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Conservation Stories: Steensma Creamery

Three young farmers standing in front of their barn.
Kate, Zach, & Ellie Steensma in front of their barn.

“Everything we do, from the soil all the way to someone’s spoon, we are trying to keep that intentional and sustainable.” – Kate Steensma

The Steensmas are very intentional farmers with a deep relationship with the land and their animals. Steensma Creamery is a fourth generation, family dairy. In 1926, the Tolsma family moved from Holland to Iowa, and two decades later in 1946, they moved to Whatcom County, along with their daughter Rena, and her new husband Fred Steensma. The farmland worked today along Bertrand Creek and McClelland Creek, was then purchased by the Tolsmas in 1947. Fred and Rena later purchased the farm, and in the mid 80’s their son John and Karen took over day-to-day operations. Today, the Steensmas sell milk to the Darigold cooperative and make their own value-added dairy products, including Icelandic-style skyr yogurt. Their farming philosophy incorporates farming success with sustainable land management. “We are small on purpose to keep doing practices that protect and regenerate the land, protect wildlife, and work with them.” – Kate Steensma

Woman pets cow in barn
Ellie Steensma with one of their cows

With 200 lactating Jersey and Holstein cows on 200 acres, the Steensmas operate on a closed loop farming system. They have as many cows as their pastures can support using rotational grazing and following nutrient management best practices. They keep their pasture roots healthy, rotating the cows from one field to the next, allowing their cows to graze and fertilize the grass during the warmer grass growing months. Then they rest the field during the winter while the grass is dormant, feeding their cows on

hay and grass silage from their fields.

“Instead of growing a corn-heavy diet for our animals, we focus on grass. Corn is an excellent source of nutrients for our animals, but it is an annual crop. Each time soil is tilled, greenhouse gasses are released. Grass-based farming is intensive from a management perspective, but the beauty of grass is that we can harvest 4 or 5 crops per year without having to replant for several years. Some of the sod in our pastures has not been tilled in 25 years. Rotationally grazing our cattle is another way to promote carbon sequestration - instead of using machinery to fertilize and harvest the grass, the cows can do both of those tasks themselves. The complexity is managing the rotation - we rotate the animals through different pastures on an 8 to 16 day cycle, depending on the pasture’s growth rate. With careful management, we aim to keep the grass at a growth rate where it is sequestering the most atmospheric carbon.” – Ellie & Kate Steensma

The Steensmas also invite wildlife to work with them on their farm, as they believe “every animal on the farm, wild or domesticated, has a purpose.” –Kate Steensma

Domestic ducks in front of cow in the Steensma dairy barn.
Domestic ducks in front of cow in the Steensma dairy barn.

Nest boxes invite kestrels to help with starling and rodent management. Domestic ducks keep slug populations down.

“Instead of using pesticides, we promote the presence of natural predators such as native birds of prey and fly predator wasps. Even the dung flies that hatch from our cow pies are predators of pesky fruit flies. We see our cows and ourselves as active members in a biodiverse ecosystem.” – Kate & Ellie Steensma

Beyond working with wildlife on their farms, they also provide space for that wildlife. The stream side riparian plant buffers on their property, provide habitat for over 40 steelhead nests. These plant buffers help mitigate flooding and erosion. This keeps valuable nutrients in the grass for their cows.

“We have some well-established riparian zones along the two streams that flow through our farm, Bertrand Creek, and McClelland Creek, both tributaries of Nooksack River. Some of this habitat was already in place when our parents purchased the land from our grandparents, and on other segments we have been actively working to expand and build up the stream buffers over the past few decades. We see this allocation of land as valuable for both the long term prevention of soil erosion and the preservation of wildlife, including Pacific Salmon.” – Kate & Ellie Steensma

Man holding hand out to cow.
Zach Steensma with one of their cows.

The Steensmas’ love for the land shows in their intention in farming, and also is their stewardship for their farm’s future. “We were born here, and while there are so many amazing places to see around the world, this still feels like home. The temperate climate in Western Washington lends itself to our style of dairy farming…. Farming is the future! But not if the land is paved over and developed.” – Ellie & Kate Steensma

With the rising cost of farmland in Whatcom County the Steensmas have continued to adapt their traditional farming practices. “We can survive by adding value and direct marketing our product, rather than selling in bulk and being beholden to the markets.” – Kate Steensma

All of us can help support the future of Whatcom County by supporting our local farmers and protecting farmland. To learn more about the Steensma’s farming philosophy, come to the Whatcom Farm Expo March 4th, 2023. Kate & Ellie Steensma will be presenting part of the keynote at 11:00 AM titled, “Your Farm Starts with YOU: From Farmers, To Productive Land & A Thriving Business.” You can also meet other local farmers, farm businesses, and farming organizations. Visit the event website to learn more about the Whatcom Farm Expo and find a complete list of presentations. To get your own dairy nutrient management plan, riparian buffers, or to learn more about rotational grazing contact a Whatcom Conservation District Farm Planner today!

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