Cutting state inspector could close Alaska's last dairy farm
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposal calls to eliminate the state’s dairy inspection program, which has shocked operators of the state's final dairy farm outside Palmer.
“There are federal regulations. I cannot inspect myself, I cannot pay someone to inspect me. The state has to do that,” said Ty Havemeister, the manager of the Havemeister Dairy's on-site creamery.
He’s a third-generation dairy farmer. The Havemeister family has made its home in the Mat-Su since long before Alaska became a state.
“My grandparents were colonists to Alaska in 1935. My dad’s been running it ever since, really,” Havemeister said.
His father, Bob Havemeister, was busy running tractors around the farm on Friday afternoon.
“He’s 78, in the barn every day,” Havemeister said.
Over the years they’ve watched many neighboring farms close their doors.
“If you go back to when my dad was a kid there was a dairy on every corner. That’s what he did, he was picking up milk cans from all these little dairies and dropping them at the co-op before he went to school,” Havemeister explained.
Now their farm is the last one left but he’s not sure how long they can hang on if the state cuts its dairy inspection program. He said state inspectors come to the farm four times a year; milk gets tested in a lab once a month.
“If there’s no state inspector there’s no commercial milk and you’re not going to see another dairy open up. It’s too expensive. It’s the only reason we’ve been able to do this is because we’ve been here for so long and we’re established,” Havemeister said.
Page 30 of Dunleavy’s budget proposal explains the cut would save about $180,000 by getting rid of the position in charge of the inspections.
“Eliminating the dairy program will not increase risk to public health, as unregulated milk will not enter the market," the proposal states. "Those wishing to purchase local milk will still be able acquire raw milk through a cow-share program.”
Havemeister said that’s not a feasible option for the farm for several reasons. It’s illegal to sell raw milk commercially in Alaska and, with 90 cows, the dairy has too high of a volume for people to "cow-share" and pick it up at the farm.
When Matanuska Creamery folded in 2012, farms were left without options for getting their milk to market. That's why Havemeister Dairy invested in equipment to begin their own creamery to pasteurize milk.
“We obviously incurred some debt. We have to pay that debt back. Having a half million dollars in useless equipment is not something we’re interested in doing,” Havemeister said.
Shutting down operations could have a negative trickle-down effect. It’s not just the Havemeister family that depends on the farm.
“This is my entire income right here. I’ve been up here for two years now working. I guess I would go back to Michigan and start over,” said Doug Kamer. “There's eight of us on here getting a paycheck out of this farm.”
The dairy also supports other local businesses.
“Alaska Mill is coming through the yard every 10 days with 12 tons of grain. I buy all of our plastic for our jugs, there’s a blow mold in Palmer so it’s 100 percent local,” Havemeister said.
Five-thousand gallons a week go out to stores around Southcentral with most of the milk hitting shelves within 24 hours. Alaska has issues with food security Havemeister has seen first-hand.
“Stores are calling us for milk because it’s stuck on a boat somewhere out at sea. I think it’s important to have what little food security we can supply, at least something,” he said.
State Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer, said that’s one reason she’d like to see the program spared, too.
“I think anyone who just went through the [Nov. 30] earthquake recognizes how quickly food can fly off the shelves," she said. "Right now, we don’t have any way to sell milk that is made in Alaska, grown in Alaska and produced in Alaska except for Havemeister Dairy.”
Havemeister said it’s important lawmakers come to a decision soon.
“We have 90 cows; they have to be milked twice a day. You can’t just turn this off, then turn it back on when the Legislature says, 'Maybe we’ll keep you,'” he said.
The Havemeister farm has stood the test of time for more than 80 years, outlasting all others in the dairy industry.
“Being the last dairy isn’t something we think about," Havemeister said. "We’re just continuing what we’ve always done and we'd like to keep this place going.”
The dairy's future rests in the hands of legislators in Juneau.
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