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Dairy industry struggling in Washington, but proud legacy drives Chehalis family farm

CHEHALIS, Wash. – The nation’s economy is booming right now with a 4% unemployment rate, but that doesn’t mean every industry is growing. Dairy farms are disappearing across the nation, including Washington.

According to the USDA and the Washington State Agriculture Bureau, there were 1,021 dairy farms in Washington in 1997, 823 in 2007 and just 387 today.

“The struggle is what defines us. It gives us the opportunity to grow,” said dairy farmer Zach Schilter.

A dairy man’s life isn’t a walk in the park.

“In dairy, it just doesn’t matter what plan (you have when) you walk out to the barn in the morning, chances are you’re not going to stay according to that plan,” said dairy farmer Michelle Schilter.

It’s that excitement that keeps the Schilter family in business. Sun-Ton Farms has been around for three generations and counting, and 18-year-old Zach Schilter vows to take on the family farm.

“My actual first name is Anton and then my dad’s name is Anton and my grandpa’s name is Anton. So I’m technically Anton the third, and just being able to have the honor of carrying on the family name and then being able to carry on the family legacy, it’s an opportunity that not a lot of people get and it’s an opportunity that I want to take,” Zach said.

A proud legacy was forged when his great-grandfather arrived in the U.S. from Switzerland through Ellis Island. They started with just 70 milking cows, working to expand to a 500-cow operation.

But all around them, dairy farms are disappearing in Washington state and across the nation.

“It’s tough to sell out generations of people’s livelihoods in three hours,” said dairy farmer Jason Bartelheimer in 2010.

After 70 years in operation, Bartelheimer Brothers Dairy shut down in 2010. It was an emotional day that all farmers, including Michelle Schilter, hope they won’t have to experience.

“I can’t imagine if we sold everything here on a Monday, what would we do on Tuesday? What would we do on Wednesday? What would we do in February when it’s cold? I just can’t even imagine,” said Schilter.

But that’s the grim reality for dairy in Washington.

The Dairy Farmers of Washington says the average dairy farmer faces many challenges, including competition by big farms out-muscling small farms for contracts and resources. Also, more Americans drinking less cow milk isn’t helping their bottom line.

“We have to be innovative and understand what the consumer wants and provide that product for them,” said Schilter.

The Washington State Farm Bureau points to low milk prices as to why 85% of Washington dairy farms have closed over the past 15 years. Michelle argues another issue putting Washington dairy farmers out of business is not having anyone to run the operation.

“When you’re 60 years old and none of your kids want to come home and run the farm and they want to live in Seattle or live in Portland or live in Tacoma and you don’t have anyone to take over the farm, a lot of times that’s when they sell out the cows,” said Schilter.

That’s why having Zach to take over the reins means Sun-Ton Farms has a fighting chance to survive.

“Possibly doing our own ice cream label or doing our own milk because, as things are getting more difficult throughout the industry, figuring out where our milk is going to go next,” said Zach Schilter.

But Dairy Farmers of Washington CEO Scott Kinney says the industry can’t grow without more kids who didn’t grow up on farms taking interest.

“There are advertising positions, marketing positions, accounting, there’s someone who has to go out and sell the feeds, nutritionists and veterinarians,” Kinney said.

Michelle says while they’re facing an uphill battle, supporting dairy should be easy.

“So much of the focus anymore is fresh, local, clean and healthy diets and the product that we make fits that so perfectly,” said Schilter.

The ongoing Trump administration tariff wars with China, Canada and Mexico are also affecting milk prices.

The Schilters say any talk of tariffs causes the price of milk to drop, which then affects a dairy farmer’s bottom line.