable differences that Adams Progar saw between dairies in Wisconsin and Washington was the public understanding of dairy farms.
“In Wisconsin, there's a lot of public support for dairy farming and a lot of interest in what dairy farmers do,” Adams Progar said. “When I moved to Washington, I realized that there was a lot more public misconception of what the farming was.”
One of the misconceptions in Washington that Adams Progar noticed is the assumption that large dairy farms are owned by a big corporation, but in reality most, if not all, of these farms are owned by families.
Dairy farms are combating this misconception by opening their doors with tours much like the Whatcom This Whey & Choose Your Own Adventure. Tours like this are not only educational for the general public. They also allow farmers to learn from each other’s business models and to see how new technology might be useful for their own farms, as well as connect with the public they serve.
Whether someone wants to learn about the dairy industry in Whatcom County or just wants to try some food, the Whatcom This Whey & Choose Your Own Adventure tour has something in store for everyone.
Aislinn Jones (she/her) is a city life reporter for The Front. She is a junior majoring in visual journalism with a concentration in art history, so her work often reflects her interest in art and/or music events. Outside of the newsroom, you can find her taking photos on her film camera or hammocking in the sun. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.