Halfway between Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon lies Alpine Dairy, which is owned and managed by Walter and Irene Abplanalp. The dairy is just a couple of miles from the Cowlitz River that drains the slopes of Mounts Rainier, Adams and St. Helens, the peaks of which are visible from some places on the farm. Walt started dairying in 1981, and was joined by Irene in 1983 just a year after Mount St. Helens erupted.
Walt’s dad dairied on a nearby farm, and when he purchased Alpine Dairy’s original 100 acres in 1976, he was thinking of the future. Walt and Irene have been adding land ever since, achieving the dairy’s present 250 acres. Two hundred acres are tillable and used for pasture and crops. The rest is heavily timbered with the iconic Douglas fir, as well as cedar, spruce, oak and Canadian maple.
It’s raining now in September, and they’re just over their typical late August dry spell, Walt says.
They milk around 160 Holstein/Jersey crosses and don’t plan to grow the herd much beyond that. They’re happy with the herd genetics. “We get better components, the animals are smaller, and their hooves and legs are more durable.”
Walt and Irene started out dairying conventionally. His dad was conventional in later years, but he started dairying in 1928 when he emigrated from Switzerland, which means he was dairying organic before there was a name for it, before the “new” agricultural paradigm became the industry.
So how did Walt get onto the organic thing? “I was on the board of the creamery we sold milk to. The chairman and a couple of other members were organic. They’d talk to me about it and say that our farm was ideal for it. We thought about it. Then the conventional milk prices spiked up a little and we’d have some good years and wonder why we should bother. Then the rock bottom prices of 2006 hit and we decided we’d had enough.”
“We always pastured because my dad was a big believer in it. We’d never used much in the way of antibiotics and we never sprayed our fields so I started thinking it wouldn’t be that hard to transition. We’d heard good things about Organic Valley from other co-op members in the area. If Organic Valley had room on the truck, we’d do it.”
By April 2007, Alpine Dairy was on the truck. “While our primary reason for transitioning was financial, we felt like we were pretty close to organic already. Plus, I’d heard some horror stories about the chemical sprays people used on their crops. A couple of guys I knew from high school passed away from cancer. They’d always worked for the county using insecticides and herbicides. Irene worked in the medical field so she had a pretty good idea of how the chemicals could affect our health..”
“We do store promotions now because we believe it’s a good product. We recently received a quality milk award for producers in our area. We really pay attention to what we do.”
Even though they’d been pasturing for years, Walt saw improvement in herd health when he transitioned. “You deal with less sickness because you’re not pushing the cows as hard and there’s less crowding.” The Abplanalps rotationally graze their cows, moving them daily to fresh stands of Alice white clover, rye and orchard grasses.
They feed themselves well, too. There’s plenty of bounty from their big garden, they raise a couple of steers a year for their own use, and Irene keeps a coop full of laying hens for the family’s egg supply.
Their three grown children, Ross, Melissa, and Marguerite, are probably not interested in taking over the operation, but they were supportive of the transition to organic. Still, Marguerite lives only a few miles away and Ross only an hour’s drive, so they come out to help sometimes. Their middle child, Melissa, is a high-functioning autistic and lives on the farm with them.
Walt and Irene are pleased with their decision to join Organic Valley. “They do a good job of promoting our product and they’re enthusiastic. We like the co-op structure, and George and the rest of the gang genuinely care about what we do.”