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Dairy farm DREAMS

Helvetia's Schoch Dairy and Creamery is evolving into a business model the 21st century demands


by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - (Left to right) Hans, Sally, Casey and Dave stand in front of grazing cows on the place they all call home -- the Schoch Dairy. Cows grazing on grassy hillsides make a slow descent when people approach the fence line. Their wide, slick noses bob, searching for a whiff of treats. They let guests scratch their dusty foreheads and the young ones will suck on fingers.

The cows that live at Schoch Dairy and Creamery in Helvetia are more than tame. They all have names, which are called out by the same men who care for them every day: three generations of Schochs who work the land they and the cows call home.

A place like this still exists — where a sunny spring day last week dried up winter mud and made the irrigation lagoon sparkle — amidst the ever-encroaching high-tech industry and sprawling suburbs. But behind the bucolic scene is a struggle for family farmers to survive in a time when the Oregon dairy industry, the state’s third most lucrative agricultural commodity, is welcoming an increasing number of larger farms in more remote parts of the state.by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Dave and Casey Schoch look into their unfinished bottling room, hoping they can turn their long-had dream into a reality.

In Klamath and Morrow counties, for example, land is cheaper. There’s less rainwater filling manure tanks and making mud. Bulk hay is more accessible and there are fewer people to complain about smell and noise.

Yet the Schochs are trying to stick it out with their only “employees” — a grandfather, a son and his wife, and grandkids. They’re currently working to raise almost $50,000 on kickstarter.com, an online fundraising platform, so they can finish installing an on-farm milk and cheese creamery. They’re hoping to pasteurize, process and bottle milk on site, where they’ll also sell to customers.

The family has already received some donations, but here’s the catch with kickstarter.com: if the money isn’t raised in its entirety, the Schochs won’t receive any of it and donors get their pledged funds back.

In 1990, Dave Schoch returned to his childhood home from Washington, where he’d been making good money as a mechanical engineer, to help his dad, Hans, run their West Union Road farm.

Together, they operated a conventional dairy, milking almost 200 cows and selling their product to Darigold, which combined their milk with that of dozens of other dairies in the region.

After 20 years of that, “I was burned out,” said Schoch, who does the bulk of the physical labor now that his dad is 84. He hooks the cows up to milking machines at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day — on Christmas, on his birthday, when he has a cold and whether or not one of his four sons is in a school play or is competing in a sporting event.

“Cows have to be milked twice a day every single day of the year. The girls are counting on you. To work that hard and to not even make a decent living — we had to make a change.”

About five years ago, the Schochs downsized their herd in an effort to escape the style of farming a conventional dairy demands — confined animals eating a high-energy diet to encourage production of about 100 pounds of milk each day from each cow, putting continuous stress on the herd.

Milk prices, which are set by the government, are always changing. “One month you’re up and the next you’re down,” Schoch said. “One month you’re making a profit and the next you can’t pay your bills.”

Now the Schoch family milks between 20 and 30 cows — Jerseys, Brown Swiss, Holstein and one Milking Shorthorn.

Schoch is hoping people will come to him, buy his milk and see where their food comes from — an unavailable luxury if Washington County farmers call it quits.

The Schochs are hoping to invite future customers out to the farm on open house days for tours. They also offer school tours.

“We’ve been in the community a long time and we really have something to offer,” said Casey Schoch, Dave’s wife. “People are really so removed from agriculture and where food comes from and how much effort it takes to produce food. I think we’re doing a good thing here.”

Most people don’t realize that by the time noon rolls around each day, Dave has already been working for seven hours and his chores won’t end for another eight.

“There’s so much input on a dairy,” Dave said, and it’s not just all the work. Feed sits at the top of that list, with each dairy cow eating about 75 pounds a day. The Schochs own 74 acres of land — not enough to grow feed for nearly 200 cows. Having to buy almost all their hay and ship it in was a huge expense.

Now the lucky few cows left can graze on certified-organic pastureland — irrigated with collected rainwater — for a large portion of their diet.

Other problems with the large operation included the huge amount of manure produced by hundreds of cows, especially in a state with some of the most stringent waste-management laws in the nation.

And then there was the smell. With Washington County’s growing urban population, people complain about odor — and also about noise and about farm equipment slowing down traffic, Schoch said.by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Dave and Casey Schoch keep their baby cows inside until they're strong enough to live in the fields.

Other Washington County dairymen face these challenges, too, which is perhaps why 25 years ago the county was home to 70 dairies, but now to only 14 — out of 265 statewide.

But Schoch has minimized those problems by downsizing. And the encroaching Urban Growth Boundary doesn’t just bring complaints — it brings customers closer to the farm, which is three minutes off Highway 26.

“People love to come and see the cows and feel that connection with them and their farmer,” Dave said. “People like to have locally raised, fresh milk.”

Their milk will be sold whole after vat pasteurization, which heats milk for 30 minutes at lower temperatures than the traditional method of heating it for 30 seconds at really high temperatures. Schoch said milk retains better flavor and nutritional value this way. Schoch is also hoping to eventually sell the Swiss cheese his mother, Sally Schoch, has been making with her family recipe for decades.

Currently, they can only sell the milk produced by two cows each day because they don’t have a licensed facility.

“We’re going back to the way dad operated on his dairy back in Switzerland,” Schoch said. “We have no illusions we are going to get rich, but if we can pay the bills and keep the dairy, we’ll be happy.”

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - With the goal of selling milk on their farm directly to customers for about $6 a gallon, the Schochs are hoping to gain more control over what they earn for their product than they had running a conventional dairy. As for the cows, their new style is already paying off.

“It’s been infinitely better for them. The big health problems have all gone away,” Schoch said. “We feel way better about our cow stewardship. It’s a more natural life for them.”

Dave and his family have been transitioning out of conventional dairying for a few years now, and are counting on this new business model.

“There are always risks involved in starting any new business,” said Casey. “We have been in the dairy business for the last 24 years and know the ups and downs of farming. We are committed to seeing this through and passing it on to our sons.”

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Two babies were born on the dairy last week.“We’re going to make a go of it. If this fundraiser doesn’t work, we might have to get out of the dairy industry,” said Dave. “We’d like to live out our lives here. I’d like to have something to pass on to my boys if they want it.”

How to help a dairy:

Visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/schochdairy/schoch-dairy-and-creamery?ref=live or go to kickstarter.com and search for Schoch Dairy.




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