Five brothers work together on the Wesen dairy farm in rural Bow, WA.
“They have disagreements in what to do, but they basically get along pretty well,” said their father, Lyle Wesen, whose grandfather cleared the bulk of the land and founded the farm in 1907. “When you get that many cattle, there’s always enough to do.”
The family provides more than milk to their tiny community near Washington’s northwest edge. The brothers serve on the community school board, in county government, on a milk advisory board and on a land conservation board. Some also coach Pee Wee football, lead 4-H, and more.
It’s an old-fashioned picture in some ways, but with a modern twist. Farms like theirs have become less and less viable in the area. Bow itself is still a quiet haven near Samish Bay, but nearby cities are booming.
“When I first started farming, there were probably eight dairies in the area, and now we’re the only one left,” said Lyle. Throughout the region, colleagues have grown into large-scale operations and left the area, looking for efficiencies to survive as land prices soared and milk prices sank. But the Wesens wanted to find other ways for their farm to thrive.
“We didn’t ever want to milk thousands of cows to be competitive. I didn’t want to move to Eastern Washington where you can have that many cows without any trouble. Our family has been here over 100 years,” said Dean Wesen, who oversees Wesen Organic Dairy, the organic branch of the farm.
The land’s pull has been strong. Lyle Wesen studied engineering in college, but returned to the farm when his own father suffered a heart attack. When it came to his own boys, “Our oldest son has an aeronautical engineering degree…he still came home,” Lyle Wesen said. Another son, Dave, is a veterinarian – but when Dean, who serves in the U.S. Army Reserves, was sent overseas, he knew who to call. Dave handled Dean’s duties until Dean returned home.
And, if it’s inspiring for Lyle to see every one of his children follow in his footsteps, Dean says it’s neat being part of a four-generation tradition.
In 2008, I was going to Afghanistan for the year,” Dean Wesen said. Before he left so far from home, “My mom showed me a picture of my grandpa on the steps of the same school that I went to, in 1910.”
The farm had been an entirely conventional operation when Dean was growing up. Their introduction to organics came when nearby potato farmers began working with Organic Valley. “They really liked it… and said, you guys should look into an organic dairy,” Dean said.
Lyle Wesen wasn’t so sure.
“I was afraid they’d have trouble raising calves. I didn’t know how they would do it without any antibiotics,” he said. He also wasn’t sure how they would pasture 280 head. But the brothers became convinced that the goals were worthwhile and the finances would pencil out.
In 2006, they started transitioning their heifers, purchasing land from another neighbor who was retiring. “He had never used fertilizers or sprays on his grass,” said Dean, so it was perfect. Currently, that organic herd has grown to 350 cows. “They’ve done quite well,” Lyle said.
“They proved me wrong.”
He’s surprised how many people say they enjoy seeing the cows out in the pasture, not in a confined area. And the way the cows are being raised, in some ways, isn’t so different from how it was during his own childhood.
“It is like turning the clock back 60 years.”
Without the predictability of the organic milk prices, and the reliability of the payments, Dean Wesen said he doesn’t think he and his brothers would be able to contribute to the community the way that they do.
“Going organic has added a little bit of work, but has also added stability,” he said. That stability frees him to oversee the local 4-H. He and his wife, Danielle, have two boys, Drew and Dylan, who are involved in the 4-H organization as well – and with the farm.
“Our oldest boy, Drew, he just got the first registered Jersey our farm’s ever had, and we’re going to transition Betsy to organics so she can be on our pastures. Our youngest one bought a registered Brown Swiss. We’re getting some different colors on our farm, we’d always been Holsteins.”
Dean had attended college on a ROTC scholarship, majoring in dairy science, with an eye toward the family business. “I always enjoyed working with the animals and being outside,” he said.
When it comes to his own sons, “I always felt guilty about trying -- not to push, but persuade -- them to follow you, if you weren’t too bright on the future yourself,” Dean said. But the way things are today, he can imagine a fifth generation working the land.
“It’s a pretty good life if you can make a go financially, and the organic part is really helping right now.”