By Lorraine Nay, Alliance for Puget Sound Natural Resources. Photos by Courtney Baxter, Nature Conservancy’s Puget Sound Conservation Coordinator
The sun was just breaking through the mist as we approached the Groeneveld farm, revealing a combination of green pastures and tall cottonwood trees nestled in the foothills of the North Cascades. We started our conversation with third generation dairy farmer, Chris Groeneveld, praising the beauty of the pastoral landscape surrounding us. It’s his love of the land, working outdoors and being his own boss that makes life on the farm truly rewarding for Chris.
Groeneveld became a direct supplier of milk to Seattle-based Beecher’s Handmade Cheese after Oprah Winfrey named their “World’s Best Mac & Cheese” as one of her “favorite things” and sales went through the roof. Beecher’s has strict guidelines for their milk suppliers and getting the fat percentage just right can be demanding, but the relationship has been gratifying. Chris said, “It’s been a fantastic partnership. They're a good company to work with and it’s been fun to be part of a local success.”
The entire family pitches in to keep Beecher’s Mac & Cheese on our tables. Chris grew up on the farm and studied agriculture at Washington State University. His wife, Anna, a second-generation farmer, studied animal sciences. Chris explained, “Anna is very much animal oriented which is fine because I’m actually enjoying the field work.” Together they form a partnership, managing the cows and growing the feed crop. It’s demanding work that starts at 5am and doesn’t end until the final check of the cows at 10pm. Their three children help out too, feeding the young calves when they’re not busy with afterschool activities.
Some farmers might find it a nuisance, even destructive, but Chris enjoys the abundance of wildlife that visits his farm. He doesn’t mind sharing the land with bears that fill their bellies with corn, elk herds wandering in the fields, coyotes building their dens, and large flocks of geese dropping in for a bite. Chris stated, “Many people say ‘let me take care of this’, but I tell them ‘nah’, we’re not losing that much and I'd rather have nature around. I really love it. We just kind of let nature happen around here.”
The family’s 80 years of farming this land and Chris’ love of nature makes stewardship a natural part of managing the farm. It’s reflected in his “full circle” approach to nutrient management that has agronomic, environmental and economic benefits. He’s recycling manure for green bedding in the cow barns and using manure to enrich the soil in the growing fields. The increased productivity of his fields means that he can preserve the wild areas on his land. With the latest investments in manure handling equipment he can more efficiently utilize the manure and mitigate the risk of runoff in the creek that runs through his property. “We strive to be stewards of the land and to not always take from the land, we nurture it, do the best we can by it,” said Chris.
It takes a lot of love and commitment to stick with farming. As Chris puts it “I don’t’ see myself sitting in an office. As much as I question, ‘why am I doing this’, I love it at the same time. Everything doesn’t come easy and we try to teach our kids if you fail, sometimes your best failure is your best learning. You can make your wrong choices and suffer the consequences, but you can also make great choices and live the highs of it.”