Dairy Farming in Washington

  • By Kara Rowe
  • Posted 4/16/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20544
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Dairy Farming in Washington includes curriculum for elementary and middle school students developed by the Washington State Historical Society. 

In 2016, milk was the second highest valued commodity in Washington behind apples, with some 90 percent of the milk produced in the state also processed there. The first substantial herd of cattle arrived in the future Washington at Fort Vancouver in the 1820s. As more people settled in the territory, Washington proved to be a prime place for milk production and specific milking breeds such as Holsteins, Jerseys, and Guernseys were introduced. Milk production increased and dairy farmers found better ways to create and transport products such as cheese and cream. In the early 1900s there were no national bacterial standards for milk and contamination posed a problem for many producers. Farm-product cooperatives formed as transportation and marketing opportunities increased. Research efforts both private and academic increased production and improved safety in dairies across the state. Milking machines became popular in the 1940s and this new efficiency allowed farmers to milk cows with less labor.

The First Herds

The first cattle to step foot into the Pacific Northwest landed at Nootka Sound on what is now Canada's Vancouver Island. They arrived with Spanish forces who kept an armed outpost there in the late 1780s. British explorer George Vancouver (1757-1798) was apparently so impressed by these cattle and their milk supply that he requested a few of his own for British posts when he visited the Spanish settlement. The Spanish commander obliged with both cattle and sheep, and "a dozen, being as many as we could possibly take on board, were immediately provided, consisting of four cows, four ewes, two bulls, and two rams" (Kingston, 164). Farther south, the Spanish made a brief settlement in present-day Washington on the Olympic Peninsula at Neah Bay in 1792. Captain Salvador Fidalgo stocked the fort with cattle, poultry, and other livestock, but it lasted less than a year.

The first longterm herd of cattle arrived in what would become the state of Washington in the 1820s when the animals were transferred from the Hudson's Bay Company's (HBC) Fort George at Astoria on the south (Oregon) side of the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver on the river's north bank. Governor George Simpson (1792-1860), principal overseer of HBC's North American operations, was determined to make his trading posts as self-sufficient as possible. The herd's primary purpose was ultimately to supply beef, but Simpson strictly managed the growth of the herd and did not allow any cattle to be killed until the herd proved to be self-sustaining. The chief factor of Fort Vancouver, Dr. John McLoughlin (1784-1857), found this rule to be a challenge. Sailors making port at the young trading post didn't like being refused fresh beef, and it became an issue of contention.

"The only exception permitted by McLaughlin was the slaughter of an occasional bull to supply rennet for making cheese … The general policy was rigidly adhered to, despite occasional grumbling from the employees and the sometimes vehement protests of visiting seamen" (Hussey, 14).

The practice of preserving herds was followed throughout Simpson's territory. McLoughlin instead used the cattle for milk, butter, and cheese production, although that proved difficult as well. McLoughlin believed the cattle were "very bad milkers," but "he had previously thought that at least part of the trouble was due to the fact that the Canadians, Hawaiians, and other employees at the fort did not know how to milk them" (Hussey, 82). Regardless, Fort Vancouver housed multiple dairy houses, and milk products became a regular staple for traders, trappers, and early settlers. In 1840, McLoughlin expanded to Wapato (later Sauvie) Island, and built three dairies there. He also established dairies at HBC's Cowlitz, Fort Nisqually, and Fort Langley outposts and placed families at those settlements to mind the farms and dairy herds. As McLoughlin's farms proved successful, he shipped surplus amounts of butter and other supplies to posts further north. Indeed, Russian fur traders in the northern frontier developed a liking for the butter produced by McLoughlin's crew, leading to pressure from HBC superiors to produce even more.

McLoughlin's cattle also served as the "mother herd" for other Hudson's Bay Company outposts as cows were moved to other forts. In 1841 both Fort Colvile and Fort Okanogan had cows that supplied their regions with milk and butter. Traders moved cattle from Fort Vancouver to Thompson River and other outposts. Squatters and settlers eventually moved into the area around Fort Vancouver and took over many of the fields and herds, and in 1860, the HBC closed the outpost and moved its headquarters to Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island.

Cows Cross the Mountains

In 1834, a party led by Jason Lee brought the first cattle overland from the East across the mountains to the Northwest.

"In Jason Lee's diary we read that he bought some cows at Liberty, Missouri, and that they were the source of much trouble on the way west; it was difficult to make them swim the deeper streams, and with the scanty grass and the long marches over the dry plains, the cattle became so footsore and weary that they could with difficulty be kept with the party travelling with riding and pack horses.
"In the Snake River country Jason Lee writes: 'The slow monotony of cow driving is indeed very wearisome and the quart of milk that they afford us now per day is a small compensation for our trouble'" (Kingston, 175).

Missionaries Marcus (1802-1847) and Narcissa (1808-1847) Whitman brought the next herd of cattle overland to the Northwest on their 1836 journey to Walla Walla. They started with 17 head of cattle, including four cows for milking. The Whitman party seemingly had better luck than Lee in bringing cattle across the mountains. That August Narcissa Whitman wrote:

"We think it remarkable that our cattle should endure the journey as well as they do; we have two sucking calves that appear in very good spirits; they suffer some from sore feet, otherwise they have come on well and will go through" (Kingston, 176).

Milking became part of the daily routine at the mission that the Whitmans established. On March 1, 1842, Narcissa described to friends how a fellow missionary often helped her with chores "such as milking, getting water, wood, etc." (Whitman). The missionaries also used the cattle to cultivate their fields and the animals offered a year-round food supply.

Milk and butter added a source of comfort to newly established missions. Catholic priests also made milking a common practice at their missions as they worked with tribes in the region. Washington Territory Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) noted at the Coeur d'Alene mission in 1853 that there were 20 cows.

As more non-Indians arrived to settle on the western side of the Cascade Range, many felt it was prime farmland once lowlands were diked off from coastal flooding and tidal cycles. Western Washington became an important location for milk production. In the 1850s, near Hoquiam "women milked dairy cows and churned butter and stored it in barrels of brine. Native American canoe men could freight the butter to Olympia in the rainy season on the Black River" (Kirk and Alexander, 454).

Federal laws that allowed settlers to claim homestead land for free or at minimal cost by occupying and developing the property encouraged greater numbers to move to the Pacific Northwest. Dairy cows came with many of the new arrivals. In the Skamokawa area along the Columbia River estuary in Southwest Washington, starting in the 1870s Scandinavian immigrants developed subsistence farms "so productive in cream and butter that a teacher boarding with one family later wrote that she gained 22 pounds during the term" (Kirk and Alexander, 426).

In the 1880s dairy farmers brought the first purebred dairy cattle herds into the region. Many Norwegian and Dutch immigrants settled in the northwest corner of Washington, and they introduced Holstein cows. Ellensburg had Jersey cows and Island County had Guernseys.

Beginnings of Automation

Through much of the 1800s all the work on a dairy was muscle powered. The daily milking, separating, and churning was done by arm strength in a lengthy process.

"The [milk] separator was a hand crank machine. It took a lot of effort to get it up to full speed. ... Twenty minutes was required to separate the milk. I think Mother needed that long to wash the separator and all the milk pails" (Kirk and Alexander, 59).

Starting in the 1850s inventors in Britain, America, and elsewhere had experimented with different automated milking machines. The earliest suction milkers connected to a hand pump and fitted over the entire udder. These early machines pulled milk from all four teats, and "such devices created a continuous suction on the udder, damaging the mammary tissue and frequently causing the cow to kick" (Van Vleck). Inventors came up with new techniques to improve the efficiency of the milking task. In 1898, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved a pulsator-type milking machine, which allowed time for milk to refill into the teat between spurts of suction. This would be the great-grandmother of the milking machines of the early twenty-first century.

In 1888, brothers George and David Brown moved from Illinois to the Cheney area in Spokane County and started Hazelwood Farms. Within 15 years "they claimed to be the second-largest dairy in the country and were encouraging local farmers to add cows to their wheat farms" (Tinsley). Spokane machinist Daniel Kline assisted the Brown brothers in automating the milking process; he held several patents on the process in the U.S., Australia, and Europe. The Browns were innovators in wrapped butter, being the first to cut the butter cubes into quarters. They also made improvements to pasteurized cream, baby formula, and sanitary dairy practices. They bred superior dairy cattle, which later "became the foundation for the Carnation Milk Co.'s Holstein herd in the Seattle area" (Tinsley).

Marketing and Research

When the Northern Pacific Railway completed its initial route from the Great Lakes to the Pacific, trade and transportation of people and goods increased dramatically in Washington. Through their creamery in the early 1900s, the Brown brothers learned how to ship their ice cream to luxury markets before refrigeration became common. "They packed it in special quilted containers lined with cork and packed cold fruit around it" (Krainick interview). That would help the frozen cream last on long train and truck rides. Still, the lack of reliable refrigeration challenged dairies and creameries throughout the state.

After Washington became a state in 1889, its population increased rapidly and dairy farmers enjoyed the vast countryside and opportunities to serve growing markets. West side dairymen created creameries and sent fresh milk to customers up and down the waterways on steamships. Creameries around the state marketed directly to neighbors and throughout the areas where they were located, taking advantage of market opportunities as they could, as an Okanogan area resident recalled:

"Most of the cream was sour cream but once in a while we would have a can of sweet cream, for which we would get a premium price. If Dad couldn't get to town that week, he would send the cream with the mailman and get the empty can back the same day" (Kirk and Alexander, 59).

In 1891 the Agricultural Experiment Station formed at Washington State College (later University) in Pullman, Whitman County, in Eastern Washington. Among other subjects, faculty taught classes and conducted research in dairy, including processing and cheese making. In a spirit of unity, dairy farmers formed the Washington State Dairy Federation in 1892. This was the first dairy trade association in the nation. The organization was set up to monitor and address regulations, support research for the health and welfare of dairy herds and the environment, and promote the interests of dairy producers.

The Dairy Business

More business-minded newcomers moved into the region, looking to make a fortune in Washington's agricultural utopia. At the turn of the twentieth century, dairies struggled to reduce bacteria levels in fresh milk. There were no national bacterial standards for milk and contamination posed a problem for many milk operations. In 1899, Elbridge A. Stuart and Tom Yerxa started a canned-milk business in an abandoned hotel in Kent. They opened the Pacific Coast Condensed Milk Company, hoping to create a safer milk product. The evaporation process removed about 60 percent of the water and made their product more stable and safe without refrigeration, which was not widely available at the time. Those who purchased evaporated milk could simply add clean water back to it and they would have regular milk.

"Neither of them knew how to evaporate milk, so they relied on a man they later recalled as 'a crusty Swiss', John Myenberg[,] who had patented a new process and apparatus for the job" (Hutchinson).

The process required the use of metal cans and thousands of pounds of milk from local dairies. Neighboring dairies supplied the new plant with 5,800 pounds of milk, but Stuart didn't want to pay high prices for the cans. His crew handmade cans at the plant, but they leaked. Stuart ended up selling the leaky canned milk back to local dairymen who then fed it to their calves. Stuart also bought a herd of hogs and fattened them up with the leaky canned milk. Yerxa soon sold his half of the business to Stuart, and the business began rebuilding. Stuart's determination paid off and "workers soldered 3,000 cans per day by hand and horse-drawn carts delivered canned milk door to door as well as to grocery stores" (Kirk and Alexander, 277).

Stuart later changed the name of his enterprise to the Carnation Milk Company. In 1910, he bought acreage near Tolt to start a research dairy farm, and his purebred Holstein cows set production records for milk and butter. The farm became famous as "the home of contented cows." Citizens of Tolt changed the town's name to Carnation in 1917. The Carnation Milk Company grew into a Fortune 500 company, and it was purchased by Nestlé in 1985. The research farm became a nonprofit farm serving the region.

Also in the early 1900s, other businessmen found that dairying could be a profitable endeavor with the right technology and dedicated efforts. In 1910 timber baron Frederick Stimson (1868-1921) and his wife Nellie (1868-1946) built an estate in the Woodinville area, eventually and expanding it to 600 acres. Stimson's hope was to develop a dairy that provided people with sanitary milk and to "demonstrate the basic [principles] of industrialized dairy farming and farm management by building an operating model that would prove the commercial feasibility of advancements in agricultural technology and serve as an example for others to follow" (Keller and Thomas, 3). Stimson kept strict records of each cow and advanced sanitary practices and science governed all aspects of his Hollywood Farm. His cows produced superior butterfat, and he eventually owned more cows on the Advanced Register than any dairy on the West Coast. Among other leadership roles in the community, Stimson also served on the board of regents for Washington State College. A portion of the original Hollywood Farm property became home to Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, which opened there in 1976.

Dairy Cooperatives

Farm-product cooperatives began forming as transportation and marketing opportunities increased. The addition of automobiles and trucks to railroads as transportation options allowed for easier delivery of dairy products, making it possible for "local milkmen to deliver fresh milk to the budding cities" (Krainick interview). Many dairy farmers also found that it was easier to handle new standards, technologies, and market challenges cooperatively rather than as individuals.

Pasteurization techniques had been taking hold in dairies and homes throughout the nation since the late 1800s. Congress passed laws in 1890 and 1906 authorizing USDA inspectors to enforce standards of sanitation and hygiene in the meat and dairy industries nationally. Many dairies implemented new standards such as grooming cows, keeping hands and clothing clean, keeping clean barns, washing and sterilizing milking utensils, and quickly cooling the milk. While these new standards improved sanitization, they were often expensive. "Newly stringent health laws forbade cooling milk in well water, however, and this necessitated buying expensive refrigeration equipment, which few small farm owners could afford" (Kirk and Alexander, 60). Raising cows for beef often proved more profitable than dairies. In 1908 states started requiring pasteurization of milk, but it would be 1948 before ultra-high temperature pasteurization was introduced, making the process efficient.

In 1918, a group of dairymen in the Puget Sound region joined together to market their products. They formed the United Dairymen's Association, and later rebranded their products as Darigold. The cooperative grew to become the largest dairy marketing group in Washington. The Darigold brand became well known for superior butters, cheeses, creams, and milk. In 1999 the cooperative changed its name to the Northwest Dairy Association to better reflect its marketing goals.

In the area around Toledo in Lewis County in Southwest Washington, farmers had switched from hops to dairy. By 1919 some 100 farmers organized a cheese cooperative and launched the Toledo Cheese Day Festival.

When the U.S. government built the Grand Coulee Dam, it improved infrastructure in the Columbia River Basin. Dairy farms in Yakima, Sunnyside, Grandview and other central areas grew in size. The open air and available land was prime for dairying.

In 1939 dairy farmers urged the state legislature to form the Washington Dairy Products Commission. Using assessments gathered on milk produced in the state, the commission promoted dairy products within the state and educated the public about dairy products and the dairy industry.

Into the Twenty-first Century

Researchers at Washington State College continued efforts to support the dairy industry. One of the most prominent dairy researchers at WSC was an Englishman who had worked at a milk factory as a young man supplying milk to the famous Cadbury chocolate factory. Norman S. Golding (1889-1984) served as a dairy professor at WSC for about 20 years beginning in the 1930s. Golding made many discoveries in cheese manufacturing and canning. As World War II began, the federal government worked with WSC to find a way to keep cheese successfully in tins. This research by Golding and others led to the creation of Cougar Gold Cheese, famous for its tin-can packaging. Jerry D. Clarke, WSC Class of 1942, who worked with Golding on Cougar Gold, recalled in 1994, "He was always inventing something. ... Dr. Golding was the Thomas A. Edison of WSU" (Marsh). In the twenty-first century the Creamery at WSU continues to provide cheese production research and allows students to gain experience in food science.

As technology developed, dairy farmers implemented more changes in their operations. Milking machines became popular in the 1940s and this new efficiency allowed farmers to milk cows with less labor. Multiple cows could be milked simultaneously. Milking "parlors" became a common sight on many dairies. Farmers built the parlors to milk multiple cows at once, and they stored the milk in bulk tanks rather than cans. In the twenty-first century, typical dairy farms house hundreds of dairy cows producing thousands of pounds of milk.

One of the biggest problems dairy farmers face is the expense of operating. Environmental standards keep the cost of running a dairy in the state high. Dairy producers have to work to keep the land and water surrounding their farms clean. Technological advancements, like anaerobic digesters to combust manure into biogas, are effective but costly. Producers work hard to manage manure from their herds responsibly, with a proactive approach and commitment to science-based solutions helping foster a sustainable future for the industry. In marketing, dairies have found success in being innovative as their predecessors were. Some sell direct to consumers, while others are members of large cooperatives.

Dairy has been a cornerstone of Washington agriculture for more than 200 years. In 2016, milk was the second-highest-valued commodity in Washington behind apples. Roughly 90 percent of the milk produced in the state is also processed in the state. The combined total economic contribution of the Washington dairy industry was estimated at $5.2 billion in 2011, and it was responsible for more than 18,000 jobs in the state. Throughout history, dairy farmers have always faced adversity by being inventive and resourceful, benefiting the land, cows, and consumers of dairy products.

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum. 


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