The 2016 Census of Agriculture highlighted some trends like the strength of the dairy industry, which is playing out in Chilliwack. (Jenna Hauck/ Progress file)

Census underlines the strength of Chilliwack dairy industry

There were more cows but fewer farms across B.C. according to the Census of Agriculture

The 2016 Census of Agriculture spotlighted some key trends playing out in Chilliwack, like the strong position of the dairy industry.

British Columbia was the lone province with more dairy cows compared to the last census of ag in 2011.

So there were fewer B.C. dairy operations, down by 7.2 per cent, but there were more cows.

Jeremy Wiebe, a local dairy farmer and executive treasurer of the BC Milk Marketing Board, said Chilliwack has come a long way from its roots as a small farm town.

“The economic impact from farming is huge,” he said.

There are just under 500 dairy farms across the Fraser Valley, at 490, with about 140 in Chilliwack alone.

Consumer demand is fuelling a rise.

“Milk consumption has been going through the roof,” Wiebe said.

“The growth has been national.”

B.C. was ranked fourth in the number of dairy cows nation-wide, according to the census results.

The dairy-focused Pacific Dairy Centre is moving its operation to Chilliwack partly because of the high concentration of its customer base here, according to business manager Jerry Franz.

Pacific Dairy Centre furnishes dairy farms with high-tech robotic milking equipment and manure management systems.

“Since dairy product consumption is growing, producers here have been tasked with producing more milk, so to produce more most farms want to stay as a family farm, so they spend money to become more efficient, ” said Franz.

Investing in the latest technology has become the norm, he said, as the whole dairy industry continues to consolidate.

The low Canadian dollar has had an effect.

“People used to go across the line for jugs of milk. But that’s not happening,” Wiebe said. “So fluid milk sales have also increased in last few years.”

Overall there has been growing demand for dairy. It doesn’t hurt that recent scientific studies point to the health benefits of dairy, so products like butter and cream actually have undergone a renaissance.

That makes ripples in Chilliwack.

“It’s been good for farmers,” Wiebe said.

Most dairy farms are family farms, like his, and not “mega” farm operations.

Chicken farmer Chris Kloot, who is also on city council, said he recently went in on the purchase of a dairy farm with his brother. Part of the idea is that their children might one day take over.

“We have boys, and all three work on dairy farms,” said Kloot. “It’s probably in our family line.”

More female farmers were noted in the 2016 ag census, as was the trend toward smaller farms, which is more evident in B.C. than anywhere else in Canada.

Some dairy farmers want to retire and sell their quota. But there are also new startups coming forward, and Wiebe noted it’s important to bring the next generation in.

Many in their 30s are starting up dairy farms, said Wiebe, who is in his early 40s. Social events for young milk producers regularly attract 100 people in Chilliwack, which never would have happened several years ago.

“The future of the dairy industry is young farmers,” Wiebe added. “I know I could walk away, and there would be 10 people who could fill my shoes.

“That is super encouraging.”