Vetsch Dairy ends operations after more than 70 years on island

MARK MILLER - Robert Vetsch, with part of his remaining herd of cattle in the background, at his family's property on Sauvie Island. The Vetsch family closed their long-running dairy business last week after Robert decided to retire.After more than a century of operations, Vetsch Dairy on Sauvie Island has sold off its milk cows and gone out of business.

The family-owned dairy farm, which had been operating on a large property on Northwest Reeder Road since 1950, closed its doors last week.

But for Robert Vetsch, ending operations was a choice, not a necessity.

“It was time for me to retire,” he said. “Just do something a little different.”

Vetsch Dairy was the last dairy farm on Sauvie Island.

“When we first started out on the island, there was 38 dairies,” said Richard W. Vetsch, Robert’s father, who took over the family business after World War II — not long after the Vetsches moved to Sauvie Island in 1943.

The dairy has a history that reads like an American novel. It was founded on the Oregon Coast by Vetsch’s father, a Swiss immigrant, just over a century ago. It later moved to Clark County, Wash., and then to Sauvie Island. Its original location near the dike flooded in 1948, during the same catastrophic rise in the Columbia River that wiped out the working-class community of Vanport. But the business survived, moving onto a then-undeveloped parcel of land where the family lives to this day.

Robert Vetsch said he’d been working on the dairy nearly his entire life. He began caring for the heifers at age 9 or 10, he said, and after he got a college education from Oregon State University, he came right back to the family business, working alongside his father Richard, who is now 92.

Robert’s own sons did not want to keep up the dairy farm, and Richard said he respects his son’s decision to retire.

“Now we’re dairymen without a dairy,” he remarked.

The dairy produced milk, which it supplied to Darigold. Before it closed, it was shipping out 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of milk every other day, Richard said.

“My dad used to make cheese for home consumption, but he obviously didn’t have a USDA-approved kitchen,” said Robert. “He produced cheese the way they do in Switzerland.”

The Vetsch family hasn’t been running the dairy all by themselves. Don Posver, who was there when the dozens of cows on the farm were loaded onto trucks last week, has both lived and worked at the dairy for nearly 30 years.

Even though the dairy has run dry, Posver plans to continue farming.

“I already have another job lined up,” he said.

For Robert’s part, he will continue caring for his herd of about 90 remaining heifers and calves, at least for the time being. Eventually, he wants to enjoy the life of a retiree.

“It was time to let somebody else have all the fun,” he said of his decision to close the dairy.

But not having a dairy at home will be a bit of an adjustment for Richard and his wife Evie, who still had one jar of Vetsch Dairy whole milk, with a visible layer of cream atop it, left in their refrigerator Tuesday afternoon. The jar was buried behind several cartons of store-bought, homogenized, 2-percent Darigold milk.

“Now we have to get used to drinking that stuff — comes out of a store, instead of out of a cow,” Richard chuckled.

MARK MILLER - Evie and Richard W. Vetsch hold up the last jar of milk from their family dairy, which closed last week. A layer of cream is visible at the top of the jar.

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