Deciphering Whatcom County’s ‘empty-barn syndrome’

 ‘We have seen a major economic and social change in our community’


The old-time Oltman barn on Van Dyk Road is an example of one repurposed to other uses. (Calvin Bratt/Lynden Tribune)

  This spring, retired Lynden dairy farmer Marius “Mick” Vander Griend submitted this piece to the Tribune as his thoughts on “The Family Farm” and its decline in Whatcom County. Specifically, it is about dairy farming, in which Vander Griend was engaged for nearly 40 years. He grew up on the Guide Meridian dairy farm he later operated.

  We took the opportunity last week to retrace Vander Griend’s imaginary drive up through the county from Bellingham along Hannegan Road and then north from Lynden on the Guide. Along the way, we encountered Paul Parrish, six years retired from dairying on Hannegan Road. He noted that at one time his was the ninth of about 12 dairies on Hannegan between Lynden and Pole Road and now there are none.

  Photos are of barns or farms along the routes, but VanderGriend — whose family was the 1972 Whatcom County Dairy Family of the Year — preferred to remain unpictured. — Calvin Bratt, editor


  What is the family farm and who is this person called the family farmer who owns and operates the family farm? For the better part of my life I was that person.

  I was born into a family farm family and owned my own farm all of my 40 working years. It always brings a smile to my face when I hear the cry to arms on the part of food supply experts and environmentalist that “we must save the family farm.” The cry most often is made by individuals who have little or no knowledge of what they are speaking.

  In my mind I try to picture what they are imagining. It looks like this: it is a fine sunny May morning and the dairy cows are grazing on bright green grass. In the background are a red and white barn with a white house and a manicured lawn. Oh yes, each cow in the field has a name such as Betsy, Janie, Spotty, Switcher, etc. (You can see that I just pictured a dairy farm.) May I tell the people who think that this is what a family farm looks like today that it is long gone. It began going in the 1960s and by 2010 had disappeared. (These were generally also my years of farming, 1958-1997.)

  In my story I wish to portray what has happened to the family dairy farm in this county, Whatcom. (Other agricultural counties may have a different type of farms, but the same cause and effect.) To illustrate a bit of what I wish to tell, I want you to take a little imaginary drive with me in my county. Let’s start in Bellingham and drive north on the Hannegan Road to Lynden and then continue further north to the Canadian border. I want you to look along the way for farm buildings, in particular dairy barns. For the first few miles, empty barns will be very small and aged, but by the time you pass the Laurel hill curve the county opens up and you can see larger fields and farm buildings. It looks like farming, but pay attention. These are not working farm buildings. The houses are well maintained, but the outbuildings have a sense of abandonment. The land is being used, but not in conjunction with the farm buildings. A little farther north you will reach where you can look out on the Nooksack River valley and to the town of Lynden. You can see ten miles east to Everson and five miles to the west beyond Guide Meridian Road.

  In this vista every farm with the exception of two or three has one thing in common, the empty barn. Some became empty recently, but others longer ago, almost all between 1960 and 2010. Continue the drive with me a bit further north of Lynden via the Guide to the Canadian border. This is the road that my farm was located on. Between 1958 and 1970 on this 3.5-mile section of road there were 20 dairy farms owned and operated by an individual man with family help. Today there are two. What in the world happened in those 50 years? North of Lynden are perhaps 10 north-south roads similar to the Guide. Every road tells a story like this: the empty barn and abandonment of a certain activity.

  Consider all the rural roads in our county and your mind will begin to  understand what I mean — the Whatcom County empty-barn syndrome. Are there 1,000? 1,500? 2,000? We have seen a major economic and social change in our community. The changes have touched not only the farmer and his family, but the entire support and supply system that was needed for the maintenance of each farm.

  You have seen the evidence of the demise of the family dairy farm. One thing is obvious: Farms were not being passed on to the next generation. They were simply discontinued.

  There are a number of reasons why a farm ends. Let’s consider some of the reasons. There is the financial income, the affordability of technology, and government regulation.

  The physical and mental stress on farmers and their families is because of uncontrollable natural events such as weather and disease. (Sometimes I will write from my own experiences and other times from my observation of fellow farmers.) 

  As you look at the history of when farms ended, it seemed that it happened in spurts. The first related to the decision to produce Grade A milk. One needed to improve your facilities so you could get the best price for your milk, but there were substantial costs and ongoing inspections. A certain number of farmers quit. 

  When I started farming, the technology of the bulk refrigerated milk tank rather than milk cans was introduced. This was a major financial commitment. Again, for some it was time to quit. In the early 1970s the price of grain doubled in just a few months. The reason was a wheat embargo by the United States against Russia, disrupting world markets. Purchased grain represented almost half of the monthly expenses of Whatcom County’s dairy farms. Within a year a number more farms were forced out of business by unpayable grain bills. 


Mick VanderGriend appreciates this October 1961 photo for the simplicity and cleanliness of farm operation it conveys, plus fun with his son Steve.

  During these past two decades, expenses doubled while the price for milk increased 20%. With higher grain prices the “experts” told farmers to grow high-quality home-grown feed. This took more expensive technology (irrigation and machinery), which took more money which the banker was glad to furnish with the advice that if we had 10 more cows we would make it then.

  Ten more cows meant more time in the barn and less time for leisure. To grow quality feed on our land we began to constantly work at trying to beat the weather rather than work with it.

  Do you sense the pace of life speeding up? First I had months to complete field work. There was a month for planting, a month to make hay, a couple of weeks for oat harvest, and a week for silo filling. Later it needed to be done in a day or two and now in an hour. All our work became a race or competition between neighbors about who could get done the quickest and whose herd produced the most milk when the monthly testing report was published in the local Tribune. Now the specter of more short-term debt came, a new monkey on your back.

  For an illustration in my life, at the beginning of these two decades between the morning and the evening milking I could drive into the mountains for a day of deer hunting or fishing. Twenty years later, milking chores took so much more time that if you wanted that lifestyle you needed to hire a relief milker. Then you needed to buy five more cows to pay for the milker!

  As the size of the dairy herds increased, we were putting more cows on the same acreage. Manure became a big problem rather than an asset. Equipment and storage were being developed to solve this problem, but it was very expensive and then over the horizon a sh.t storm was coming, the EPA and all its regulations, more new expenses and not one more penny for milk.

  This was going on when I was about 45 and I knew the cost of new manure spreading equipment could not be paid for with a 40- to 50-cow herd. Nor could I mentally cope with the fear of the EPA laws and its enforcement with five-figure fines.

  Now I wish to stop a bit and tell what I consider to be a family farm and the farmer who works it. This is only my explanation and I am sure there are others. To begin with, a minimum of hired labor and feed are purchased, expenses are kept as small as possible by the labor of the family. Today, the term used is “self-sufficient.” When I chose to be a farmer, I wanted the pleasure of doing the work. I wanted to milk my own cows and do the field work as well as building improvements. That is what I enjoyed. Farm ownership as improvement and the pride that came with it was reward enough. 

  As more technology developed, the harder this became. After my army days I knew I wanted to be my own boss, always work for myself, and by improving my skills I could financially improve our family. This was the description of the first 20 years of my farming. 

  The most important thing of all my goals was that they were shared and supported by my wife. These were the best years for our family as well as the farm. Our sons learned to work responsibly alone or together. When they were older, with their  learned abilities (farm sense), they always had jobs on neighbor farms. By the time they were high school seniors, they had been able to buy their first car. Lifetime work ethics had been learned, as well as who they liked as a boss and, above all, where they had the best lunches! All these little things helped our family develop strong relationships that continue to this day.

  Now begins the last half of my farming career. By now, some decisions were being made, either subconsciously or willfully. It was a given fact that our three sons would go to college. There was not going to be a family farm to take over. It was a dying business. Its growth and progression were stopping. I was not going to get bigger or assume greater debt. New methods would be used to maintain income. Some labor-saving ideas would be added as the sons left. My wife would have to help more.

  Meanwhile, these very decisions were being made on the surrounding farms by my fellow farmers. More and more empty barns began appearing on the landscape. Some chose the route of expansion: more land, bigger herds, larger debt. Others formed family partnerships or a family member worked off the farm for supplemental income. It postponed the inevitable for a few more years.

  Today the farms that are left are the few that have found a special way to market their produce or they have developed into large “factory” farms, as they are called today. These two types of farms and the managers command all my respect and admiration for their skills and abilities. I hear of the younger generation that is trying to develop new specialized products for today’s consumer. It will not resemble the type of farm I owned. 

  What caused the demise of all these farms? In the capitalistic system we have, bigger is always better. This takes more capital, which the farmer was not able or willing to provide. Most new equipment that has been developed was always much too large for the family farm.

  The equipment designed to meet new ecological manure regulations was for much larger farms. One size did not fit all. Never once did the adaptations of the new manure policies add to a farm’s income, only to the expenses. Liquid manure never added to the pleasant personal side or public image of dairying. It only seemed to antagonize your neighbor whenever the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. Liquid manure was much more efficient in material handling, but made working conditions filthier (my own opinion). 

  Through my writings on the death of the family farm, you will notice “the elephant in the room” has been avoided. Basically, the price of milk did not go up at the same rate as inflation. As an illustration: in 1960 a tractor cost $3,000. In 2000 the same tractor was $40,000. In 1960 the milk price was $5.00 per hundredweight. In 2000 it was $14.00. 

  Now I am getting into an area that I know or understand little about — who sets the price of milk — but I do understand the history and effect it had on our farm. During the 1920s the U.S. Department of Agriculture began to set the price of milk on what product the processor made from the milk purchased from the farmer. The pricing system was established so processors had to buy all of the farmer’s milk, not just what they wanted. It protected the farmer and that purpose was served for a number of decades. 

  Now we have come to the cause of all the empty dairy barns in Whatcom County. The milk pricing system developed into a method of repressing the price of milk for the benefit of the American consumer and for the detriment of the American dairy farmer. There were more voting consumers than voting farmers!

  One other issue that did not help the ending of the family farmer was the robbing of the self-reliant independent spirit, which had been a common personality trait of the family farmer. In the 40 years of my farming, onerous government regulations entered every part of farming activities. At first if you needed a loan, a three-inch-by-six-inch promissory note was signed in duplicate. Now you have to sign 25 pages and then initial and date every third line and then date every line as well.

  In the morning as you planned your work for the day you worried which permit was required, whether it be plowing (moving dirt permit), or manure spreading (EPA permit) or fixing a fence (building permit) and if it was an electric fence (an electric permit). Then these activities would have to be inspected. All this for a fee and you hoped you had a license to do the work.

  Most of this was not compatible with financial and good farming practices. They were good for a lot of mental stress in the years of my farming. It was always a battle.

  This has turned into a bit of a pity party, so I want to conclude on some positive thoughts. The farm was a wonderful place for my children to grow up, for my wife and I to be able to work as a team. We were able to be part of our community activities. We learned to be good neighbors. We were recognized and honored for various achievements in life. We benefited many times from the care, love and kindness of our community. The one regret I have is this, that I could not pass this lifestyle on to my children and grandchildren, but I would like to think they learned good values from a family farm life. It was the best of places to serve my God and enjoy work in his creation.