January 31, 2000
Dairy farmers Eunice and Ken Kosters. (With apologies to Grant Wood.)
Staff photo by Lisa Allen.
DUVALL--While the economy appears to be booming everywhere around them, local dairy farmers, facing the lowest milk prices in 21 years, are finding the going pretty tough.
Over the last decade, roller coaster milk prices have made it difficult not only to farm, but to plan for the future. The unstable market has resulted in a significant decrease in the number of farms around the country--especially family farms. And now, with milk prices to the farm at under $10 per hundredweight, coupled with difficult environmental regulations, some of those who have hung on, waiting for "better times," say they can't wait any more.
Ken and Eunice Kosters have milked cows for 30 years on their farm near Duvall. Their farm is for sale, and after the farm is sold, the cows and heifers will go. The couple say they do not know what they will do next, just that they can no longer make a living milking cows.
The River Road, where the Kosters' farm is located, was settled early in the century by numerous dairy farmers. The picturesque stretch of road with its spiffy dairy farms sporting abundant flower gardens and freshly painted barns was once the pride of the Snoqualmie Valley.
At one time, there were 14 dairies along the road, including one that was showcased during the '70s as a "Dairy Family Farm of the Year." But in the last ten years, except for four remaining operations, they have been replaced, one by one, with empty barns.
Economic conditions can't take all the blame, though. In 1990, the River Road was ravaged by a record-breaking flood that caused the drowning deaths of over 600 cows. Then, during the winter of 1996 after a heavy snowstorm followed by rain, several of the older barns collapsed under the weight of tons of wet snow.
In the late 1970s, King County purchased development rights to much of the farm property in the Valley in an attempt to save local agriculture. But the effort failed to save the farmer.
"It all makes a joke out of farm preservation," said Eunice, sadly. "This will be the end of what could have been a 6th-generation dairy."
The couple are the 4th generation of the family working the farm. Ken's great-grandparents settled there in 1916. His folks, Bob and Mae Kosters, still live on the farm in an adjacent house.
Although the Kosters lost a large part of their herd during the 1990 flood, and their 1916 barn collapsed during the snowstorm, overall, most of the memories have been good, said Eunice.
"It has been a great place to raise children," she said. "The kids always made their own fun, with whatever they had."
They reared three sons on the farm. The middle son, Korben, with his wife Tami and 4-year-old daughter Kalinda, have their own dairy herd on a rented farm just north of Carnation.
"Korben can't make it, either," said Ken. "He is looking at farms in Idaho."
Milk prices fell in November to $9.89 per hundredweight, a penny below current government price supports. Based on inflation alone, farmers should be getting more, said a recent report from the Washington Dairy Products Commission. According to the American Institute of Economic Research's Consumer Price Index calculator, $10 in 1978 is worth more than $25.50 today.
According to Ken, when he and Eunice began farming in 1969, the price of milk was $3 per hundredweight.
"And we were doing fine," he said. "We often were able to buy feed ahead. But costs were less, too. These days, there seems to be no place for the family farm."
Ken noted wryly that Carnation Farms has announced it will also be downsizing its milking herd. "Carnation Farms has always been a leader in the business," he joked. "We are still following their lead."
The sale flier for the farm reads like a dream place, with "two houses, barns, river frontage ... peaceful and natural." Includes 40 acres, "great for horses, livestock, and crops--sunset and stellar views."
Ken laughed at the suggestion that a dairy farmer might buy the place. "Someone can make a nice estate out of it," he said. "Maybe someone from Microsoft."