Meet Our Sponsors: Washington State Dairy

dairy farm- cow

“The cow is queen.”

I don’t know how many times I heard that sentence the day I visited the Werkhoven family dairy farm in Monroe. As six women who write food websites walked through the farm — brought there on a sponsored press trip by Washington State Dairy — we saw cows just after birth, adult cows placidly eating, and cows being milked. Everywhere, it was clear: the comfort of those cows was top priority of this farm.

I’ve drunk milk and eaten butter all my life. My friend Cheryl Sternman Rule has written a book about yogurt (Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World’s Creamiest, Healthiest Food), which I’m eagerly anticipating. I’m still a fan of cottage cheese, which puts me in the minority in this country. Luckily, I’m one of those people with celiac for whom dairy is not a problem. I celebrate that with cheese.

And yet, I had never been to a large dairy farm to see where my milk comes from before last week.

I’m so glad I went.

Werkhoven family

This is truly a family-owned and run farm. Andy Werkhoven, on the left, and his brother took over the farm from his father. (Theirs is one of 500 farms that makes up the Darigold co-operative, the 4th-largest farmer cooperative in the United States.) Now, he’s starting to pass it onto his son and his daughter — who might have the cutest pink-cheeked baby ever — along with her husband. They have all grown up around cows. They’re also all fiercely intelligent, college-educated, and constantly seeking out new knowledge of how best to run their farm. This family is not merely trying to make as much money as they can. As Andy told us, “Dairy farming is a low-margin business.”  They’re trying to create a sustainable system that benefits the environment and feeds their family.

And of course, treat their cows well.

dairy farm- baby cow

This is one of dozens of calves recently born on the farm. (There are 1 to 10 cows born a day on the farm.) After calves are born, they are immediately taken here to receive close attention. Andy Werkhoven’s daughter, Rachel, said that she was amazed to  hear from her nurses in the hospital that her newborn daughter would only need a bit of colostrum to receive immunities. After all, she is used to cows, who need a full gallon of colostrum in the first 24 hours after they are born. Studies have shown that cows who receive a full gallon of colostrum in the first day of their lives are not only healthier cows, but when they become mothers, they give more milk than the cows who received only half a gallon of colostrum at birth.

Keeping the calves in these hutches ensures that they receive the direct attention and feeding they need. In fact, Rachel estimates that she has hand fed and raised at least 5000 calves this way on the farm since she was a child. When the calves are 8 weeks old, they are sent to group pens to learn how to live in a group. (Apparently, even cows have their alpha cows and followers.) They’re then sent to a larger farm in eastern Washington to live and grown until they are 2. And then they come back to the Werkhoven farm to live out their lives and give milk three times a day.

It’s interesting. When we were on the trip, several of us there posted photos of the calves in the hutches. My friend Aran posted a close-up of one of the calves on Instagram. Immediately, many folks protested, worried that the calves were penned in, the tags in their ears hurt, and there must be mistreatment here. Nothing could be further from the truth. These little calves were being fed and tended to by people who care about them, who have thought out every step of their lives for the best milk production.

The cow is queen, after all.

“The more comfortable cows are, the more milk they make. There is no drug in the world that will produce more milk if it’s not a healthy or comfortable cow.”

dairy farm- cows eating

These cows were living in a large, airy barn, full of light. They put their heads through this fencing to get to their feed — and apparently they’re expert in picking out corn kernels and the part of the food they enjoy the most — but when they’re not eating, they’re wandering around in a wide pen. The only thing freaking them out was us with our cameras.

When this part of the herd is led to another area to be milked, three times a day, the area they had been standing in is washed out, including their manure. It goes down a big drainpipe and taken away to a place a mile and a half away. (I’ll share more about this later.) The stalls are scrubbed and gleaming by the time the cows come back from milking.

It was pretty impressive to see.

dairy farm- feed

Ben Werkhoven told us about the cows’ feed. “This is Total Mixed Ration. It’s like a big tossed salad for cows.” They have nutritionists checking the cows’ diet every 2 weeks, making sure they get the feed they need.

“Feed them right. Keep them clean.” That’s what cows need.

dairy farm- milking parlor

This is the milking parlor, where all 1000 cows parade slowly through, three times a day. The farm has one crew or another running the milking parlor 22 hours a day. (The other 2 hours a day, the milking parlor is scrubbed down.) The cows were calm, orderly, and clearly happy to be milked. In fact, again, the only thing that freaked them out was these crazy strangers with cameras.

I asked Ben about the woman talking in low tones to the cows, patting them on the legs, assiduously cleaning, constantly. “That’s Maria,” he told me. “She has been with us since I was little enough that I would have only come up to your knee. I have never met anyone who works harder.” He clearly had an enormous respect for her.

And then I said to Ben what a shame it is that people who have so many false conceptions of immigrants in this country. In my experience, and certainly in Danny’s decades of restaurant experience, immigrants from Mexico and Latin American countries work harder than most people whose families have been here for generations. “Oh, don’t get me started on that one,” Ben said, contained. “All I can say is that if all immigrant labor in the food industry in this country stopped, all the grocery stores would be incapable of functioning within 5 days.”

I smiled at Maria, who continued to work as we talked. I’m sure she worked there for hours and hours today.

dairy farm- digestor

There were quite a few impressive features of this large dairy farm. But the most impressive might have been this bland expanse of white surface.

This is the digester for the Werkhoven dairy farm. Remember I shared that the manure is washed down a pipe with water? This is where it goes. The manure — plus other food wastes like used cooking oil, fish waste, and expired soda and alcohol — go into one corner of the digester. Over the course of 18 days, the slow-moving mass moves down one end of the digester, across, and up the other. By the time it comes out of the digester, which is modeled on the ruminant stomach of the dairy cow, the manure has been pasteurized. It is divided into solids, which become great compost for farming and gardening. The liquid parts are put onto the crops at the Werkhoven farm, since they grow rye grass and corn to feed their cows. It’s an incredible cycle.

Plus, the idea for this digester came from a member of the Tulalip Indian tribe, who was concerned about the effect of manure on the air and the rivers nearby. The Tulalip and the Werkhovens formed Qualco, a non-profit energy company, to make this happen. The methane gas in the cow’s manure — a contributing factor in climate change — is not released into the environment with this system. Instead, it is burned off from the digester. The burning of those methane gases, with the help of an engine the size of an enormous room, produces enough electricity to keep all the homes in the surrounding area going. It’s really quite an amazing system.

At the end of the day, I asked the Werkhovens what they would want you to know. This young man, John, said, “We could have more cows, make more profit. But then we’d have more manure. We’d have to hire more labor. We’d have to worry about more methane and feed and create more anxiety. All we really want to do is make great milk, take care of our environment and our cows, and feed our families.”

Rachel said this: “Just learn where your food comes from.”

Every time I hand my son a cup of Darigold milk now, I think of these farmers.


My visit and this post was paid for by Washington State Dairy as part of a sponsorship with this site. The photos, words, and opinions are my own. 

23 comments on “Meet Our Sponsors: Washington State Dairy

  1. playindfiddle

    I spent many summers growing up hanging out with a friend on a large dairy farm and those little calves were treated so well in their little huts (perfect size for little kids to climb in for a cuddle, too!). Also, I’ve been to that digester! I work in the energy industry and its existence is quite an amazing thing, actually.

    I also wanted to say that I enjoyed the care you took in this post to inform your readers of the Dairy’s methods around their cows’ health and well-being. Yes, there are places out there that have the full list of horrid practices, but it’s important to remember we shouldn’t stereo type all of them as some are taking the time to do it right :).

  2. Deneen Bowen

    Thank you for helping me learn so much about something I really take for granted. Nice getting to know this family a bit! That’s a lot to write about in an accessible way! I love cottage cheese!

    1. shauna

      As I wrote, however, the babies are put in the hutches for their own health, to make sure they have the full colostrum they need. This family not only takes great care of their calves and cows but have for decades. I trust them to know more about the well-being of the cows than I do.

  3. Brooke

    I’m a first time commenter. I don’t have issues with gluten, but my sister-in-law and nephew do, and over the years I’ve found your website and books an invaluable resource in learning to cook for them and keep them safe in my house. I’ve never wanted them to feel like lesser guest in my house and your books helped me achieve that. I have come to really admire your dedication to easing peoples’ way in the world following what is often an arduous journey to a difficult diagnosis.

    That said, I have to say that I’m a little surprised and extremely disappointed to find you–I guess shilling seems the right word–for what is essentially a clean, well-run, intensive factory farming operation. The calves are taken from their mothers at birth and given a minimum of colostrum, which will have been removed from pregnant cows for that purpose. Cows are herd (social) animals. Do these cows socialise? Are they ever pastured or are they constantly kept in stalls? As someone who has said they only eat grass fed (and I think maybe local?) beef, I’m surprised you would drink milk not held to the same standard.

    Additionally, while some Darigold farms are rBST free, Werkhoven Farms is not one of them, or at leas wasn’t in 2006, according to this New York Times article And with rBST use comes the increased use of antibiotics that many scientists believe is a huge contributor to the very dangerous antibiotic resistance that we seem to be facing.

    While everyone is free to make up their own mind about this practice, it is controversial, and I think it seems disingenuous not to have mentioned it in the post. If in the intervening years they’ve moved away from this practice, it would be interesting to know when and why. I’m also surprised that with your focus on natural and local food, that this is the milk you would choose to give your son.

    And Maria, I really hope she’s paid a living wage. The digester is super cool though. Big kudos to them for that.

    I don’t know if you’ll let this comment through, but I hope you will.

    1. shauna

      Brooke, I’m not going to go point for point here, as you entitled to your own opinion and I knew that this post would not be received well by some. However, I can verify that Darigold does not use rBST, as we all asked about that at the meeting prior to the visit. That article you cite is nearly 10 years old. The folks from the Dairy Association stated that the dairy farmers tried using rBST, but the consumers made it clear that they do not want it. And so no one in Washington State uses it at all.

      As for my “shilling,” as you put it, I disagree. This is a farm that is doing it right. They take the calves from the mothers so they can regulate exactly how much colostrum they receive. As I wrote, they’ve paid attention to the agricultural studies. A calf who only receives half a gallon of colostrum will not be as healthy or give as much milk later as one who receives a full gallon. The calves are put back with the cows at 8 weeks, to socialize them. They are, after that, always in a herd. The last two months of pregnancy, cows are pastured, free to roam and sit. These are all questions that I asked when we were there and wrote about here. Perhaps you are someone who believes that no dairy farm should have more than 10 or 15 cows, which is what is required to have only pasture-fed cows. But I was more than happy to visit with this family, see their passion and care, and see that the cows were very happy indeed.

      1. LoriM

        Wouldn’t the calves receive as much colostrum as they need if they were allowed to feed from their mothers? No need for regulation if that were to happen.
        Also, I thought you and your husband only ate grass-fed beef. You’re ok with dairy that comes from cows that eat grains and consume beer and wine?

        1. shauna

          Not necessarily. Rachel talked about that at great deal. Some mothers reject their calves. It happens in nature. Some calves may not be good feeders. By putting them in the hutches, the folks at the farm ensure that every calf receives what it needs.

          We do love grass-fed beef but we don’t refuse to eat any other beef. It’s hard to find restaurants that only serve grass-fed beef. Life’s imperfect. The cows on this farm are not fed beer and wine. That goes into the digester.

  4. T

    Contrary to what you are obviously trying to accomplish (promote dairy farmers by showing how clean their operation is, how conscientious they are, etc), your post highlights the heartbreaking reality of the dairy industry. Newborn calves are taken away from their mothers and kept in a hut, bottle fed when their mother is ready and able to feed them as much colostrum as they need, then shipped elsewhere, while its lactating mother (they do mourn and call for their babies, btw) is kept in a barn, her baby’s milk taken from her three times a day for your cottage cheese. Super duper that these cows get to stand on clean concrete rather than on grass in an open field, with their babies. I’m sure they just love getting milked by machines three times a day. But hey, they weren’t moaning and screaming, right? So they’re super happy, right? This post is so incredibly tone deaf with respect to what these animals’ lives are like. They are commodities, with their milk production maximized. A clean animal is not indicative of a happy animal. A quiet animal, whose rights (and babies) have been taken from them, is not indicative of a happy animal. Your post makes me so sad. But hey, enjoy that cheese. I get that tons of people eat dairy, but at least be honest about what’s going on. Sure there are worse farms, but that doesn’t make this farm a happy one.

    1. shauna

      I don’t know if you have ever visited a dairy farm, but the picture you paint is not what I experienced first-hand. As I wrote to a previous commenter, having a large-scale dairy farm means that conditions will be different than a small farm with 10 or 15 cows. Perhaps you protest against anyone having a large farm for their business. That’s your prerogative. However, the cows we saw — and we saw hundreds and hundreds of cows — were calm, happy, and clearly cared for well. The cows who were being milked were clearly happy to be relieved of the milk, as all cows are. If you protest against agriculture or dairy farming, then you absolutely will have that perspective. I cannot argue you out of that, nor will I try. But I know from my experience that these cows were being tended with with great care and compassion.

    1. shauna

      That is an older article. I don’t know for sure, but I don’t know if they still do that there. To my knowledge, the beer and wine are going into the digester. You can write to the folks at the farm if you have questions about that.

  5. Anna

    You say the farm produces 365 to 3650 animals a year. Then they are sent to a larger farm until they are a couple years old, when they return to the Werkhoven farm to “give milk” three times a day.

    What about the cows that don’t produce milk, a.k.a. the males? Odds are there are between 180 and 1800 males born every year on the farm. What is their fate?

    1. shauna

      As I said in a previous comment, please feel free to email or call the Werkhoven family with your questions. They welcome that interaction.

  6. Brooke

    You’re right. It’s not useful to go point for point. I think the issue is more of an overall disappointment between what you and your blog seem to represent (and have represented to me – the reason I have supported your books) and what this farm is all about, bottom line, profit. I get that this is these farmers’ business and that they need to make a living. I really do. And that within the confines of intensive farming, this is a good farm. But it is a factory farm where cows are separated from their calves (some of whom, presumably end up as veal), spend a lot of their lives on concrete, and are forced to produce milk three times a day by being mechanically milked enough to create that supply. (and, while he might have stopped using it when Washington State decided for him, in two New York Times articles Jim Werkhoven certainly comes across as an rBST advocate).

    I also get that even those of us who try to shop and eat ethically find it impossible to do so all the time. I’ve had a roadside MacDonald’s burger or two in my life ;). I’m not judging those who don’t have the time or money or whatever to eat ethically. The problem for me is that this post seems to fundamentally conflict with your ethos–the one many of us admire–as a food writer and blogger. In 2013, you wrote the following. Do you not believe this any more? Or do you not believe it applies to dairy?

    “Danny and I made the choice awhile ago that when we eat beef, we eat grass-fed beef. There are many reasons for that decision. For one, we truly believe —— and the science backs it up —— that beef from cows that have been raised on open land, eating grass, is much healthier for those of us who are eating it than grain-fed beef. Why? Well, grass is what cows are meant to eat. Until recently, that’s all cows did eat. The modern meat industry fattens up cows more quickly by feeding them corn. And that can lead to infections and diseases, which require more and more antibiotics.”

    I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to ask these questions.

    1. shauna

      Brooke, I think all our experiences and opinions should be more nuanced than one quote from one blog post. Yes, our family supports the farmers we know who make grass-fed beef. However, fundamentally I have softened some of my opinions since then, for various reasons. Insisting only on grass-fed beef is a class issue. It’s much more expensive than traditional beef and it’s harder to find. We live on a rural island, with plenty of farms and dairies. We consider ourselves very lucky and we’re happy that our kids know their favorite farmers by name. However, to assume that everyone should run farms like the small farms on Vashon is preposterous. And whether we like it or not, that insistence has a very clear class privilege behind it.

      The older I get, the less dogma I have. There are so many opinions in the world. We need more solutions and less finger pointing.

      This piece from my friend Tamar Haspel, who writes a column for the Washington Post, sums up my thoughts on that pretty well:

      As far as this farm visit goes, I liked the farmers, their intentions, their values, and how they treat their cows. Very much. It’s a third-generation family farm, local to us. These are definitely some of the values of this blog. I invite you to go visit them if you have questions. One of the statements they kept making was “We really want people to visit us, to see this place in action, and to ask every hard question they have.” So I invite you to do so or ask them the questions via email that you have for me.

      You and some of the commenters here seem to have problems with large farms in general. Fair enough. That’s your opinion. However, when we have so many hungry kids and people who are going without food, dairy is a nutrient-dense food, easily transported, and not that expensive. There are lots of kids for whom the carton of milk for their breakfast at school is a big source of their good calories for the day. How are we going to produce dairy en masse, under conditions watched closely to make sure it’s safe, unless there are large farms doing this right?

      I was happy to see that the Werkhoven family were thoughtful in their decisions. And as much as some of the commenters here do not want to believe me, the cows were contented. Again, if you have problems with large-scale farms, that is your opinion. But since I believe that large farms are not only here to stay, but also might be fundamental to feeding the people of this country, I think the farms and families that are doing a thoughtful job of it deserve to have their story told. That’s why I wrote this piece.

      1. Myra

        You wrote the post because you wanted to get paid. That’s fine; that’s why people work. But please don’t pretend otherwise.

        1. shauna

          Myra, the post is very clearly marked as a sponsorship post. As I have explained before, we choose our sponsorship opportunities very carefully. That you don’t like the post is your prerogative.

  7. Brooke

    First of all, I want to say that I really admire your willingness to engage in this discussion on your blog. There is nothing forcing you to be open enough to do that, so you really deserve applause for that.

    I agree that experiences and opinions should be more nuanced than one blog post, but that’s not really what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about your overall brand, which has been built on what has seemed to be a philosophy of good, local, high-quality food. You’re written a lot about the joys of living on an island with ready availability of those items and not so much on the issues surrounding affordability of high quality food.

    There are a lot of gluten free food bloggers/authors out there, and those of us who give you clicks/buy your books do it in part because your approach has resonated with us. If you’re changing that approach to being more inclusive about what you eat, with more focus on easily available, affordable ingredients, great. That’s your prerogative. But it doesn’t work so well when your philosophy seems to change, without explanation, depending on who is sponsoring you at the moment (big dairy farm today, grass fed beef in 2013). It’s not really fair to your readers to say, ‘oh, what I said two years ago? I don’t really mean that’ after the fact, or to respond with what seem to be a slightly chiding tone if we say we’re confused by what seems to be a sudden about-face.

    I also agree that too many kids don’t get enough food, and I understand the complicated issues around food economy and the overly doctrinaire dividing lines. But that’s not really what this post was about. If you did write that post, about how your beliefs and concerns have evolved and changed over the years, I’d be very interested in reading it. I’d be willing to bet you’d have something worth saying.

    Ok, thanks for your patience on this ☺

    1. shauna

      Brooke, I really think I have written everything I can on this post, including the extensive comment I have left. Opinions should change and become more nuanced over time. My passion for food extends far beyond my own table these days.

  8. Melissa

    My family just started a gluten free diet, so I am new to your website.

    To me, the impression you are trying to leave the readers with is that farmers are nobel people who farm because they care about animals. And you are a blogger to spread that message.

    It strikes me as a bit disingenuous. The farmers are motivated by turning back a profit at the farm and you are motivated by a paid sponsorship. There is no shame in work in for money — that is why people go to work everyday! But giving the impression otherwise really hit me the wrong way.

    I look forward to your posts with recipes, in particular the salad you mentioned on Instagram last week. Looks delicious!

    1. shauna

      Melissa, I marked this clearly as a sponsorship post. However, we have a very strong filter on the products and foods we accept for sponsorship. This one is as heartfelt as any other post. I never post a thing I don’t truly feel.

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