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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Finish Your Food for Thought…Then You May Be Excused…

From dairy to market“The Good Old Days” is just another term for the past, and we know the past has passed, leaving us only fuzzy memories of the “good” as we become the “old.” Jim Werkhoven mourns the passing of the good old days of dairy farming but takes pride in the Werkhoven Dairy’s keeping pace with the latest technology in his industry. “Things were a lot simpler then,” he says, and I tell him about a conversation I heard the other day on the radio. A service station owner, who has been in business for forty-one years, called the show to tell the hosts that when he opened his station, all that was needed to conduct business was a business license (the Good, Old Days) he was required to renew annually. But they’re gone, the Good Old Days, and in these enlightened times he now deals with fifteen or sixteen licenses and permits annually to run his station and spends at least four hours a day just to manage the paperwork they generate. Jim nods in agreement—his industry, too, has been smothered by bureaucracy, he replies, as he fishes his Android phone from his shirt pocket, fiddles with it a bit, and slips it back again. (Jim, if you’ll recall, was on the phone when I knocked at the door; he will retrieve the ‘Droid from his pocket several more times during our visit and actually talk on it at least twice.)

I think about Jim’s phone and realize it could well serve as a symbol for the “New Age” dairy business, represent the cutting edge of modern milk production, every bit as invaluable a tool as the heavy equipment used to feed the stock and farm the fields. I remember, also, the computer monitor conspicuously perched on the desk in Jim’s office, how he couldn’t pass it by without viewing a page or two. I’m sure each cow in the Werkhoven herd has its own profile stored on a spreadsheet on that computer, the number on its ear tag cross referenced with cost basis, annual milk yield, age…(even a cow has no privacy these days. A lady’s age?…please!).

The ladies at trough

Jim tells me much of the milk produced in the state is shipped overseas. I ask if the milk is exported in dehydrated form (“Instant dry milk,” or “blue milk” we kids called it back in the day when the milk for our large family came in a big cardboard box with the portrait of one of Carnation Farms’ contented cows prominently displayed on the front). Jim nods but then adds that many processed foods contain milk products: whey for instance. “Read the labels, sometime,” he tells me. (And later I did just that. Jim’s right. I checked the packaged cereals section and many varieties like Special K, Honey Roasted Almond flakes and brands that combined nuts and flakes contained milk. Interesting, too—in the “ingredients” information, the products that contained milk noted its presence in bold caps, most likely a mandate by the USDA to warn the lactose wary. Some even disclosed that “equipment processing milk” had been used in the making of their product. And Oreos? Yes, even some Oreo products contained milk.)

Jim’s pocket signalled him. “It’s Andy. I gotta take this,” apologizes Jim. Andy was supposed to be a part of our morning’s conversation but instead he was en route to Seattle on business. Jim stands as he takes the call. He’s a pacing talker and strides back and forth during the conversation. I sipped my coffee for the next few minutes while the brothers discussed percentages, acreage, and hundred weights. There was a little advice from big brother, too: “Andy, don’t let them give you any guff ( of course dairymen don’t really say “guff”; it’s not “guff” they wade through daily as they work the barns). If you don’t like what they offer, say ‘No deal’ and walk out.” There was something reassuring about two brothers working as a team, Android connected, laying down a hard line of business—most likely to middlemen. Once Andy’s issues are resolved, Jim pockets the phone, shakes his head a time or two and returns to the chair.

Our conversation moves on to government and its role in the demise of “simpler times.” We both agree government and its regulations create cumbersome layers of bureaucracy that stifle business rather than support it. Jim believes some regulation is a necessary buffer between producer and consumer, but too often government intrudes and creates stumbling blocks that trip up effective business practices. “Take our digester, for example,” Jim complains. “We produce enough methane to accommodate another generator, but if we were to increase our capacity, we’d be required to wade through another layer of permits, comply with more regulations, and we’re just not ready for that aggravation right now.” Jim thinks the bureaucracy created by the Puget Sound Clean Air Act is a big part of the problem. “Methane is a clean-burning gas, but the fact we’d be doubling our electricity output brings a whole new set of rules into the mix.”Valley flamer Jim believes, as do I, once a bureaucracy is born, its primary purpose is to insure its survival—its survival and further expansion--and Jim is certain business would be better off without so much of it. He’s not too keen on the Department of Agriculture either and cites the soil samples annually mandated by the Department as an additional unnecessary burden placed on the farmer.

Jim’s pocket summons him again and he’s up and out of the chair talking to Ed Broers. Again the talk seems to be about acreage, percentages and hundred weights—with a few verbal barbs tossed in (“No, Ed, I’m not STILL in bed!”) Once the Broers’ business is done, I ask about the ponds containing the dairy’s liquid waste byproduct (in Werkhoven parlance “manurrr”). “Do you have to drain those ponds every spring?” I wonder, recalling the big tractor trailing a large hose that feeds an injector attachment which pumps the poo back into the soil. “No, that’s part of our spring fertilizer program,” Jim tells me. “It’s pretty much eliminated the need for commercial fertilizers.” This season as soon as the corn was harvested, the Werkhovens planted pasture grass to optimize their acreage. “We hope to get one cutting of grass before we seed our corn…just that much more feed. The injector attachment would rip out the grass roots, so we’ve purchased another piece of equipment that punches holes in the ground and the liquid is sprayed over the holes and seeps into the ground that way.” Once again Jim pulls the phone from his pocket, looks at the screen, frowns, and holsters it again. Must have been a random call, I think… much like our morning’s random conversation that’s meandered from milk and Oreos to poo infusion.terra hypo

So, Jim, thanks for the coffee and the time you took to talk to The Ripple, and while you may lament the passing of the good old days and feel at times mired in the paperwork and bureaucratic guff that hampers today’s dairy industry, when you really think about it, isn’t it amazing how you can sit there in that comfortable easy chair, sip your coffee and oversee the business of a large dairy operation from the pocket of your shirt!

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  1. Loved the "Food for Thought" trilogy!

  2. I hope the trilogy wasn't too filling. I tried to keep it as low-calorie as possible.