This series will highlight women who are actively owning or operating dairy farms around our great state of Washington. These women play pivitol roles in day to day farming operations; shattering the old stigma of dairy farming.
In the beautiful farmland of Eastern Washington, about 45 minutes out of the Tri-Cities rests J & K Dairy. Fourth generation dairy farmers Karen and Jason Sheehan are living their dream and raising their family the way they’d always hoped – working together on the farm with their kids by their side.
Growing up on a dairy farm since the age of 4, Karen said it actually wasn’t until her freshman year of college until she fully understood just how much farming was a part of her life. While attending WSU she ventured into apparel, merchandising and textile classes to try something new.
“Being raised on a farm my whole life, I was curious to what else is out there,” she explained.
She went on a trip to New York City for apparel and merchandising, and while it was a good experience, about four days into the trip confirmed that lifestyle wasn’t for her. Her heart was in the country; she knew she belonged on the farm. Karen was confident that she wanted to marry a farmer, raise their children on the farm, and live what she calls a wholesome life.
Now she lives that life along with her husband Jason, and their four children Jared (12), Claire (10), Andrew (8) and Annelise (4). The Sheehans are working to keep Karen’s family’s farm, the same farm she grew up on that her parents built themselves, in their family. That legacy is something they want to hold on to and preserve for their kids and generations to come.
Both Karen and Jason come from a long line of dairy farmers and met through an agriculture career.
In January of 1999 Karen flew down to California to interview for a job with Monsanto.
“They pulled in sales people, they wanted multiple people sitting in on the interview,” she recalled. “And Jason was one of them.”
She returned to finish school and got the job that following June after graduation, “so… my husband hired me!” she laughed. He asked her to go jet skiing with friends for Fourth of July weekend and well, the rest is history.
Running a farm of close to 3,000 cows and over 1,000 acres of cropland isn’t an easy job. Add 4 kids to the mix and there isn’t a moment to spare. The Sheehans actually operate two separate farms across the road from each other, but they run J & K Dairy I and II together. To say Karen is behind the scenes crunching numbers and managing the paperwork is an understatement. Managing the bills, checks and balances, and payroll for 38 employees is a majority of her work however she finds the time to fit in a lot more. Karen is very involved in the community, from school and church fundraising to superintendent of the dairy barn at their local Yakima Valley fair.
“It’s a ton of work,” she said. “But so rewarding, it feels pretty good.”
She has seen involvement and interest grow at their fair and watched participation increase in the last few years. “The dairy barn at the fair is full!” Karen said. “We’re at the point of thinking about how to expand it, which is pretty exciting.
Back on the dairy you will see the entire family working together. It’s something special to see three generations alongside each other.
“Our oldest, he’ll run the hay rake, our other little guy was hauling wagons the other day with Jason,” she said.
Karen says she is always finding ways for the kids to be involved and do hands on things on the dairy without always being around huge equipment. “We’ve really gotten creative and figured out ways for them to participate and they just love it. They eat it up,” Karen said.
The Sheehans teach their kids how to care for the animals and the land – whether they are pitching in and helping to feed calves or putting out salt licks for the cows, cow care comes first on J & K Dairy. The Sheehans are adamant that everything they do is about taking care of their cows.
“My grandfather always said that ‘if you take care of the cows, the cows will take care of you,’” she said. “And that’s what we abide by.”
Karen’s career experience helps on a daily basis on the farm. While working at Monsanto she worked hands on with farmers on improving cow care and comfort, and educating and training farmers on best practices. Previously she interned with Pharmacia and Upjohn, the current-day Zoetis (Zoetis is the leading global animal health company) so Karen is well-versed in what makes a happy and healthy cow.
“Everything we learned, Jason and I took back to the farm, which is pretty cool,” she said. “When you are raised on a dairy you learn what you grow up with, what your mom and dad teach you, but it’s good to go out and get outside perspective because sometimes there is a better way and that’s where Jason and I benefited. We brought back more of an open-mindedness and a ‘let’s try something different’ attitude.”
She points out that change is not necessarily bad, it’s actually a good thing on the farm.
Taking care of the land also tops the lists of priorities on the farm. The Sheehans work hard to recycle and reuse as much as possible on the dairy. “We use water and manure multiple times,” she said.
Doing what is right for the cows and their farm is something Karen says they try to focus on. “We do what we can with what we have and do it well. We try to master those things before we dive in and do a bunch more.”
Karen is happy their kids get to experience the same childhood she and Jason had when they were kids. “Growing up on the farm was a very special thing. What farm kids get to experience is pretty amazing stuff,” she smiled. “It teaches you a lot of life lessons. I am very thankful that I was able to grow up that way and that’s why Jason and I have chosen to raise our kids in the same fashion.”
As the world keeps spinning faster she is hopeful future generations of farmers will answer that call. “I see agriculture getting more efficient, more advanced,” Karen said. “We are going to be able to feed more people in this world and do it with less resources. Really we have no choice but to do it that way, because if we don’t were just spinning our wheels because the population just continues to grow. It’s all about doing more with less, being more efficient and not forgetting to have fun when you do it, too.”
At the end of the day her heart is full, surrounded by all she loves – her family, her cows and the farm life – she wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“Dairy farming is satisfying, it’s fulfilling, it’s super challenging and very risky,” she said “But if you can accomplish the challenging and the risky, that’s fulfilling.”