Bob Baker’s instincts have guided him through a lifetime on his farm, Osceola Jerseys. He was born in 1931 on this farm in Enumclaw, a small city about 45 miles southeast of Seattle, known for its proximity to majestic Mount Rainier. Back in 1920, when his father – back from World War II – and uncle founded the farm, the land was still covered in old-growth Douglas firs and stumps.
After high school, Bob Baker briefly worked on Eastern grain farms but soon he returned to the Enumclaw dairy to work with his father. “It’s where I always felt my place was,” he said. He was good at mathematics in school, and considered an engineering career, but the farm won out.
And, while it has been hard work, it is work he enjoys, being his own boss and setting his own agenda.
“I think this was the better choice."
He didn’t do it alone – not quite. In 1952, “I jumped the fence,” he joked, and married Janet, literally the girl next door. The couple first rented the farm from his father, then bought it from his mother in 1976, after his father’s death. The couple steadily added on to the original 80-acre property, including neighboring land that Janet inherited from her parents. They built a new heifer barn and 12-stall milking parlor, expanded the herd, and allowed room for ecological requirements such as distributing manure. Currently they own about 190 acres and rent another 67, more than tripling the original farm’s size.
That growth “allowed us to take some days off now and then, too. Originally we weren’t hiring any help.”
It’s still mainly a family operation – and Bob, now 79, is still at its head. “I still work, but it takes me a lot longer to get anything done,” he said.
Until recently, his wife used to bale hay. His son does “any and all” of the various farm chores. “I guess you’d kind of call him the manager under me,” Bob says. His daughter does the bookkeeping and minds the calves and young stock, “constantly in charge of looking after their well being and taking care of any problems that arise.”
By now, “I think I’m as large as I want to be,” Baker said.
Land is dauntingly expensive in the region, and only a county program made the final acres he purchased remotely affordable. Under that program, farmers sell the development rights to their property, essentially restricting its use to open space or agriculture. “That program is one reason there’s still dairy in King County,” said Baker, even in limited numbers.
“When I was a kid, every place on the road was a dairy farm. They were small, a lot of them milked 15 to 20 cows, you know.” He’s the only one left, although his property now includes some of that neighboring land. And he has carried on his father’s tradition of raising only Jersey cows.
One year, he did come within a hairsbreadth of selling the herd and taking on Holsteins instead. They were a better financial bet at the time, and farmers can’t survive on nostalgia.
“It came down to one evening, I had to decide yes or no. I had a herd of Holsteins lined up, and a buyer for the Jerseys,” he said.
“I just couldn’t do it. It just didn’t feel right, after we’d bred those cows up for so many years.”
Still he wouldn’t stick to tradition just for tradition’s sake. In 2006, he made the decision to become an organic dairy.
“Things didn’t look very bright. I hadn’t realized until that time I could go organic…When I found that out, I began to look into it, and came to the conclusion it was the only way we were going to survive.”
The farm completed the transition to organics in 2007. “Certainly part of it was economics,” Baker said. But since the shift, through both good and bad financial times, “I’ve become more of a believer in the organic movement,” he said. “The more I read about it, I could see that there are a lot of things that were happening that weren’t that good on the conventional side of things.”
Working under his current system, “I think quality is guaranteed. If we don’t have the quality we can’t ship it,” he said. “I think the integrity of Organic Valley farmer-owners is crucial.”