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The Last of the Flathead Dairy Farms
With the closing of Joe Brenneman’s Kalispell dairy farm, only one local milk producer remains
Joe Brenneman, pictured at his dairy farm east of Kalispell, on Nov. 21. - Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
For a half-century, the din of bellowing bovine rumbled across Joe Brenneman’s pastures east of Kalispell, providing the familiar, workaday soundtrack of a Montana dairy farm.

Lately, however, life is quieter on Brenneman’s land, and throughout the Flathead Valley.

“The morning of Nov. 9 was the first day we didn’t milk cows here in almost 50 years,” Brenneman said. “It’s weird. But things change.”

What’s changed is the agricultural landscape of the Flathead Valley, which at one point supported dozens of dairy farms but experienced a sharp decline, particularly as market costs dipped in 2008.

With Brenneman shutting down production, there remains just one dairy farm in the Flathead, Kalispell Kreamery, owned and operated by Bill and Marilyn Hedstrom for 35 years.

The rest have been sold and, in some cases, replaced by subdivisions.

“I outlasted 20 dairies and two milk processing plants, so I don’t feel too bad,” Brenneman said. “I never thought of myself as a dairy farmer. I don’t know how I did it for 30 years.”

Milk prices dropped 50 percent in 2009 after hitting an all-time high in 2007 and notching the second-highest prices on record in 2008.

“I was selling milk for the same price my dad was selling milk for in the ‘70s, back when I was in high school,” Brenneman said.

Prices have since rebounded, but Montana’s dairy industry, which was already becoming a rare breed, took another hit when the Country Classic cooperative in Gallatin County merged with Darigold, a large co-op based in Seattle.

Brenneman reached a five-year agreement that kept freight rates steady, but the co-op was traveling 75 miles from the nearest dairy in St. Ignatius to pick up Brenneman’s milk.

“They were spending a lot of money and going 150 miles out of their way to pick up just a little bit of milk,” Brenneman said. “The closing of the local plants is a huge deal.”

He still has a passel of steers and heifers to unload, but the farm isn’t producing milk for the first time since 1964, when his father, Clifford Brenneman, began dairy farming.

“I moved here in ’55 and raised seven children,” Clifford Brenneman said. “It’s a tough business, but it kept the food on our table. It was good to us, but it was time.”

A dairy is a difficult business to get off the ground, and it’s even more challenging to keep running. Milking begins at 2:30 a.m. every day.

“The cows have to be milked,” the younger Brenneman said. “You can’t decide it’s too cold out. The cows have to be milked twice a day every day.”

Joe Brenneman describes the process of milking his dairy cows from the milking room at his farm east of Kalispell on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. Nov. 9 marked the first day in nearly 50 years the Brenneman's stopped milking cows. - Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

According to data from the Montana Department of Livestock, Montana was home to 10,400 dairy farmers in 1965. By 2007, only 390 dairy farmers remained in the state – a 96 percent reduction.

With the closure of Brenneman’s dairy, the only remaining dairy farm in the Flathead Valley is Kalispell Kreamery, owned by the Hedstroms, who built their own onsite processing plant after the Darigold merger.

Today, Kalispell Kreamery’s milk travels about 30 feet from cow to processor, jug to truck, all within the same day, before it’s shipped to fridges in the Flathead.

“If we hadn’t started our own plant we would be out of business, too,” Marilyn Hedstrom said. “When Country Classic sold out to Darigold we could read the handwriting on the wall. We realized we either had to bottle our own milk or get out of the business.”

When the Hedstroms began dairying 35 years ago they bottled raw milk produced by their 20 cows in glass bottles and sold directly to consumers, but quit when state laws changed. Now they have 150 cows in West Valley.

They’re also making other products such as yogurt and butter, and now have 11 employees.

But Marilyn said it was the involvement of her daughter and son-in-law, Mary and Jared Tuck, that kept the farm solvent after adding the processing facility.

“We’ve been milking cows since 1978,” Marilyn said. “We know cows, but we didn’t know the processing side. Mary and Jared saved us.”

“I won’t say it has been an uphill battle but it has been an adventure,” she added.

Brenneman, a former county commissioner, said he’ll likely keep farming on his property – he’s always grown his own feed – but is ready for a break from dairy farming.

Still, the rhythm of a working dairy farm keeps its tempo even after the cows are gone, and Brenneman still rises before dawn, his biological alarm reminding him that the cows have to be milked.

“I’ll miss it. But it was time,” he said. “They say you get big or you get out. I never did get big, so I got out.”
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