By Lorraine Nay, Alliance for Puget Sound Natural Resources. Photos by Courtney Baxter, Nature Conservancy’s Puget Sound Conservation Coordinator
It’s a beautiful day on the peninsula when we pull into the Maple View Farm. We’ve arrived a little early for our appointment, giving us time to enjoy the view of the mountains and Dungeness Bay in the distance. A few minutes later, a well-worn truck pulls up and out steps Ben Smith. Ben greets us with a warm smile and a welcoming handshake. We start our meeting with introductions to the baby calves in the nearby calf pens. They’re extremely adorable, making it hard to pry ourselves away to learn about the farm and conservation projects that will be implemented with funding from the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).
Ben Smith and his brother Troy are 4th generation dairy farmers. In the 1930s their great- grandfather started the farm in Clallam County because of its mild climate which allows dairy cows to thrive. Ben puts it this way, “Great grandpa picked an awesome spot to stop his wagon. Bless his heart.” Today, the Smith brothers milk nearly 400 dairy cows, shipping the milk to Darigold, and grow about 650 acres of feed for their cows and a few acres of vegetable seed.
Having experienced the 24x7 demands of dairy farming, Ben’s father encouraged Ben and his brother to attend college and pursue something that would “make more money, provide a more normal, easier life with weekends off.” And they did. And they both ended up coming back to the farm. But before that happened, Ben got a bachelor’s degree in nursing and worked for a couple of years in a cardiac unit. After coming back one summer to help with harvest, he decided he was going to use his nursing skills with cows—and eventually run the farm with his brother.
There are number of things that make working on the farm fulfilling for Ben. It’s his love of the outdoors, working with his family, producing food, and helping the community. And when he sees his young niece and nephew feeding the calves in the pouring rain and snow, they are “amazingly powerful moments”. He feels assured “they’re doing great, they know how to work hard, and they’ll be okay.”
“We want to be good stewards for everybody. We’re worried about the salmon and shellfish, that’s part of our community. We want to make sure that we're being responsible and doing everything on our end so that we're not setting anything back and heading in the wrong direction,” Ben explained. And for this he gives credit to his parents. “It comes back to caring about your neighbors and being part of the community. Mom and dad had that mentality. So I think growing up with that core philosophy makes it easier, because it's kind of ingrained in us.”
Financially, farming has its peaks and valleys. The last two years have been lean, and conversations around the dinner table focus on how to keep ahead. Recently Ben’s 78 year old mother asked, “Do we need to let our calf feeder go? I can come down to feed the cows.” At times like this, having the financial incentives provided by RCPP make it easier to pursue projects that don’t necessarily provide a financial return. A concrete slab for the feeding area was one of those improvements, so when Ben heard that there were funds available for the project, he said, “we were gung-ho to participate.”
In Ben’s opinion, having this balance, whether it’s doing the right thing or responding to regulations is important to keeping our agriculture stable in the U.S. “Having programs like this helps us move the environmentally responsibility ball forward without losing farmers.”
Looking to the future, the goal is to keep the land in farming. The family is planning to sell the development rights for some of their land, making it farmland forever. This is good news for agriculture in the Dungeness Watershed. The area once had over 300 dairy farms and many of those farms were lost to development. Today Maple View Farm is one of the two remaining dairy farms in all of Clallam County. The future may include a fifth generation of Smith farmers. Ben’s nephew is currently working on a cattle farm in Oregon and he’s starting to think about coming back. “There's a good chance that in the next generation we’ll shift from a dairy over to a beef operation” Ben said, “but we’re all committed to keeping the farm in ag in some form or another, long term.”