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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Dairies put out to pasture

These days it seems like people don’t know where their food comes from. That was not a problem growing up on a cattle ranch. OK, maybe it wasn’t a ranch.
We only had the one cow.
Soupbone had all the makings of a champion bucking cow. At the time I thought I had a big future as a bucking cow rider at the rodeo. I was ahead of my time out standing in my field. Soupbone was pretending to be asleep in the shade, while chewing his cud and swatting flies with his tail.
I snuck up and hopped on his back and rediscovered why people don’t ride cows much.
Soupbone shot up in the air like a big hairy rocket.
After landing I got some static from the parental guidance committee about how I had to stop riding that cow before it got so tough you couldn’t get a fork in the gravy.
That was life on the farm. Just when you got one barnyard buddy trained, they’d disappear and you had to get another one. 
Those were the good old days. We went to a dairy farm for our milk. There was always something going on in the barn.
The farmer would mark our height on the barn door to make sure we were still growing fast enough. He would tell us we had to drink a lot of drink milk to keep from being “runts.”
There was a giant stack of hay to climb with a pack of wildcats that you could try to pet.  There was a pen full of calves that you could pet no problem. 
We got to choose a couple of them to take back home to the ranch. The farmer gave us a kitten to go with the calves and of course a couple of gallons of milk. 
We named the calves Frisky and Petunia. They were going to be my ticket to the big-time rodeo circuit. I was going to train them but they had a lot of growing up to do first. For starters we had to feed them from a bucket with a big nipple on the end of it.
It was fun to mix up the formula with the warm water being careful not to get it too hot.
Frisky and Petunia were highly intelligent cows. They took about two minutes to figure out the bucket and start pulling for all they were worth.
I was glad I wasn’t a real mommy cow. It looked painful.
After a bucket of hot milk there was time to join in all the cow games the herd loved to play like tag or butting heads.
I had hoped the calves would grow into Texas Longhorns but no such luck. All they had were a couple of puny spikes coming out of their heads.
Before long we started feeding them cereal and choice handfuls of clover and timothy. Soon the calves grew too big to feed with a bucket of formula but they never outgrew their love of play.
You had to be careful about getting caught out in the pasture. The calves might want to play tag and butt heads just for old times’ sake. They forgot they weighed hundreds of pounds!
Once the cows got that big, it was time to break them into riding cows. I would have preferred a horse but that’s life on the range. You have to make do with what you got. Breaking a riding cow is not for everyone. You have to outsmart them first. I’d bait the cows with the grain bucket. Dodging the flashing horns, I’d sneak a halter and a lead rope on one of the cows and wait for them to lie down in the shade and go to sleep. Then it was just a matter of sneaking up and slowly easing into the saddle, except there was no saddle.
That made for riding a painful experience. Frisky and Petunia were real lookers but they were razor-backed and pot bellied. Sitting on top of those critters was like riding a rail on top of a fifty gallon drum. The ride did not last long. We never made it to the rodeo. The calves grew up and went away and so did I.
When I got home the farms were gone. The dairy where we got our milk, calves, kittens and our height measured on the barn door was gone too.
It is hard to imagine that there were once 9,000 cows grazing within a five mile radius of Sequim. The first dairy cows were dumped off a sailing scow by Elliot Cline, (for whom Cline Spit is named) back in 1861.
With the passage of the Homestead Act and the removal of the Indians, dairy farms were established along the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In 1891 a dock was built in the new town of Dungeness to ship butter and cream to Seattle.
Dungeness was described as “The most prosperous place on the Sound, surrounded by the richest farming country.” As the land was settled, the new arrivals, what the Indians called “Jimmie Come Lateley’s,” had to move inland to the Sequim Prairie and the hills beyond.
In the summer of 1895 four farmers got together at James Grant’s homestead farm to try to figure out how to make a living on the Sequim Prairie. Back then the Sequim Prairie was a 1,500 acre savannah grassland. It was one of many prairies that occurred throughout Western Washington. Native Americans maintained the prairies by burning them every three to five years, for generations.
The prairies attracted game and propagated camas, wild strawberries, ferns and other plants that were used for food, fiber, medicine and cosmetics.
The earliest setters on the Sequim Prairie turned the hogs loose. They rooted the prairie right down to the cactus, which gives you an idea how dry it was.
The Sequim Prairie is in the rain shadow of the Olympics Mountains where rainfall averages less than 17 inches a year. Farmers tried growing wheat and oats until plagues of grasshoppers ate everything, including the stinging nettles and moss right down to the fence rails.
One of Grant’s neighbors was called “Crazy Callen” because of all his odd ideas.
What may have been Crazy Callen’s best idea was to dig an irrigation ditch from the Dungeness River.
Callen had seen this kind of irrigation work in Colorado so he figured it would work in Sequim. The farmers set to work with picks and shovels and dug a ditch all winter until the water reached the prairie on May 1, 1896.
Then they all sat down for a picnic. This became the Sequim Irrigation Festival. It is the oldest community celebration in Washingon.
Once the Sequim Prairie was watered it became the state dairy center that held the world’s herd record in butterfat production per cow.
In 1916, Donald McInnes Sr. built what was then the largest dairy barn in the state of Washington. It is one of the few barns that survive, still standing just west of Jamestown. The barn measures 180 feet long and 45 feet high at the peak of the roof. It had stanchions to milk 104 cows.
In the 1950s there were said to be 300 dairies in Sequim. By 1966 there were 90. Sequim became a retirement community. By the 1970s there were only a couple of dozen surviving dairies.  The rest of the farms were subdivided into housing developments.
Real estate agents replaced dairymen. The irrigation ditches were put into plastic pipes to reduce water lost to evaporation.
In 2010, there are two dairies left in the Dungeness Valley. There could soon be only one.
The Dungeness Valley Creamery has been declared habitat for the endangered bull trout. It is a fish that is neither endangered nor a trout.
It is a voracious predator.
In 2009, more than100,000 Chinook salmon smolts were released in the upper Dungeness River. An estimated 2,000 smolts survived their trip downstream to the saltwater. The rest were eaten by the bull trout and other predators.
Clallam County plans to ‘restore’ the bull trout by purchasing property from willing sellers, moving the flood control dikes and planting native vegetation.
Dairy farmer Jeff Brown, owner of the Dungeness Valley Creamery is not a willing seller. He plans to pass his farm on to his children.
Once the dike that protects his farm from the Dungeness River is moved, he could be forced to become a willing seller.
Brown, a life long dairy farmer, recently joked about his farms’ fourth anniversary of battling the myriad hostile governmental agencies he has had to deal with since starting The Dungeness Valley Creamery and opening a store on his farm.
“I should just give up on the dairy and grow marijuana,” Brown said, referring to what is now estimated to be the largest cash crop in Washington. “I’d probably get less hassle from the government than trying to be a natural food producer in Clallam County.” 
It makes you wonder where your food comes from.

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