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Salt of Summit County: Dairy Farmers

Chantz Peterson, 23, works in a kitchen at Stein Eriksen Lodge. It’s loud, fast, hot and stressful work with occasional late hours. He loves it though, and isn’t afraid of hard work, because Peterson is one of those boys who grew up taking care of cows.

The Peterson dairy farm in Kamas has been in Chantz’s family since the 1920s, but his uncles weren’t, and his brothers aren’t lining up to take it over.

Dairy farming is hard work. Not just because it involves ranching, raising, harvesting and storing feed, insemination and four hours of milking each day without fail and all for a business that isn’t terribly profitable.

Dairy farms are also hard work because there is bovine excrement everywhere.

Out back there is a 30-foot deep pool of it that is flushed out of the barns and yard and used to fertilize the hay fields. Stand in the yard while the cows wait to be milked and it sounds like someone keeps emptying a five-gallon bucket about every two minutes.

Excrement is to dairy farming what sawdust is to a carpenter. It’s everywhere and on everything. Farmers like the Petersons just accept it as a fact of life.

Chantz has slipped in it dozens of times chasing cows into the milking stalls and gotten a mouthful of it on occasion. As he’s milking, the five-gallon buckets keep coming. If his shoulder is in the wrong place while he’s adjusting a hose or moving a foot, he might get a bucket-full down him.

"You get used to it, it’s just water and alfalfa," Peterson said.

That’s not why Chantz is leaving the farm he loves life in Marion and the Kamas valley he’s leaving because his passion is cooking.

"Family farms are coming to an end around here," mused Paul Peterson, Chantz’s father.

All but one of his brothers and all of his sons has decided to make their careers elsewhere. The elder Peterson looks south over the valley where houses now dot the land where farms, ranches and dairy cows used to be.

"I don’t like to see it, it’s ruining agriculture," he said.

Paul Peterson hasn’t worked on the dairy farm his whole life either. For 10 years he taught physical education in secondary schools in the Las Vegas area. But he didn’t like what he was seeing there.

"I thought a farm would be a better place to raise my boys," he said. "It’s provided a place for my boys to grow up, learn how to work and get away from gangs and violence which was getting bad in Vegas at the time."

His father was getting too old to run the farm and none of the other siblings wanted to take it on. One brother was willing to do the farming, but didn’t want anything to do with cows.

Chantz made the move with his family at age 10. He always enjoyed visiting his grandfather on the farm. He learned to hunt, and even became a falconer with a wild bird he caught and trained. He learned all the right trails to motorbike to the top of the mountains in 20 minutes from his garage.

Now his passion is food.

On his way to the barn for the 4 p.m. milking he veers past a garden where he can name every plant to the side of the house to munch on some red raspberries off the vine.

"My favorite part of summer," he said with a smile. "You gotta try this with fresh cream."

On his way to the barn he walks past his family’s small fleet of farm vehicles. The Petersons farm about 120 acres, but with 150 head of cattle, that only supplies half the feed they need. As a side job, Paul also farms about 2,000 acres for neighbors in the valley.

"It seems like hay is ready to cut all at the same time. Everyone wants it done from June straight through September so I’m bailing or raking late into the night," Paul said.

The day starts with milking about 60 cows, six at a time. Then during spring and summer the irrigation pipe needs to be moved manually twice a day to water the field. In between Paul does cutting, raking and bailing of hay and grass until 4 or 5 p.m. When the second milking is done two hours later, he does more cutting, hauling and moving of pipe.

Earlier in the afternoon, Chantz had stood and watched his father spin the swather around a field of grass he was cutting for a neighbor. He marveled at the giant machine’s ability to gracefully pivot 90 degrees around tight corners.

"Put me in a tractor and I drive like a little wet rat. My dad does everything better, but give me a chef’s knife " he said with a smile.

Once the hay is stored safely in the barns, his free time is spent preparing ground, hauling and spreading manure, plowing fields, rotating crops and repairing machinery.

With a half-ton bailer, five tractors, a swather for cutting hay and one regular bailer, repairing machinery is no easy task. Across from the shed is a three-door garage with a truck in each bay like a full mechanic’s shop kitty-corner to the barn.

A cow at some stage in life is nearly everywhere on the farm. Adjacent to where the milking is done two new-born calves only a few weeks old frolic in a pen. A few weeks longer and they’ll be moved out into a portion of the yard where half a dozen white plastic huts house young calves still drinking from a bottle. They’re weaned with hay and grain and then sent out to the meadow. When they’re old enough to breed, the cows are impregnated, and then after birthing become a milk cow for six to eight months. Once they go dry, they’re bred again to restart the cycle that continues throughout their life.

Once Paul is done in the swather, he meets Chantz in the barn to begin milking. Chlorine is run through all the pipes, tubes and valves. Chantz shoos all the cows into line up to the stalls without slipping on the stool-covered steps. The white liquid is dripping from the gorged udders as they stand in line braying.

As each of the six stalls is filled and the cows begin eating the pellets and grain that reward them for cooperating, the Petersons spray the udders with iodine and attach the suction cups which pull the milk from the animal into the tank. Each udder takes three to five minutes to slowly deflate. Chantz grabs a clean blue mug off a hook and drafts himself a glass of fresh, raw milk from the tank.

"This is the best part of living on a farm," he said wiping his mouth.

Twice a week the milk is picked up, pasteurized, separated and packaged for sale in the grocery store.

Paul admits that life on a farm isn’t that glamorous. In fact, last summer he had to drain the 30-foot-deep manure pit to dig out a skunk corpse plugging the pipe. But it’s what his family has proudly done for nearly 100 years.

The farm has provided for his family living in the comfortable home built 115 years ago. It has allowed his father and many of his siblings to build new houses next to each other along S.R. 32.

Paul Peterson’s love for work, the farm and family motivates him to keep thinking of ways to keep the farm going after his father dies. There’s a risk that it might get split up by his seven siblings.

Chantz isn’t optimistic, but hopes his father succeeds. He looks at his younger brother who plays golf after school instead of helping with the cows and understands it’s the way of the future.

As for himself, he’s found his own calling.


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