One day at a time: tackling the Fraser Valley’s dairy crisis

47,000 cows. Rising water. Resilient farmers. And a community that can help through the crisis.

Photo by Richard Bosma

From her dairy farm in Agassiz, Juliane Treur watched the catastrophe taking place on Sumas Prairie with disbelief.

“Our hearts are just broken for our dairy farming peers and our friends,” she said. “We can’t imagine what they are going through right now.”

Over the past few days, huge volumes of water poured into the Fraser Valley from the Nooksack River, trapping many of the region’s dairy herds. Around 60 dairies were on alert or evacuation order, but farmers returned to their properties anyway, in hopes of rescuing their cattle from the rising flood waters. Some were successful. Others were not. Then the City of Abbotsford announced Tuesday night that the Barrowtown Pump Station was in imminent danger of failing. Farmers who had been caring for or attempting to save their cattle were forced to leave.

“Just knowing that 20 kilometres away from here, our farming neighbours are having to make terrible decisions and are fighting for their animals’ lives—it’s really devastating,” Treur said. “And it’s hard. It’s hard to comprehend.”

Treur’s Creekside Dairy was safe from the flood. Although water poured down the mountainside near her farm during the height of the rainfall and swamped her pasture, the water has receded and her cows are snug in the barn. But she, like everyone else east of the Sumas Prairie, is facing another problem.

Mudslides that took place on Sunday closed all roads into and out of the Lower Mainland. Flooding on the prairie has severed Chilliwack’s connection with Abbotsford. Hope was also isolated, with major washouts on the TransCanada and Coquihalla highways. And that meant major concerns for both dairy farmers and residents: nothing could get in and nothing could get out.

This realization had prompted panic buying in some areas, with grocery store shelves in Chilliwack largely bare. Customers waited outside stores, trying to get in. Lineups at cash registers stretched around the aisles. Many people have taken to social media, asking where to find certain grocery items like bread. Others have said they’ve driven around town in search of gas, with limited success.

At the centre of many of these social media discussions is milk. And unsurprisingly so. The Fraser Valley is home to nearly 47,000 dairy cows—more than 60% of the province’s total herd on less than half of its farms. Each month, the province produces an average of 71.3 million litres of milk (about 30 Olympic-sized swimming pools), and the Fraser Valley is responsible for about 43.5 million litres of that. (Milk production varies from month to month, and from year to year, depending on consumer demand and supply.)

Two pie charts. The one on the left show's more than 60% of dairy cows are in the Fraser Valley. The one on the right shows that a third are in Abbotsford, 40% are in Chilliwack, 10% are in Dewdney, and 10% are in Agassiz. The remainder are in Mission.

Of those 47,000 cows, 16,000 lived in Abbotsford as of 2016. And the majority of the city’s dairy farms are located on Sumas Prairie. Those cows who were able to be moved are spread across neighbouring farms to the east, west, and north of the prairie.

They will be impacted by potential grain shortages, as many feed mills are shut off from the eastern Fraser Valley, although cattle will be able to eat hay and forage grown locally on farms. UBC Dairy said they had to start feeding significantly less grains and proteins, like lentils or soybeans. (“Their production might decline, but at least they won’t starve,” Truer explained.)

Some relief has already come. The Molson Coors brewery in Chilliwack donated 100 tonnes of spent grain for evacuated cattle in the area. On Thursday, Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said a shipment of feed formerly bound for China will be able to be brought into the Fraser Valley for farmers.

But not all the cattle were able to be moved. Popham estimated that thousands of animals have died in the flood. The province is working to develop routes to allow veterinarians to the flooded farms, but many of the animals who did survive will have to be euthanized. Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun held back tears as he told reporters about the situation.

“Many of those calves that are like this,” he said, holding his hand near the ground, “in four or five feet of water. Those calves drowned. They couldn’t get them out.”

In addition, the Lower Mainland is also home to nearly all of the province’s milk processing plants. Some of those are in areas impacted by floods. The rest were all but cut off from dairy farms west of Langley due to closed highways.

The BC Milk Marketing Board, which manages BC’s dairy industry, put out a notice Tuesday telling farmers that all milk pickup in the Fraser Valley is stopped until further notice. Farmers have been asked to dispose of their milk in their manure pit until pickup can be resumed.

“As a producer, it’s tough to see your milk go down the drain,” Holger Schwichtenberg, an Agassiz dairy farmer and chair of BC Dairy, said. His farm made it through the rain relatively unscathed, and he is now housing 40 additional cows that had been evacuated from the Sumas Prairie.

Cows have to be milked on a schedule, typically twice a day—wait too long, and it’s painful for the udders. Pickups occur on a schedule too, taking the farm’s collected milk in tanker cars every other day and delivering them to a processing plant for pasteurization. And as anyone who has taken a swig of sour milk knows—the product is perishable.

“If it can’t be picked up because the roads are impassable and there’s no way for the tanker trucks to get here, you only have one option: dispose of it in an environmentally friendly way,” Schwichtenberg.

That didn’t sit right with some local farmers, including at least two in Agassiz and Chilliwack who took to social media to offer their unpasteurized milk for free. The response was immense, with people sharing the posts hundreds of times.

(Selling, transporting, and consuming unpasteurized milk is illegal in Canada. Schwichtenberg said it could have health impacts for people who are not accustomed to drinking it. “I understand what they are trying to do, but it shouldn’t have happened,” he said.)

For Treur, whose on-site creamery is able to pasteurize around 2,000 litres of milk each day, there was an opportunity to do something good for the community.

“The cows are still in the barn, the cows are still eating. They’re still happy and they are producing more milk. So the supply is not going anywhere,” Treur said. “We have enough supply and hopefully we can help the needy in our communities.”

On Wednesday, people began lining up at Treur’s farm store at 8:30am. It didn’t open until 9:30am. Within the first hour, Treur has sold close to 300 litres of milk. (Truer had asked customers to bring their own jugs and to only take what they needed for the week.) She had also been contacted by nursing homes and First Nations in the area, and was able to supply them with milk as well.

“Knowing we can help in this way to feed our community, it does help our mental health in a way even though it’s very busy,” she said. “It feels like we can do something.”

Creekside Dairy’s farm store will be open until Saturday this week, thanks to support from Treur’s sister, sister-in-law, and employees. The only other provincially licensed milk-selling processor in the Fraser Valley with a farm on site is Farmhouse Natural Cheeses in Agassiz. (Other local processors with farms, such as Ridgecrest Dairy in Mission, do not have a store. Still others, like Birchwood Dairy, are located in evacuation zones. There are other farm stores that only sell cheese, or use goat’s milk instead.)

For now, the valley’s dairy dilemma is still evolving.

A milk transport truck pulls up to a dairy barn.

With Highway 7 over Mt. Woodside now open to traffic, milk trucks are able to get to farms—where flooding allows. Farmers may still need to dump their milk, but are asked to only do so when a truck is late.

Others are still trying to return to their flooded farms, with some expressing anger at police barricades that have stopped farmers who are seeking to rescue their cows.

“Is it dangerous? Of course, it’s dangerous,” Sumas Prairie resident Ullie Krack said. But he said our society relies on people doing jobs that are often dangerous—from firefighters, to oil riggers, to farmers. “To sit there and watch a politician say, ‘Oh, that’s dangerous,’ means they have absolutely no concept of what these guys do on a daily basis.”

Even those far away from the Fraser Valley flood waters will be facing challenges in the weeks and months to come. All of BC’s major milk processing plants are located in the Lower Mainland. Although northern farmers can send their milk to Alberta—and farmers in the Interior now have pickup after a one-day delay—those in Prince George, Bulkley Valley, and Smithers will need to continue dumping their milk. There are no routes to the Lower Mainland, and access to Alberta is extremely limited. The BC Milk Marketing Board said it is actively working on solutions. But with portions of the highway completely washed away on both the TransCanada and the Coquihalla, those solutions may not be materializing any time soon.

“This catastrophe really shows that while having very centralized processing is efficient and works well when things are going well, it’s when the supply chain or any transportation is blocked that we run into problems very, very quickly,” Treur said.

There will be a milk shortage in the short-term, Schwichtenberg noted, and he couldn’t speculate what would happen next. Because Canada uses a supply management system for its dairy industry, it’s possible other farmers across the country will be able to increase their production to help fill the demand once supply routes reopen. (The Current has contacted BC Dairy for details on whether that is a viable solution.) Imports are another option, although the United States has different standards for their dairy industry that could affect whether milk is able to be brought into the country. (Canada primarily imports cheese and other more processed products.)

But that won’t solve the long-term problems, and heartbreak, faced by dairy farmers who have lost herds that are more than just their livelihoods. Right now, all anyone can do is take it one day at a time.

“We’re dealing with the day-to-day right now. We’re dealing with the animals that needed a new home out of the Sumas Prairie area,” Schwichtenberg said. “We’ll see what the rest of today and tomorrow bring.”

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