Alaska dairies in jeopardy

Of 72 farms before statehood, only 8 remain

Posted: Wednesday, April 19, 2006

POINT MACKENZIE - Dairy farmer Wayne Brost is used to seeing dairy farms come and go, but not so many at once.

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In the past year, two of the area's five dairy farmers have quit, and a third plans to sell.

They include Kyle Beus, once the state's largest dairy operator, whose property sits vacant, and Rachel Hecker who sold to a building contractor now running a minimal herd of five-dozen cows. Dairy veterans Craig and Vicki Trytten said they plan to put their 300-acre farm up for sale this summer due in part to financial problems.

Brost said he worries that Point MacKenzie, where the state once spent millions to create a dairying center, may soon be without a single dairy.

Dairying has never been big in Alaska, but even by Far North standards the industry is shrinking. Some single dairies in the Lower 48 have more dairy cows than the 800 in all of Alaska.

Point MacKenzie farmers cite a mix of reasons for leaving the business: financial forces beyond their control, like rising grain and fuel costs; and curve balls like mad cow disease shutting the border to cattle imports from Canada, the key source of dairy cows.

Some events transcend the hardships of dairying. On a sunny July day, Kyle Beus picked up the phone and learned his 14-year-old daughter had been in an accident and was irrevocably brain-damaged.

Dairying has never been easy, and is harder in Alaska where farms are few and costs are high.

"It's dairying times two," says Beus, a fifth-generation farmer who threw in the towel after his daughter's accident.

A typical dairy farmer's day starts before dawn to round up cows. The next three hours are for milking, a mostly mechanized job that requires constant watch as the fluid is piped from udders to a chilled storage container.

Then comes the chores: fixing engines, repairing fences, trimming hooves and transferring hay bales to feed pens.

Twelve hours after the first milking, the cows are rounded up and the routine begins again.

When Brost first started dairying in Alaska in 1995, he fell into bed each night so exhausted he was asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow. A typical day started at 4:30 a.m. and ended at 11 p.m., he said.

Should a tractor or milking machine fail, Beus recalled, he had no one to call. The dairy industry in Alaska is too small to support spin-off businesses like dairy equipment mechanics that are common Outside, he said.

Over and over, the farmers said one word can explain why they're getting out of the business: tired. They're tired of no vacations, no health insurance, no money.

They're also bitter about a state bureaucracy they say does more to hinder them than help. They're frustrated paying rising expenses while the state-owned creamery pays the same price for milk it did 20 years ago.

Vicki Trytten, who plans to sell her family's dairy, said she's worked jobs off the farm to make ends meet but still struggles.

"We'll be lucky if we can leave a penny in the state when all is said and done," she said.

Alaska before statehood in 1958 had 72 dairy farms, according to the federal Agricultural Statistics Service.

But improved roads and air service made importing milk from Seattle easier, and the number of farms and cows in Alaska started to dwindle. By 1980, only 12 farms were left in the valley, and total state milk production was nearly half the level of 20 years before.

Today only eight farms remain statewide, including three in Delta Junction. That wasn't supposed to be the story, especially for Point MacKenzie.

In the 1980s, the state launched ambitious plans to turn Point MacKenzie into the state dairy center. Nearly 15,000 acres were set aside and more than $20 million spent to put in power and carve out roads with names like Holstein and Guernsey. A public auction attracted more than 2,000 bidders and sold 31 lots, 19 set aside for dairies. The rest were supposed to be hay farms.

Most went under in just a few years, victims of crushing debt brought on by diving milk prices and the high cost of reshaping wilderness into viable dairies.

But by the mid-1990s, a new crop of farmers moved in and took over abandoned barns and half-cleared fields. Where others left heartbroken, they saw hope for a second chance.

Rachel Hecker, a Nebraska transplant who with her husband, Todd, purchased 600 acres in 1999, was among them. Last year, crushed by debts she attributes in part to interest she was paying on state loans, she decided to sell.

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