And then there was one

Farming amid the Rocky Mountains

Hedstroms operate last dairy in Flathead County, MT

Posted

KALISPELL, Mont. — Rarely do cows graze with prettier scenery surrounding them than the cows do at Hedstrom Dairy. 

The farm, surrounded by mountains, is owned by Bill and Marilyn Hedstrom and nestled near Kalispell in the Flathead Valley of Montana. The valley lies between Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake — the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. 

Hedstrom Dairy is the last dairy farm in Flathead County and has survived by evolving through changing times.

The herd of 300 Holsteins is milked in a double-13 herringbone parlor that the family built in 1994 when it relocated to its current site from a different location in the valley.

“It’s really unique; you won’t see another (parlor) like it because we built it ourselves,” said Mary Tuck, Bill and Marilyn’s daughter. “We had the luxury of being able to put in our own barn and facility based on experiences we had through learning (at the old site), so we designed and structured our whole freestall system and milking barn to our likes.”

All of the calves and heifers are raised on-site, making the total number of livestock about 600. The family purchases hay and grazes their cattle on the farm’s 170 acres of pasture.

Although the Hedstroms have dairy farmed in Flathead County since 1978 and raised four children there, they launched a venture in 2010, when Tuck and her husband, Jared, joined her parents in creating Kalispell Kreamery. 

The facility uses all the dairy’s milk for processing and bottling both milk and cream and making yogurt and ice cream. The Hedstroms and Tucks sell their products to businesses across Montana.

The idea for the creamery arose when the Tucks were looking into options for their next phase in life after Jared, an engineer, finished a six-year stint in the U.S. Air Force.

“About that same time, my folks called and said, ‘The last dairy farm just went out in Flathead Valley,’” Tuck said.

There were also changes taking place within the co-op that Hedstrom Dairy’s milk went to at the time, which was five hours away in Bozeman. 

During the 1970s, when the Hedstroms first started farming, a processing plant was located in Kalispel, but it had closed. The next nearest places to ship milk were at least four to five hours away.

“This turned the shipping of our milk into a costly affair,” Tuck said. “As the dairies started trickling out of the valley, it became more and more costly because we couldn’t fill the tankers like we needed too. That was one of the biggest challenges in the valley from a business point of view, and that’s why dairies disappeared.”

In 2009, the Hedstroms’ co-op wanted to renegotiate the hauling contract it had with the farm.

“They were not going to honor our old contract, and what it would now cost to ship the milk, we could not afford it,” Tuck said. “Basically, it came down to a family conversation one night over dinner where we decided, if the dairy was going to survive, we needed to make some drastic changes.” 

The idea of launching a creamery made sense.

“There’s always been a movement for consuming local foods, but at that time, it was really growing, something that people really wanted,” Tuck said. “We thought we could capitalize on that if we bottled our own milk. We could sell it to the local community.”

After one year of planning and building, the Hedstroms and Tucks opened Kalispell Kreamery. 

“My family’s moving to the farm and transitioning to the creamery was about how to save the farm and move forward ourselves as a family,” Tuck said. “My second daughter was born the first day we started bottling milk in May 2010.”

Today, the Tucks have four children.

At first, the Hedstroms and Tucks ran everything themselves with a herd of 75 cows. As the business grew, they hired help and now have 10 employees at the dairy and 10 at the creamery.

The farm’s operations are structured so that the dairy and the creamery are two separate businesses, with the Hedstroms owning the dairy farm and both families co-owning the creamery. 

Tuck handles cow management and breeding as well as helps at the creamery, her dad oversees the dairy, her husband maintains and manages the creamery, and her mom handles all the bookwork — but all four family members help wherever needed.

The creamery buys all the milk that the herd produces and does not buy milk from any other source.

“We are completely self-contained,” Tuck said. “Everything our cows produce, I’ve got to sell, whether it’s under production or over production. We’ve got to maintain our own supply and demand.”

The creamery sells whole milk, reduced fat milk — which is between 1% and 2% fat — skim milk, half-and-half cream, heavy whipping cream, chocolate milk, Greek yogurt, a specialty drink of cold-brewed coffee with milk in it, vanilla ice cream and chocolate ice cream.

“The key to all of our products is that we are what you’d call ‘cream on top,’” Tuck said. “All of our milk is pasteurized and state certified, but what we don’t do is homogenize. … That means our cream will separate. It will always go to the top.”

Milk is sold in pint, quart, half-gallon and gallon plastic containers.

“We have a pretty broad market,” Tuck said. “We were able to price our cream to become competitive, so we were also able to establish a good foothold in the food service industry, meaning mostly coffee shops.”

Kalispell Kreamery added ice cream as a product five years ago, and it is only made if the farm’s milk supply can handle the demand for the creamery’s other products first, with whole milk being the priority.

“The community is so supportive of our project,” Tuck said. “From the beginning, the community has just jumped on what we were offering, and we continue to try to make sure we keep ourselves community-minded.”

One way the farm and creamery do this is by offering a Milk and Cookies Event each June, where thousands of visitors from the valley area come to see the farm.

“We try to make sure the community knows we are part of it, and it helps that both of our family names have been in the valley forever.”

The farm’s location has another benefit as well.

“Because of the uniqueness of our valley — we also have Glacier Park and Flathead Lake and a big ski hill called Whitefish Mountain — between those three tourist attractions, we always have ebb and flow in the valley with people coming in,” Tuck said. “Between the local community being great people who want to support us and then the tourism and people taking advantage of our area for its beauty and recreation, we’re able to be pretty successful.”

The last dairy in Flathead County is not only surviving. It is thriving.

“This is home, so we continue dairy farming because we all enjoy it,” Tuck said. “I don’t know what the future holds, but we’re just riding it out as long as we can. We live a very blessed life right now. The family is able to be part of a wholesome project that they can all be proud of, and that’s worth a lot in this day and age.”

Comments

No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here