SANDPOINT – There are plenty of rural properties to be found in Bonner County, stylized homes with barnlike outbuildings, manicured lawns and paved driveways on acreage that attempt to achieve the look of an idealized farm.
But when you park your vehicle on the dusty hardpan of the 160-acre Poelstra dairy farm adjacent to Shingle Mill Road north of Kootenai, you know you’ve arrived at the real deal.
The Poelstras’ is a three-generation working farm, and about as far from an estate farm as you can get. It’s the last large-herd, producer-handler, commercial dairy farm in Bonner County, and after three generations of milk production, the barn doors will soon be shut on dairy farming for good.
“This is it,” Randy Poelstra said, rubbing his coarse, weathered hands across his two-day gray facial stubble. “There are no more large dairy farms.”
The local dairy industry, along with the Poelstra family, has come a long way. Randy’s father, Cornie Poelstra, purchased the property in 1946 and became a dairyman and stump farmer. Only 30 acres of the land was cleared at the time. Decades and plenty of dynamite later, and a majority of the trees and their stumps on the farm are now gone, replaced by green, rolling hay fields, well-worn barns splattered with cow dung, and dusty, straw-littered corrals of dairy cows and beef cattle. Only 5 acres of trees remain.
Born in 1950, Randy first lived in the homestead’s original log house with his six siblings – five sisters and a brother 16 years his junior – until the existing house was built and the family moved in. After graduating from high school in 1969, and at his father’s urging, Randy took a stab at attending college. He lasted a year before returning to the farm.
“It wasn’t a good fit for me,” Randy said.
It may also have been his dad’s repeated phone calls asking him if he was coming home each weekend to help, Randy’s wife, Carla, said from across the room where she was working at her second job: a bookkeeper for Oden Water Association.
Randy eventually returned to the farm; he and his dad became partners in the dairy business.
He and Carla married in 1983. His father retired shortly after, and he and his wife, Frances, moved into a double-wide trailer on the farm; Randy and Carla moved into the big house.
“Dad milked cows until he was 82,” Randy said.
Cornie remained on the farm until he was 86. Randy eventually had to ask him if he should take some time off after he caught his dad falling asleep between cows while milking. So Cornie went on to tend a garden. But his health was failing; he died two years later.
Today, Randy, Carla, and his son, Garrett, who is also employed by Oden Water, all run the farm. Garrett’s desires were a deciding factor in the decision to get out of the dairy business, Carla said.
“I don’t miss milking cows,” Garrett said. “But I want to keep cows on the place.”
But the fit and stocky, bespectacled farmer in dirty bib overalls is ready to get out of the dairy business he has spent his life operating. Asked what had changed over those years, Randy replied, “everything.”
Since he first began helping his dad milk cows at age 10, when he lugged 5-gallon buckets of warm, freshly harvested milk to a holding tank, he has watched as commercial dairy farms in Bonner County slowly faded away. He estimated there were at least 40 family-owned dairy farms spread across Bonner County in the early 1970s.
“Most everybody milked their own cows,” Randy said.
His is the last. According to the Idaho Department of Agriculture, there are a few smaller dairy farms, but no large-scale producer handlers like the Poelstra farm.
“He would be the last one in North Idaho,” IDA Dairy Bureau chief Marv Patten said.
The Poelstra dairy today is about 65 dairy cows large.
The dairy business has “always been competitive,” he said. Back in the day there were multiple milk wholesaler companies in both Bonner County and Spokane.
The Poelstras sold to Carnation until they stopped collecting from dairy producers north of the Pend Oreille River. The last dairy wholesaler in Bonner County was Emerald Distributors. They folded last year, according to the city of Ponderay.
“Now there’s one,” Randy said. “Darigold, out of Spokane.”
Farms slowly disappeared as government regulation and more stringent environmental standards made continued operation an increasing challenge, Randy said. In 2000, the Poelstra farm spent $25,000 on a manure-handling facility required by the state of Idaho and the Environmental Protection Agency. Several dairies folded when the regulations were published.
Animal rights has become the new issue. The Poelstras are inspected regularly. But the pressure is coming not directly from regulatory agencies but corporations like Darigold, who must certify that suppliers like the Poelstra farm are in compliance.
“It becomes another hoop that small dairies have to jump through,” Randy said.
He felt such measures unnecessary, for pragmatic reasons: It’s not possible to make a living in the dairy business if the animals you rely upon for your livelihood are mistreated, at least on a family farm.
The Poelstras aren’t retiring, however; they’re just shifting gears.
In addition to the 65 head of dairy cows they now own, they also have 75 head of heifers they plan to raise and sell, so the Poelstras will be shifting from dairy to cattle. The dairy cows will be sold. The heifers will be sold as “springers” – one-calf cows.
“We’ll be cutting out a lot of milking time,” Randy said. “Maybe take life a little easier.”
The couple are no springers themselves, and the 24/7 grind – weekends don’t exist for a farmer – that is the dairy business is taking its toll on the 64-year-old farmer. Carla – Randy referred to his wife as a city girl from Sandpoint – has done her part over the years as well. Now she’s ready to put it behind her.
“I’m tired of it,” she said. “Milking and menopause don’t mix.”
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