Visiting every commercial dairy farm in Alaska sounds like a daunting task, especially in a state that covers over 586,000 square miles. But that was the mission of a recent farm tour consisting of a group of active and retired dairy farmers from western and central Wisconsin. During the first part of August our group accomplished its mission by visiting the two remaining commercial dairy farms still left in Alaska. During our visits to those operations we also found that both have Wisconsin ties.
Our first visit was to the Northern Lights Dairy near Delta Junction in the interior of Alaska. The dairy was started in the 1970s by Donald Lintelman. He came to Alaska in 1969 on vacation and decided he wanted to live there and milk cows. So in 1970 he left his home in the Melrose area of western Wisconsin and moved to Delta Junction. When he arrived there was a thriving dairy industry in the interior of Alaska but now he and his family operate the only commercial dairy left in that area. His wife Lois, also from Wisconsin, told our group that there are a few small dairies still in the area but they mostly sell raw milk to the locals and don’t produce on a large scale.
The current dairy operation at Northern Lights is a self contained unit. They milk about 50 cows, crop 280 acres of owned land and 200 acres of rented ground. Most of the crop production is Brome grass hay with some small grains, mainly barley, in their rotation. Those crops are fed to their milk cows as well as the replacement animals on the farm. For hay storage they use plastic ag bags to make balage and have found that has helped increase production from the times when they fed mostly dry hay. They also work with a nutritionist from Wisconsin who helps them balance their ration. They aren’t exactly sure about the cows’ production levels because they use all their milk in their own bottling and processing plant they set up back in 1978. In 1982 that facility burned but they were back in operation by 1984 and have been in business ever since. Their product output though, has gone down over time because as Lois Lintelman told the group, “there aren’t any other dairies left here in the interior because it’s expensive to milk cows here.” She also added that they have no trouble finding a home for their milk they bottle in sizes from half pints to half gallons as well as their home-made gelato and ice cream. They have standing orders from three nearby military bases as well as some local schools. The only problem she says is that “we could use more milk to meet the demand.” Northern Lights Dairy is also a family operation three of their seven children help run the farm—one is in charge of the dairy plant, one takes care of all the deliveries and another son runs the overall farming operation.
The second commercial dairy we visited has been in the Havermeister family since FDR initiated the Matanuska Valley Agriculture Project in the 1940s. That’s when Bob Havermiester’s parents came to the Mat-Su Valley as one of more than 200 families from Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota to homestead the land and begin producing food in Alaska. The Havermeisters are one of the few remaining “Project” families still farming in the area and the only dairy farm. Bob told us that “back in 1960 there were 208 operating dairies in the Mat-Su Burrough but poor milk prices and high input costs forced all of them to give it up.”
The Havermeister dairy’s Wisconsin influence comes from Bob’s wife Jean (Anderson), a
colorful farm wife originally from the Spencer and Loyal areas of Central Wisconsin. Together they have guided their own dairy through some tough times to try to keep fresh milk in Alaska. The toughest times, and a reason many dairies in Alaska went out of business was because of corruption at their dairy plants, like Valley Dairy Inc. While our group was in Alaska, a federal judge convicted two people of crimes that consisted of defrauding not only the farmers but also the federal government out of millions of dollars so they could use the money for other failed business ventures. Before that there was corruption at the Matanuska dairy cooperative which also cost dairymen a lot of money. On a previous trip to Alaska, Bob Havermeister told this reporter his milk check didn’t change for over 20 years no matter what conditions were.
To survive without a dairy plant, the Havermeisters went the way of Northern Lights about three years ago by setting up their own dairy processing plant to bottle all their own milk. To do that, they encouraged their son, Ty, to leave a career in Florida as an investment counselor. Anxious to get back home to Alaska he accepted the challenge of building the plant from scratch with the help of a Pennsylvania company that built and set-up a model bottling plant in their factory to meet the Havermeister’s building specifications before disassembling it and shipping it to Alaska to be rebuilt on the farm.
That was about three years ago and Ty said “it’s been a lot of work but it’s working because Alaskans want ‘Alaska Fresh’ food.” Alaska Fresh is the theme used in Alaska to promote homegrown foods much like the dairy industry uses the Real Seal to identify real dairy products in much of the lower 48. Prices for the Havermeister’s milk in the stores is more expensive than shipped in milk-about two dollars a gallon more. But Ty said it’s “fresh the next day versus the shipped in milk that’s about 10 days old before it gets in the cooler.” The grocery store price for the Havermeister’s milk is $5.99 a gallon.
Like everywhere in Alaska, the Havermeister dairy fights to deal with high input costs. For supplemental grain for their cows, since corn doesn’t grow in Alaska, they pay $530 a ton. Also with no implement dealers in the state for their needs, all parts have to be special ordered and shipped in and the cost for each plastic gallon jug used for their milk is 59 cents since they are made outside Alaska.
Another challenge they face is finding crop land because of the expanding population in the Palmer area. In the past few years the value of that land has shot up to $25,000 an acre but the Havermeisters say they won’t sell and they are determined to keep their dairy farm operating to provide Alaska Fresh milk to their neighbors.