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Last dairy ships out its cows

Last week, Wilbur Bishop loaded up 437 cows onto trucks bound for southern Idaho, marking the end to the last dairy farm on Whidbey Island.

The two families that run Coupeville’s Sherman-Bishop Farm, Inc. decided to divide the business in half, which ultimately meant that the dairy cattle had to be sold off. Over the nine years of the partnership, Wilbur Bishop and his wife, Karen Sherman Bishop, managed the dairy operations while Don and Debbie Sherman farmed 700 acres or more of Central Whidbey.

Ten years ago, 11 dairy farms dotted the rural landscape of Whidbey Island.

“I feel sad because I know there is a good chance that our dairy will be the last dairy of any commercial scale to operate on Whidbey Island,” Karen said. “It seems a shame because we have a naturally perfect area for a dairy operation.”

It’s also the end of a big business in Coupeville. The farm corporation employed seven to nine people and grossed about $2 million a year, with 94 percent from the dairy operation fed by crops grown on the 700 acres.

Yet when it comes to the economics of dairy farming in Central Whidbey, the two families had a difference of opinions.

Wilbur said it was a good time to be a dairy farmer on Whidbey Island, with the price of milk high and going higher — thanks in part to the progressive policies of the milk industry. The climate is perfect for cows. Coupeville is one of the few areas in Western Washington dry enough to grow alfalfa, a very valuable dairy feed.

And they had very good cows.

“They were in the top 1 percent of productivity per cow in the United States,” he said.

On the other hand, Don Sherman sees a trend in which more modest-sized dairy farms are being out-competed by mega-dairies in Eastern Washington and other areas where land and labor are cheaper.

“Commercial dairies like ours are disappearing,” he said. “The dairy industry is moving fast to economies of scale.”

The last dairy may not have been the first dairy on Whidbey, but it did operate since the mid-1950s. The dairy farm originally belonged to the LeSourd family, a Coupeville pioneer family that married into the Sherman family.

In 1964, Clark Sherman and his two sons, Roger and Al, purchased the dairy from the LeSourd family. The farm passed onto the next generation in 1998. Don Sherman is Roger’s son and Karen Bishop is Al’s daughter.

While the closing of the last dairy operation is the end of an era, it’s definitely not the end of farming for the Shermans and Bishops. They say the community doesn’t have to worry about the prospects of tracts of wide-open farmland being turned into housing developments.

The two families have similar plans for the future. They both hope to explore local markets and the local marketing of agricultural products.

Black-and-white Holstein dairy cattle won’t disappear from the Central Whidbey landscape. The families divided the stock of young “replacement heifers” and plan to continue raising them for other dairies.

Don Sherman said he will continue farming 450 acres of his land and rented land. He plans to continue working with seed companies to grow seed crops, like the bright-yellow hybrid cabbage on the side of Highway 20. Hay is also a profitable crop.

The Bishops said they will continue farming their 550 acres in the heart of Ebey’s Landing Historical Reserve, where farming is a vital part of the living landscape.

“For Wilbur and I, the land that makes up a good share of the Ebey donation claim was our priority,” Karen said. “We plan to continue farming our 550 acres in the heart of the prairie.”

In fact, it’s possible that the Bishops could be involved in a small-scale dairy in the future. They know of energetic young people who are toying with the idea of starting a mini-dairy and making cheese locally.

“I hope someone does something small and markets it locally,” he said. “I’m very open to something like that.”

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