ELLENSBURG, Wash. — After about 20 years of being the last family in the Kittitas Valley to operate a dairy farm, the Scott family is shutting things down.
The family, whose operation is located west of Ellensburg has recently auctioned off most of its dairy cattle, some of which headed off to Colorado, much of the rest heading to the Columbia Basin. Approximately 30 juvenile cows remain on the property, munching away on feed until they grow old enough to auction.
Mike Scott’s family history in dairy farming began on the West Side with his father in 1959. They moved to the Kittitas Valley in 1971. They picked the area due to the ideal weather. At its peak, the Scott family had approximately 200 cows in its operation. Scott’s father retired in 1999 and Scott and his brother Kenny continued the operation until they milked their last cow on Jan. 4.
When they moved to the valley, Scott said there were over a dozen operating dairies in the area. He said part of the driving factor for the other dairies closing was a lack of interest in younger family members to keep the operations going, a trend he saw within his own family.
“Our boys didn’t want to do it, thank God,” he said. “You just don’t go out and decide you’re going to milk cows someday and buy cows and buy a farm, it don’t pay. If you don’t have it inherited to you, it’s pretty tough. I always said I was the only stupid one that stayed in it.”
The Scotts never had a formal conversation with their boys about taking over the operation. They said the boys saw that prices were low and that the work was tedious, having to work seven days a week. Instead, the boys work as commercial truck drivers.
“They have off holidays and Christmases,” he said. “They figured out pretty quick that it’s like why do I want to work seven days a week and make hardly nothing sometimes. There’re years you make no money and there’s years you do pretty good. There’s a lot more years lately that’s not very good.”
Scott said over the last decade, costs to run a dairy have become prohibitive. When milk prices are low and grain prices are high, he said farmers would rely on subsidies such as ones received through the farm bill, but they became increasingly unreliable to attain.
“I think it’s really gone south,” he said.
Mike’s wife Pam said the system of subsidies is designed to help not only the farmer, but the end consumer.
“It’s called keeping food cheap,” she said. “America wants to keep the food cheap.”
Another problem Mike pointed out was that costs are up, and prices are down. He said prices they received for milk are consistent with those they received in the 1960s and 1970s.
“There’s times it comes up, but it doesn’t last,” he said. “It’s always been this roller coaster, but any more it’s a world market, so you have this price that just stays down. There’s no shortage of milk in the world. There’re 9 million cows in the United States. There’s just too much milk and it just floods the market.”
Scott said some small farmers can keep up by employing tactics like growing their own feed, and that he feels there are still many more small operations than large ones. Despite this, he said large companies with thousands of cattle can buy commodities like feed for less money, bringing their overall cost down.
“He’s going to go buy thousands of tons of hay,” he said. “I’m going to go buy 100 tons of hay. Guess who’s going to get the better price?”
Pam said although the family was part of the Darigold Co-op, the costs were not aligned with what larger operations tend to incur.
“Everybody has to have their piece of the pie,” she said. “We’re just the ones that get the little crumbs.”
The Scotts said they considered moving into a boutique dairy operation, and they believe there is a niche to be filled in that area. Mike said they decided against it due to the risks associated with a venture of that sort.
“It’s a huge investment to start something like that,” he said. “When you’re 50 years old and you’re thinking you have to spend a million bucks, it’s not worth the risk for what you might gain. You might lose.”
Although they have decided to get out of the industry, Pam said the experience has been memorable for her. She remembers when she was younger and her mother-in-law would bring fresh raw milk in from the barn, and the fun she and her kids had with 4-H programs and the other experiences they had being able to live on an active dairy farm.
“Who can learn to drive at 5 years of age or see a calf being born?” she asked. “There’s so many things they have seen. I was a city girl and so to actually pull a calf, that was an experience for the first time.”
Looking back on the experience, she said she has no regrets about the decisions they have made.
“It’s a great way to raise a family,” she said. “I never would have changed anything, and I wouldn’t change this now either.”
Although they are exiting the dairy industry, the Scotts have no intentions of leaving the valley. They said they plan on continuing to work in other fields and spend time with their family who lives nearby.
“It’s just another chapter,” Mike said.