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Learning from history, last Mat-Su dairy farm seeks elusive success

There have been a lot of dreams when it comes to Alaska's dairy industry, but Ty Havemeister has tried to stay realistic.

At 33, he knows all about the trials and tribulations of trying to bring Alaska's milk to market, mostly because he's lived it. His parents, Bob and Jean Havemeister, are the children of Matanuska-Susitna Valley colonists who have been farming in the region since the 1930s. Since then, they've watched the industry go from boom to bust countless times.

But Ty Havemeister hopes to change that, at least a little. He's started Havemeister Creamery -- a separate business from his parents' milking operation. While he buys all his milk from them, by keeping the businesses apart, he hopes it will keep the two projects insulated from the tumultuous business that is dairy in Alaska.

And he might just be a success story in the making. Since coming fully online in January, Havemeister has sold every drop of the roughly 1,200 gallons of milk he puts on the shelf three times a week -- despite a competitive market where a gallon of his milk can cost $2 more than a jug imported from the Lower 48.

"There was a big question of whether we could sell our milk here," Havemeister said. "We've proved that we can."

From bull pen to processor

On a chilly Thursday morning in early November, Havemeister is up before sunrise, testing his milk for antibiotics. While the cows are not treated with any, the test is one of the many USDA regulations he must follow to make sure his milk is properly handled.

His facility is small -- only 48-by-48 feet -- but the stainless steel tanks, pipes and separators are capable of processing hundreds of gallons of milk a day.

During production, Havemeister moves quickly through the creamery, opening up the small hatches to peer inside one of the holding tanks to make sure the milk is still flowing in from the 1,800-gallon holding tank 60 feet away in the milking barn next door.

From there, Havemeister moves to another holding tank -- there are separate tanks for the whole milk, skim milk, 2 percent and half and half the creamery produces -- to make sure the milk isn't overflowing from the container that sends it to the pasteurizer. He swiftly moves over to the pasteurizer, giving it a quick glance to ensure it's operating at the proper temperature.

It seems hectic, fast-paced, and prone to operator error, but Havemeister insists that with much of the system automated, that's not the case.

"You have to watch it, but you don't have to turn the dials," he said last week. "Once you do it 100 times, it becomes second nature."

It's hard to imagine that a little over two years ago, the same space -- with its bright white walls, spotless concrete floors and neatly placed stainless steel vats, pipes and processors -- was home to dozens of the farm's bulls.

In fall 2011, Ty, who had been living in Florida and working as a financial advisor, moved back to Palmer, just as the Matanuska Creamery -- then the only dairy in Southcentral Alaska -- faced its own financial woes.

So Havemeister decided to get the creamery going for his family's milk. He spent a year working with contractors in the Lower 48 to put the creamery together. He visited small microcreameries across the U.S. who sell primarily to farmers markets. He saw growing interest in locally produced food.

"People really pay attention to where their food comes from," he said. "It works really well (as a selling point)."

There's no question the milk is wholly local. At the creamery, the cows surround the small, white farmhouse and barns on the property. Of the 150 head of cattle, 80 are milked twice a day, producing an average of 1,200 gallons a day.

By the time the milk is delivered, it's usually only been 48 hours since the cow was milked.

Ups and downs in valley milk

Dreams of dairy have always been big in Alaska. The Matanuska-Susitna Valley -- an area roughly the size of West Virginia and one of Alaska's major population centers -- has been home to agriculture in Southcentral since the 1930s, when the U.S. government encouraged families to homestead in the region. About 200 families came, mostly from the Midwest. The Havemeisters were one of those families, and they drew a 40-acre lot outside of Palmer in 1935.

But it wasn't until the 1980s that Alaska got serious about dairy. The state offered 15,000 acres of land in Point MacKenzie for sale, with the goal of starting a profitable industry in Alaska. There were 30 to 40 buyers.

The project failed miserably. Production peaked in 1986 with 36 million pounds of milk, dropping to between 6 and 7 million in 2007. Millions of dollars were plugged into the industry in the hopes of restarting it. Instead, massive defaults, bankruptcy, cronyism and corruption ensued. The last creamery to go under was the Matanuska Creamery, which shuttered its doors at the end of last year.

That left the Havemeisters as the last operating dairy farm in Southcentral Alaska. They had nowhere to send their milk, which must be processed by a USDA certified facility to be sold.

Milan Shipka, professor of animal science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a livestock expert in Alaska, said that in the Lower 48 small dairies generally join together in co-ops to process their milk. With only two commercial dairy farms left in the state -- the other is the Northern Lights Dairy in Delta -- the idea of a co-op won't work without more dairy farmers. Given the high cost of entry, Shipka doesn't know of any waiting in the wings.

That makes dairy farming a hard prospect for Alaska. With no support industry, getting trained labor -- try finding someone who knows how to milk in Alaska, he noted -- and having to go outside of Alaska for any mechanical parts the creamery might need makes everything complicated.

"I think there are great struggles, but the demand is there," Shipka said.

Looking toward the future

How much milk the creamery can produce is limited by the number of cows Havemeister owns. One day he'd like to expand into cheese or ice cream, but he's proceeding with caution. He needs more milk, but is limited because his family is the only one left producing in Southcentral Alaska. Sometimes he will buy and process milk from Northern Lights Dairy in Delta, but only occasionally.

His biggest worry concerns how much land will be available for agriculture in the valley and how much hay will be grown to feed the cows. The community is one of the fastest growing in the state. He's concerned that land traditionally set aside for agriculture is being divided into subdivisions. This year, the family was down 50 percent on its hay yield, forcing them to buy thousands of dollars worth of hay they'd normally harvest.

"That's when it gets hard," he said, "when things are out of your control."

But after decades of ups and downs, Havemeister seems poised to make it work.

"If anybody can make it, it's (Ty Havemeister)," Shipka said. "The go-slow attitude is the way to do it."

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @suzannacaldwell

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