Cache Valley has long been a big name in dairy and cheese production, so it was fitting that it would be the site of a Guinness World Record mac-and-cheese dish this summer — 4,742 pounds of the gooey stuff mixed in a vat at the Schreiber Foods plant in Logan.
But although cheese and dairy output here remain stronger than ever, changing economic conditions are leading to extinction of the small- to medium-sized dairies that made Cache County the state’s No. 1 dairy producing county and brought it world recognition for its Swiss cheese.
“We had to get big or we had to get out” is how third-generation dairy operator Jared Clawson describes his departure from the industry six years ago when he and his brother, Michael, decided to close their Hyrum facility, sell their 250 cows and expand the farming operation they’d always relied on to feed their herd.
“We were beginning to see the writing on the wall that this was not going to be sustainable, so we started ramping up our hay, renting more ground and whatnot, and we just kind of transitioned into growing crops,” Clawson said. “But it was a hard transition. I mean, working the dairy was something I’d done all my life. It was something my dad had done all his life.”
A numbers game
Stories similar to the Clawsons’ have been repeated at a steady pace across Cache Valley and Utah in the past three decades, but the situation is not unique to this region. According to the latest figures from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, dairy herd holding permits dropped from 131,509 in 1992 to 29,858 in 2022, a 77% decline. The number of dairy cows, however, has only fallen about 3% from 9.7 to 9.4 million.
This means bigger dairies that can take advantage of economies of scale are ruling the day.
“It’s the family operations that stopped,” Clawson said. “I’ve got a brother in law with 2,500 cows, and they’re considered small anymore. A lot of these big dairies will have 10,000, 20,000 cows.”
Just down the road from Clawson’s place is another set of deserted barns at the Rosehill Dairy, which got out of the milking business and sold its 900 or so cows at about the same time as Clawson. But instead of transitioning to farming, Rosehill operator Tim Wilkinson fell back on his well-established retail business, home delivering specialty hormone-free, low-pasturized milk and cheese across the Wasatch Front.
Ironically, he now buys his milk from the same Cache Valley dairy that purchased his cows, and he says it’s mostly turned out to be cheaper that way, depending on the price of milk at any given time.
“Right now milk prices are up a little bit higher than it was costing me to do it myself, but not a lot, and I don’t have all the headaches that came along with the rest of it,” Wilkinson said. “You have to be really dedicated to make dairy farming work, and I was too strung out myself trying to operate the rest of the retail and all of that. I couldn’t do all of it and do all of it good.”
For life-long farm boys Wilkinson and Clawson, staying in agriculture was important. They love the farming lifestyle and cringe at the thought of taking 9-to-5 jobs like some of their friends in the industry have been forced to do.
In addition to often volatile milk prices, Wilkinson cited rising feed costs as one of biggest pressures on small dairies, which in his case was especially burdensome since his own farmland provided only about half of the nutrition needed for his herd.
Utah Agriculture Commissioner Craig Buttars, a former Cache Valley dairy farmer himself (he sold out to his brother), sums the situation up similarly:
“I think there are many different pressures on the agricultural industry and specifically dairy right now. With the drought and high feed costs, the dairies that are able to provide their own feed by growing their own feed, they’re in a much better situation than a dairy that has to purchase alfalfa and other commodities.”
Clawson, Wilkinson and Buttars all say another major challenge for the industry’s little guys is finding and keeping good employees. Many dairies these days rely on immigrants, who are often more willing than the general populace to do the hard work required in milking operations, but low unemployment rates have even depleted that reliable source of farm labor.
In Clawson’s case, there was also the economic strain of having to retain his employees year-round, even in the winter when he and his brother were no longer in the fields and able to shoulder a lot of the milking chores themselves.
“We had to keep them around or it would be hard to get new ones when we needed them, so everything we were making was going toward pay,” Clawson said. He was quick to add, however, that he appreciated his workers and their loyalty, noting his last three employees were with the dairy for 15 years and “did a great job for us.”
Farm labor is much on the mind of Commissioner Buttars, who is working to extend the legally permitted stay of seasonal workers in the federal H-2A visa program to help farmers retain good help. For example, he said, it’s been suggested summer-fall orchard workers be allowed to move to ski area jobs in the winter to keep them available for farmers the following season.
“There’s a lot of ideas, but the truth is a lot of these jobs the local people don’t want to do,” Buttars said. “They’re difficult, they’re dirty, they’re hard, and so that’s why we have to rely on H-2A workers, maybe workers that have green cards and others from out of the country. They’re more willing to do those types of jobs.”
Goodbye barns, hello houses
No discussion of declining small dairies and farms would be complete without mention of development pressures, with housing subdivisions, business parks and retail strips eating up farmland at what some see as a frightening rate in Cache Valley and other Utah communities.
Jared Clawson’s closed Hyrum dairy, where his farming operation is still headquartered, closely borders Mountain Crest High School on the north and homes on the west, and he says it’s just a matter of time before the old place is swallowed up. But, of course, that will likely mean big money for family members.
“We know that’s going to happen. If me and my brother don’t do it, our kids definitely will,” he said, explaining that as the number of heirs multiplies in any farm family, the odds of any one or two offspring being able to buy a farmer out from siblings and other relatives becomes prohibitive.
“So the property a dad has lived for all his life … all of a sudden the kids are like, ‘Yoo-hoo!’” Clawson said with a laugh.
Cache County Extension Agent Justin Clawson, a relative of Jared’s who has seen a couple of other extended family members bail out of small dairies in recent years, had this to say about the difficulties of intergenerational transfer of farms: “Sometimes it goes good, sometimes it goes bad. It can be hard on a family to divvy up what they want to do with a farm after their father retires.”
The problem is more than familial for Ag Commissioner Buttars, who sees the trend of farms giving way to houses as a crisis waiting to happen.
“I think we are developing our most productive farmland, we’re putting homes on it, and so the concern that I have is that our food processing is getting pushed farther and farther away from our more populated areas,” Buttars said. “With COVID we saw that food processing is not a sure thing. We’re not guaranteed that when we go to the store there’s going to be food on the shelf, but the more local food production and processing that we can keep in place, the more secure our food supply is going to be.”
The website promoting the national “Cache Valley” cheese brand shows a green, fertile valley with the words, “Made with all the goodness that makes this place so good.”
Scroll down and you’ll also see other phrases like, “Here, tucked away from the rest of the world is a land and a people of goodness,” “Here, our cheese is inspired by the valley,” and “Made by the friendliest of hands … for all to find.”
Thing is, the valley in that photo is clearly not Cache Valley. And truth be known, the cheese is no longer produced here either.
Though not specifically linked to the decline of small dairies, the exit of Cache Valley’s iconic cheese brand parallels changing times in the Utah dairy industry, and the product’s branding shows how strongly cheese companies want to identify with family-centered farm production and the romantic lifestyle it represents.
Cache Valley Cheese (uppercase C) was originally produced by the Cache Valley Dairy Association at a plant in Amalga, just west of Smithfield. Much of the brand’s success was credited to the cheese-making expertise of Swiss immigrant Edwin Gossner, who stayed for 24 years before leaving in 1966 to start his own company, Gossner Foods in Logan, which became one of the nation’s largest producers of Swiss cheese.
Soon other major players entered the thriving Cache Valley cheese business, namely the Wisconsin-based Schreiber Foods and the Kansas-based Dairy Farmers of America, and those two entities eventually teamed up at the Amalga plant to produce, package and ship the Cache Valley Cheese brand, billed as a product of “Big Cheese Country.”
Schreiber took sole possession of the plant in the early 2000s, but the DFA purchased the trademark and, according to a company spokesperson, moved production to Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Fillmore, Utah.
It’s actually not called Cache Valley Cheese anymore, but this might not be obvious to someone picking up one of the packages at the supermarket. “Cache Valley” appears in large letters at the top of the packages with the word “Creamery” in smaller letters underneath.
At the top of the package is a sketch of a small dairy with mountains in the background. It’s a charming image, but as Cache Valley’s recent history indicates, scenes such as this are getting harder and harder to find on the Utah landscape.