Ryan Raises His Dairy Farm to the Top

By Lorraine Nay, Alliance for Puget Sound Natural Resources. Photos by Courtney Baxter, Nature Conservancy’s Puget Sound Conservation Coordinator

Dungeness Valley Creamery is one of the most popular stops on the Clallam County Farm Tour and welcomes visitors all year long. The raw milk creamery sits on 38 acres of lush pasture, home to the McCarthey family, their prized Jersey cows, and a charming retail store. The owners, Ryan and Sarah McCarthey, are part of a new generation of farmers supporting the growing movement for local, sustainable food production.

Ryan and Sarah McCarthey in front of their farmstead home. Photo by Courtney Baxter / TNC

Sarah grew up on the farm and has a B.S. degree in Animal Sciences from Washington State University. She enjoys managing animal husbandry aspects of the farm and strives to make the animals more comfortable. Ryan has a Bachelor’s of Applied Management degree from Peninsula College and served time in Iraq as an Army Staff Sergeant assessing complex agricultural projects for the reconstruction effort. He joined Sarah on the farm when they married in 2009 and today they have two young children. Together they apply their passion and skills towards sustainable farming practices that ensure healthy animals and a healthy environment. 

A curious cow at Dungeness Valley Creamery. Photo by Courtney Baxter / TNC

Sarah finished college in 2003 and returned to her family’s farm ready to secure her place in the dairy business.  However, the economics of a small dairy farm were looking increasingly bleak. The family needed to figure out a way to make the farm financially sustainable. After years of people knocking on their door asking for raw milk, they saw potential in serving this niche market. Following extensive research and talking with hundreds of people, they discovered a healthy demand for raw milk from their grass-fed Jersey cows. In 2006, the Dungeness Valley Creamery vision became a reality. Today their raw milk is stocked in over 40 retail stores across the state and delivered to over 20 drop points.   

As Ryan explains on the Dungeness Valley Creamery website: “Our farmland has been preserved into perpetuity by a 2008 conservation easement held by North Olympic Land Trust. This easement makes us think differently about our land and ensuring its use is available to future generations. Our rapid growth since converting to raw milk in 2006 has allowed opportunities to rebuild the infrastructure of our farm with a focus on efficiency, animal health and comfort, as well as being socially and environmentally responsible.”

Examples of their efforts include a fully automated manure flush system which uses reclaimed wash water to flush the barn every hour. The system separates dairy manure fibers which are sold to local garden enthusiasts, and the remaining liquid is the only source of fertilizer used to maintain the pasture. Surplus liquid manure is sent to a neighboring organic produce farm. Leftover milk and skim from the bottling process is sent to a neighboring pig farm. "Nothing goes to waste.”

The manure separator at Dungeness Valley Creamery. Photo by Courtney Baxter / TNC

Making improvements to the farm’s manure management system can come at a significant cost, so some projects take longer to implement. Ryan explained how funding from the Puget Sound Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is making it possible to take proactive steps that will prevent environmental issues in the future. For example, replacing the aging storage lagoon with a safer above ground system. “As second-generation farmers, we're trying to think about how to prepare the farm so it could be transitioned to another generation and how to be ahead of the curve on water quality issues. So, we’d like to do this on our own, but it’s so expensive and such a large project.” He added this about RCPP, “I think it’s important to help small and regional food producers keep up and do things that are beneficial to the environment, especially as rules and laws change over time.”

Environmental responsibility has become increasingly important to consumers and can impact buying behavior. Some customers are willing to pay more for products that are aligned with their values. Participating in the annual farm tour and selling direct puts the McCartheys in touch with the values of their customers. Ryan said, “environmental stewardship is something that really resonates with our consumers. We can add that marketing value. We like to be able to convey that message to consumers and that's one of the reasons we're excited about with this [RCPP supported] project.”

Raw milk from Dungeness Valley Creamer. Photo by Courtney Baxter / TNC