Business/Economy

The last days of the Havemeister Dairy: Alaska’s oldest commercial milk producer is shutting down

PALMER — As a sharp wind brought the first raindrops of a fall storm, the cows inside the Havemeister Dairy barn pushed their faces into piles of hay, snuffing and chomping, a decades-old ritual.

By Friday, they’ll be gone.

Alaska’s oldest commercial dairy is shutting down, taking with it the state’s only local source for homogenized gallon jugs that share big-box grocery coolers with cartons of imported milk.

“It was good while it was good,” owner Ty Havemeister said Tuesday afternoon as he considered a future without dairying — something his family has done on this farm since 1935.

As recently as January, the Havemeister herd numbered about 150 cows on rolling ground between Palmer and Wasilla.

The farm was settled in the 1930s by Havemeister’s grandparents as part of the Matanuska farm colony. His grandfather came to the U.S. from Germany in the 1920s. His father hauled milk from local dairies to the creamery while he was in school.

Ty Havemeister made the difficult decision to close the business this year. He pointed to a combination of factors: the rising costs of plastic jugs and fertilizer; struggles finding workers; the challenge of feeding his herd without enough acreage to reliably grow hay; the expense of rebuilding a nearly 100-year-old barn.

About 50 Havemeister cows became part of the herd at a new dairy near Delta Junction. The rest will end up as hamburger, except for a handful taken in by families looking for milk cows or 4-H projects.

This is a tough time, Havemeister said this week, dark circles under his eyes showing his fatigue. His alarm goes off at 3:15 a.m. The days lately are filled with the details of ending a business that’s gone on for generations.

Havemeister and his father bred all of the farm’s cows and raised them. He’s handled them their whole lives.

Ten animals went to slaughter Tuesday morning. There are just over 50 to go.

Havemeister expects to deliver the last jugs of milk by Friday.

“The Valley supported us. Everybody in Alaska supported us,” he said. “We couldn’t ask for more. It was great.”

Dairies in Alaska began struggling decades ago. By the 1980s, an attempt to start a dairy project at Point MacKenzie failed despite millions of dollars in state subsidies.

Havemeister’s family resumed commercial operations in 2011 to supply Southcentral with at least a small-scale dairy as the Matanuska Creamery teetered toward eventual shutdown amid heavy state subsidies and a federal investigation into misuse of grant funds.

By 2017, Havemeister was the state’s only commercial dairy.

Until recently, the farm sent 5,000 gallons of milk every week to coolers at Fred Meyer, Carrs and Three Bears.

Business wasn’t always smooth.

In 2019, a Dunleavy administration budget proposal to cut a state dairy inspector position put the Havemeister dairy on the brink. Without someone to check for compliance with federal regulations, the farm and other dairies faced closure.

The position remained intact. The inspector now works with Havemeister and also two new federally certified Grade A dairies: a small goat facility at Heritage Farms & Ranch on Kodiak Island and the Alaska Range Dairy near Delta Junction, the state’s first to use robotic milkers.

The loss of the Havemeister Dairy is tough given its longevity through multiple generations, said Dr. Sarah Coburn, the assistant state veterinarian who oversees Alaska’s dairy program.

“Any farming operation, any dairy, is really an integral part of a community, from hiring people and providing food and buying feed and supplies from the local businesses,” Coburn said, adding that a few Havemeister calves ended up shown in 4-H competitions at the Alaska State Fair. “They’re part of the fabric of that community. It’s very sad that they’re at this point.”

Now there’s just one Grade A cow milk operation in the state: Alaska Range Dairy, federally certified last spring as a dairy farm and processing facility and run by the Plagerman family.

The farm sells natural-style cream top milk in glass bottles at outlets in Mat-Su, Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula, though not yet at big-box grocers. They post a cow of the month on Facebook. The dairy has about 30 milking cows and about 20 “young stock” or heifers not ready to milk.

Alaska Range Dairy invested in robotic milking equipment because of the cost of getting — and difficulty hiring — workers to do the job, owner Scott Plagerman said this week.

“That’s a huge, huge reason we put it in,” Plagerman said. “Farm labor is about impossible to find in Alaska.”

It’s a shame to see Havemeister go, he said. “It’s too bad. He’s been very helpful getting me started. ... He’s been great and I hate to see him quit.”

Havemeister said he’s glad his herd is helping Plagerman carry on the dairy tradition. The farm will stay in the family’s hands, but without the cows.

“The support we’ve had locally, people have always bought our product,” he said. “I’m very thankful for everybody that supported us for the last 10 years.”

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