Winters in Trout Lake, Washington, at the base of Mt. Adams, are severe. Snow cover can come as early as October and last into April, accompanied by annual Chinook winds that rip through viciously. But the climate was a big factor in what drew the original homesteaders of the 19th century to the area. They discovered in the mountainside valley an echo of the Scandinavian hamlets where they grew up.
Monte Pearson is a third generation dairy farmer in Trout Lake. His grandfather, Charles, emigrated from Sweden at age 12, working his way west with stops at logging and railroad construction camps along the way. When he landed in Trout Lake, Charles decided to stay put. At that time, there was only one other family—Swiss immigrants—farming in Trout Lake. Over the coming years, other homesteaders came and established small dairy herds to bring the cream, butter and cheese that were fundamental to their European diets into their American lives. Monte recalls that at one point as many as forty families milked cows in the Trout Lake valley.
Today, three dairy farms remain – all of which are Organic Valley members. Monte, his wife Laura, their son Travis, and Travis’ wife Karissa run one of these century farms, Mountain Laurel Jerseys.
“I have always been organic at heart,” Monte says, “Same as my dad before me.” In the 1970s, when Monte took over the farm from his father, at first he tried the new agriculture tactics he had learned at Washington State University, but “It just didn’t work like the textbooks said,” Monte relates. “You put nitrogen fertilizer on your grass fields and get a bumper crop the first year. But it doesn’t look so good the second.” Monte also felt concerned about the long-term affects of chemical inputs on the environment.
Adding to his unease, in 1994, recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) came into the market. Monte and Laura were determined not to use the hormone to increase their cows’ milk yields, but because of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruling that prohibited labels to state when milk didn’t contain rBGH, the Pearsons and many others found themselves competing against dairies that had inflated milk production. Like hardworking athletes pitted against ones pumped with steroids, these dairy farmers were out-muscled in the market.
In 1996, the Pearsons and their neighbors the Schmids met with Organic Valley farmers and decided to make the leap to organic production. They became two of the first farms on the West Coast to join Organic Valley.
Today, the Pearsons milk around 143 Jersey cows, which they pasture on 420 acres. Monte and Laura, who have four grown children, are partners in running the dairy farm with their son Travis and his wife Karissa, who have three children of their own. The family raises all Jersey cows. Monte recounts that in the 1930s, because pay price was based on butterfat content, the area dairies selected Jerseys, a breed which naturally produces rich milk. They would ship their cream and butter to the Columbia River Basin, 25 miles to the south, where it would get transported to Portland or The Dalles, and would feed the skim milk and buttermilk that remained to their pigs.
Although things have definitely changed—for example, the local community doesn’t store their butter, cheese, and potatoes in nearby caves, like their forebears did—the Trout Lake farming families maintain their resourcefulness and creativity. The Pearsons grow all of their own organic pasture and hay and buy very minimal grain. Recently, they have also helped plan and execute riparian restoration projects along Trout Creek, cleaning up haywire and old car bodies, and fencing off cows from the river.
The Pearsons are very serious about their role as environmental stewards of the Trout Lake valley, not only because they are residents and farm owners, but also because they are avid outdoor sports enthusiasts. Mt. Adams, the 12,281-foot tall volcano that stands at their back door, has given them a strong connection to the natural landscape and a ceaseless taste for adventure. With their children fully grown, Monte and Laura have recently acquired 16 sled dogs. Last year, they entered their first official sled dog race, a 3-day 75-mile trek at Lake Wenatchee in northeastern Washington. Next year, they plan to participate in a 100-mile race in the Wallowa Mountain range in eastern Oregon, and perhaps the year after, Monte says, they will enter the Race to the Sky—more than 400 miles in Montana.
Sled racing lays bare the Pearsons’ courage, hardiness and love of animals and the natural world. These are the same inborn traits that inspired them to transition to organic long before other regional dairy farmers. Plus, Monte adds of their newfound hobby, “We try to make the best of the long Trout Lake winter.”