by Lisa Allen
Could local dairy cows become an endangered species? Some farmers think so, as they see a new and increasingly profitable agricultural enterprise already beginning to take over farmland in other areas of Washington state.
The fact is, many dairy farmers, fed up with low milk prices and increasing regulation, are looking for a way out, and the answer could lie in the very thing that was the greatest obstacle to farmers when they first settled the Valley in the 1880s.
Giant cedar and fir trees attracted loggers, but were the bane of farmers who had to clear them by hand to plant grass for milking herds. That lush grass has been, as longtime farmer Ward Roney once put it, "God's gift to the dairy cow."
Now dairy farming, once the mainstay of the Valley's economy, is no longer even a profitable business and the life-giving grass is in danger of being plowed under so the land underneath it can be planted with ... you guessed it ... trees.
The trees used would be hybrid cottonwoods, a type of poplar, used for pulp. High pulp prices and a shortage of wood for paper have caused a recent expansion in the number of acres being planted in poplar. Trees have already replaced peas in the Skagit Valley and alfalfa, potatoes, and sugar beets in Eastern Washington.
The fast-growing, genetically engineered trees are ready to harvest after nine years. A Canadian forest products company has purchased land in Whatcom, Skagit, and Snohomish Counties for tree plantations. Already trees owned by the company are several feet high in plantations around Monroe and Snohomish.
The McMillan-Bloedel Company, based in Parksville, B.C., has also shown an interest in several farm properties along the River Road near Duvall.
"The trees we use are a short rotation, intensively-cultured hybrid poplar," said company representative Bob Rogers. The trees grow about seven feet a year and are 50-70 feet tall when harvested.
But not all farmers in the area are thrilled with the prospect of being surrounded by trees. Among those who are worried are longtime dairy farmers Sam and Marilyn Rupard, who live on the River Road.
"At one time, there were 14 dairies along this road," said Marilyn. "Now there are three." She says she is concerned because the cows on the neighboring farm have recently been sold and now the farm is for sale.
"Dairying is so bad," she said. "Calves are cheap, milk is up a little, but the check is still low. You can't blame people for selling if someone comes along and offers $2,500 an acre. Who else is going to come along in the future to buy farmland, but if we get surrounded by trees, who knows how all that will affect the flooding? Those trees could plug up the valley. Dairies will be gone and there won't be any more beautiful cows to see," she said.
Ken Kosters, who lives on the north end of River Road, also would like to stay on the family farm, but says he will sell out to the tree-growing interests if others around him do. "If there's nothing but trees around me, I'm in trouble," he said.
Kosters, who was recently featured on a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) video, fought hard after the 1990 flood to get approval to build livestock flood sanctuaries (critter pads) in the flood plain so he and other farmers could have a safe place to put their herds during a high flood. Kosters lost a large part of his dairy herd during the '90 flood.
Individuals are also trying out the new industry. A TWA pilot who lives in Yelm purchased a former dairy farm south of Duvall last year and planted about 40 acres with the young trees. Although none of the trees survived the winter floods, which were particularly frequent last year, the owner is in the process of replanting in hopes the seedlings will get a good start before winter sets in.