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Published: Monday, November 29, 2010, 12:01 a.m.

Fourth-generation dairy farm in county to sell off cattle, equipment

  • Chad Lowry, an auctioneer, sorts cows on Saturday at the Bartelheimer Brothers Dairy in Snohomish, as the Dairy prepared for the upcoming auction in w...

    Sarah Weiser / The Herald

    Chad Lowry, an auctioneer, sorts cows on Saturday at the Bartelheimer Brothers Dairy in Snohomish, as the Dairy prepared for the upcoming auction in which 800 cows and also some farm equipment would be sold.

  • Jason Bartelheimer and his 3-year-old daughter, Grace, look at their cows at the Bartelheimer Brothers dairy in Snohomish Saturday.

    Sarah Weiser / The Herald

    Jason Bartelheimer and his 3-year-old daughter, Grace, look at their cows at the Bartelheimer Brothers dairy in Snohomish Saturday.

SNOHOMISH — The local dairy herd keeps thinning.
The Bartelheimer Brothers dairy of Snohomish is preparing this week to auction off 800 Holstein cows, plus tractors and other equipment.
The disappearance of a fourth-generation dairy is the latest blow to a dwindling local industry hit hard by low milk prices, high feed prices and a tough time for borrowing money.
“Right now, our goal is to pay the bank off and to rent the land so we can keep the facility in the family,” said Jason Bartelheimer, 39, during a break Friday as he prepared for the auction. “I'm hopeful that somebody will move in and farm the ground and that it doesn't get turned into another run-down place.”
The auction began at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the family's farm east of Snohomish.
Generations of the Bartelheimer family have farmed land in Snohomish County for almost a century. They've had their present farm for 70 years. Before that, they had a dairy a few miles away.
Jason Bartelheimer said his great-grandparents emigrated from Germany and farmed briefly in Nebraska. They moved west in 1912.
“They moved out here because it reminded them of the land and rolling hills and the weather of Germany where they came from,” he said.
Jason Bartelheimer's father and uncle incorporated Bartelheimer Brothers dairy in the 1970s when they bought the farm from their father.
Since then, huge changes have overtaken the family's line of work.
In 1960, Snohomish County was home to an estimated 650 dairies. By 1990, there were 111. In 2010, only 27 remain, according to figures from Washington State University Extension.
During the same half-century, the average number of cows per farm rose nearly tenfold, to 304 now, from 34 in 1960.
In the current environment, large dairies with, say, 10,000 cows are able to compete, Jason Bartelheimer said, while mid-size farms like his family's find it much tougher to stay afloat.
“We used to be considered a large farm and now we're not large any more,” he said.
Ned Zaugg, Skagit County WSU Extension director, called the loss of the Bartelheimer dairy “another dagger in the heart of the Snohomish County dairy industry and a huge loss of income to many affiliated businesses in the area.” High-quality feeds and care for their animals set them apart.
“They have been an icon of integrity and quality dairying throughout their history,” Zaugg said.
Jason Bartelheimer said part of his family's motivation was that his father, Dale, is in his early 70s. They don't want to face prolonged financial uncertainty just as he's hoping to retire.
They're also faced with the expensive task of rebuilding a breached manure lagoon at the farm. In April, the earthen lagoon broke, unleashing 27 million gallons of waste-laden water on adjacent farmland and the Snohomish River. Some of it flowed into French Slough, an arm of the river roughly 100 yards from the lagoon.
State and federal agencies determined that an oversight by a federal agency, and no fault of the farm, led to the break.
The failed lagoon was built in the 1990s. Any rebuilding would have to comply with current standards. Before starting work, they'd have to run expensive seismic tests that might prevent them from putting a new lagoon there at all.
Still, environmental regulations would pose little problem if milk prices were high, Bartelheimer said.
The impending closure of one of the older and larger local dairies is a sad sign of the times, said Jim Werkhoven, a longtime dairyman in the Tualco Valley near Monroe.
“You have a whole bunch of farmers who will be going to that sale on Tuesday and a lot of them are going to be thinking, ‘How much longer am I going to be in business?'” Werkhoven said. “I personally have a lot more optimistic view long-term, but it's going to take some time to get from here to there.”
Werkhoven's overview of the industry comes partly from his position as chairman of the board at the Northwest Dairy Association, the co-op that runs Darigold Inc.
Things became especially difficult for local dairies when the export market for their products all but evaporated two years ago, he said. Then there's been the increased use of corn for ethanol, which has driven up feed prices. On top of that, reluctance by banks to lend money has been tough, because dairies are capital-intensive businesses.
Last year there were times when milk prices failed to cover the cost of feeding the cows, Werkhoven said.
“It has dramatically improved since then, but you're dealing with a brave new world right now,” he said. “You lose $900 per cow and that cow's only worth $1,000. In one year's time you've basically lost the value of your herd ... and that's what happened in 2009.”
Recovering from those loses takes years, he said.
When a farm closes, it has ripple effects on the surrounding economy. The Bartelheimer dairy employs eight to 12 people, depending on the season. Local businesses that sell feed and supplies are bound to suffer, too.
The Bartelheimers might be getting out of the dairy business, but they hope their farm sticks around. They have about 500 tillable acres they want to rent out.
Jason Bartelheimer hopes another dairy farmer might be interested.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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