GOT MILK

If you’re talking the kind that’s certified organic and produced at a local, family-owned dairy, the answer, for the most part, is “no.”

Wilcox Family Farms- perhaps the region’s most recognized local brand name for certified organic milk – shut down its dairy in Cheney last month. Weeks before, it also was forced to close its facility in Roy, Wash. While Wilcox will continue its nearly century-old egg business, the closure of its dairies concludes the family’s decades-old involvement in the milk industry.

“It’s devastating for everybody-for the family farm, for the environment and for the local economy,” said Don Whittaker, director of Huckleberry’s Natural Market, which has sold Wilcox Farms dairy products for many years. “It’s devastating for the grass-roots organic movement.”

Wilcox Farms was the producer of Huckleberry’s private label milk. The company’s products also were widely available at many groceries and stores as well as Costco.

The family’s milk plant in Roy, Wash.-a facility that packaged about 10,000 gallons every two hours-employed roughly 130 people. Another 47 worked at the dairy on Mullenix Road in Cheney, which produced more than 230,000 gallons of milk each week for nearly a decade.

Large companies dominate the world of dairy processing and the milk business hasn’t been a profitable venture for the family for quite some time, according to a press release from Wilcox Family Farms.

“With the rising costs of doing business and with milk processing being dominated by the big businesses, it was difficult for them to make a profit,” said Kathy Martin, a spokeswoman for the Wilcox family. “They decided that even though they had been in the (milk) business for many years, it would be best to get out and work with the eggs because that’s what they know.”

The decision was extremely difficult, according to third-generation farmer, Jim Wilcox, in a press release. “Our staff is like family,” he says. “Many employees have been with us for two or even three generations.”

At the same time, the family had an obligation to ensure the company’s long-term survival, he says.

“We want to get out of the big company environment and back into real family farming,” says Jim Wilcox. “We will continue to be in the organic and natural egg business and will go forward looking at new products, focusing on local food for local people.”

Located in the foothills of Mt. Rainier, the farm was established by Judson and Elizabeth Wilcox in 1909. After gold panning in Alaska at the turn of the century and opening a hat shop in Seattle, Judson Wilson discovered a small farm in Roy, Wash. Without consulting Elizabeth, Judson traded his home and business in Seattle for the 240 acres that’s now part of the Wilcox Family Farm.

After about a decade, the couple took turns learning how to raise chickens through the Washington State University Extension in Puyallup. By the time their son, Truman, became a partner in the business, Wilcox Family Farms was finally making a profit. In 1961, the family decided to invest in the dairy business.

During its heyday, the dairy division handled about two million gallons of milk a month, according to the Wilcox Family Farms website. Now a fourth-generation business that will celebrate its 100-year anniversary next year, the 1,500-acre farm in Roy continues to be home to more than 800,000 laying hens and several hundred thousand pullets.

Two years ago, Wilcox began transforming itself into an environmentally friendly farm. They not only invested in free-range organic chickens; they also started work on habitat protection along the Nisqually River, which runs through Wilcox farm. Their efforts have since earned them the “Salmon Safe” label-a certification that recognizes farms that help restore native salmon habitat in Pacific Northwest rivers and streams.

According to a 2006 article from the News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., the conversion to organic cost Wilcox Farms about $4.5 million.
Yet, the closure of both the Roy and Cheney dairies actually comes at a time when the demand for organic milk is at all-time high.
Consumers in Washington state drink more organic milk than most people in the country, according to the Washington Dairy Products Commission, a state agency certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (www.havemilk.com). Nationwide, organic milk constitutes about 3.7 percent of all milk sales, according to statistics from the commission. But in Seattle, organic milk accounts for 10.4 percent of all milk sales-placing it second nationwide. And in Spokane, which is ranked seventh in the nation, organic milk represents about 5.9 percent of all milk sales.

Based on 2008 figures from the commission, there are 36 certified organic dairies in Washington state, with six more transitioning to organic status and two others applying to begin the transition process.

Milk is also Washington state’s second largest agricultural commodity valued at $675 million.

So why did Wilcox Family Farms-one of about nine milk processors in the state, according to the commission’s website-shut down its milk business?

Martin, the family spokeswoman, said a combination of factors from higher fuel costs to competition from large businesses eventually led to this difficult decision. Based on the family’s comments in their press release, the move also ensured the continued existence of the family farm.

“In an age where farms are disappearing, Wilcox wants to be clear that operation in Roy will remain just that-farmland,” according to the press release.

The struggle to keep the local farm-especially one that’s certified organic-can often be an uphill battle for many families.
Organic products are expensive to produce and the yields are relatively small, acknowledged Whittaker of Huckleberry’s. Wilcox Farms had just recently started producing Huckleberry’s private label milk when Whittaker learned of the dairy closure in Roy, which was where milk for Huckleberry’s was processed. He was saddened to hear the news.

“Wilcox was the perfect fit for us,” Whittaker said. “They were local, certified organic and they’re a long-time, family-owned business.”
Whittaker said he’s still getting over the loss of Sara-Joe’s Organic Pork, a family-owned farm in St. John, Wash., that sold its meat at Huckleberry’s until the business was forced to close in 2006. That’s why the news announcing the end of Wilcox’s organic milk and other dairy products was especially upsetting, he says.

Huckleberry’s offers other brands of organic milk, of course, but not all of them are local. Organic Valley Family of Farms gets its milk from organic dairies in the region, according to Whittaker. (One of the local farmers featured on its website, www.organicvalley.coop, is a fourth-generation dairyman with a herd of 270 milk cows on 580 acres in Trout Lake, Wash.) Based out of Wisconsin, Organic Valley is actually a co-op of small farms.

Still, it isn’t quite the same as dealing with a near century-old, family-owned business like Wilcox Farms.

“Wilcox is a wonderful company and they did a wonderful job for us,” said Whittaker, who’s responsible for 12 Huckleberry’s locations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.”Wilcox is committed to the organic mission.”

Whittaker doesn’t know if he’ll be able to find another dairy to carry the Huckleberry’s private label. He said he’s looking for an arrangement that’s cost-effective but at the same time meets Huckleberry’s criteria. In other words, Huckleberry’s will contract only with a certified organic dairy that’s local, has a proven track record of consistent quality, treats its animals humanely and promotes good stewardship of the land, he says.

Costco, which also sold Wilcox’s organic 1-percent milk as well as other dairy products, now offers organic milk under its brand, Kirkland Signature. According to Jack Dillon, assistant general manager of the north Spokane warehouse, Aurora Organic Dairy supplies the milk for the Costco label. Based on information from its website (www.auroraorganic.com), Aurora is based in Boulder, Colo., and owns large-scale organic dairies throughout Colorado and Texas.

More people are demanding organic products, said Dillon, who noted that purchasing decisions for Costco are made out of the company’s headquarters in Issaquah, Wash.

“It’s obviously the trend,” he said.

Conventional dairy items from Wilcox such as cottage cheese and chocolate milk have now been replaced with products from Country Classic Dairies, Inc., a cooperative made up of dairy farmers throughout western and central Montana with its main offices in Bozeman (www.countryclassic.com).

Milk and dairy products from Wilcox also had been sold at dozens of groceries and locations from Whole Foods in Seattle and the Community Co-op in Bellingham to Wal-Mart, 7-Eleven and smaller groceries in towns throughout Eastern Washington, Idaho and Oregon.

Since it announced a closing date of April 30 for its Cheney facility (the one in Roy shut down in late March), Wilcox Family Farms offered two job fairs for its employees. Many of the dairy employees in Roy also were recruited into the egg division.

Despite the end of the milk production, the family will continue its century-old tradition of producing eggs, Martin stressed.

“We want to become the premier organic and natural egg brand for consumers that care about fresh, healthy egg products and maintaining family agriculture in the Puget Sound area and beyond,” Wilcox said in the family’s press release. “We are very excited about the opportunities we have to expand our organic and cage-free egg business. It feels great to see animals out on the land where they belong.”

For more information: www.wilcoxfarms.com