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‘Soil to spoon’: Steensma Creamery delivers quality close to home

Lynden farm and creamery will be part of 'Whatcom This Whey'

Kate Steensma is greeted by a dairy cow as she sits on the grass.
Kate Steensma is greeted by a dairy cow May 26 in the field of her family's Lynden farm. She, her siblings and her parents care for around 200 cows on the property, and Steensma has recently expanded the family business to include the production of skyr, an Icelandic yogurt. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Audra Anderson Assistant Editor

LYNDEN — Making a luscious, subtly sweet, silky Icelandic yogurt — also known as skyr — in the Northwest corner begins with the sun. Then, the soil beneath the grass where cows graze. 

That’s what Steensma Creamery owner Kate Steensma, 34, likes to say when introducing her product around the region via farmers markets, store shelves, farm tours and word of mouth. The Steensma family farm will be on display Saturday, June 10, for Whatcom This Whey, a behind-the-scenes exploration of some of Whatcom County’s dairy farms, creameries and cheesemakers.

“It’s corny, but I like to say I’m involved in the process from soil to spoon,” Kate said. “We’re farming the grass — the cows are a tool to take the grass, which has no nutritional value to humans, and turn it into protein.”

Kate Steensma, at 2 or 3 years old, sits in the yard of her family dairy farm. Behind her, white fences and cows curious of the toddler.
Kate Steensma, at 2 or 3 years old, sits in the yard of her family dairy farm in Lynden in the early 1990s. Her whole family is still involved in dairy farming. Kate’s sister is being trained to run the skyr business while Kate has her first child, due in just a couple months. One of her brothers mainly helps her father on the farm, while her other brother took a job at Twin Brook Creamery. (Photo courtesy of Kate Steensma)

Sustainability — from grazing rotations of their grass to their glass, reusable yogurt jars — is integral to Steensma Creamery’s brand. 

Kate, an ecologist and fourth-generation dairy farmer, is playing a role in maintaining her family’s longstanding Lynden business — but she’s also advancing it. A few years ago, Kate began exploring yogurt production as a way to diversify the operation. 

It’s part of a larger trend: As U.S. agriculture aggregated, many Whatcom County farms began selling their milk to larger companies and cooperatives. This included the Steensma family, who ship milk to Darigold. When he was a child, Kate’s father, John Steensma, remembers about 1,000 dairy farms operating in the county. Now, there are 55. Many of them have upped their herds, too, and the Steensma farm of 200 cows is now considered smaller than average in the county, John said. 

A calf, just a few days old, rests in the grass.
A calf, just a few days old, rests in the grass outside the Steensma’s home. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

“As a dairy farmer, it’s getting harder to survive if we’re just selling it all to the bulk market,” Kate said. “There have been years in the past when I was growing up, where my dad would joke, ‘I pay for the privilege to be a dairy farmer’ because he loses money.” 

As a farm diversifies its products, it offers more stability and opportunity for profit. Plus, consumers are gravitating toward locally made products in response to a food industry full of unknowns. Steensma pointed to a podcast she listened to that featured Bellingham chef Ona Lee. 

“She’s said, ‘There’s something spiritual about being able to eat food that’s grown right where you live.’ And I think that’s really important,” Kate said.


Heather Tiersma, left, and Carrie Crockett pour gallons of freshly made yogurt into a strainer.
Heather Tiersma, left, and Carrie Crockett pour gallons of freshly made yogurt into a strainer to separate whey from the creamy skyr. Kate Steensma and her team make the yogurt each week at Grace Harbor Farms’ creamery in Custer. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

In October 2021, Kate made her first sale. Since then, Steensma Creamery skyr, the first locally produced yogurt of its kind in the state, has made it as far south as the Ballard Farmers Market and onto the shelves of Puget Community Co-op markets. 

“The best part is at the farmers market when someone’s walking by and they’re a maybe, so you’re like, ‘Do you want to sample,’ and [they’ll say] ‘OK, yeah, I’ll try it.’ And then they take a bite, and you watch their face go like, ‘Whoa, that’s really good.’”

Kate Steensma scoops Steensma Creamery skyr yogurt into cups.
Kate Steensma scoops Steensma Creamery skyr yogurt into cups at the kitchen counter of her family’s home. Steensma makes 40 gallons of the yogurt each week to sell at farmers markets and in stores. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Skyr, technically a yogurt-like cheese, is made with different bacteria than rival Greek yogurt, lending to a less-punchy flavor. Steensma Creamery skyr is also strained through cheesecloth to remove about 50% of its whey byproduct to make it extra-thick and creamy; Kate still uses her grandfather’s strainer that he brought with him when he moved to Washington state in 1969, plus ones she modeled after it. 

Kate tweaked her yogurt recipe (which she learned how to make from John at the age of 9) to become skyr. She experimented with adding in fresh flavors to make maple, mango and raspberry skyr in addition to plain. 

At Custer creamery Grace Harbor Farms, Kate processes about 40 gallons of skyr a week — using only a fraction of the family farm’s milk. She found support and space to start her business in Grace Harbor owner David Lukens, though they are effectively competitors. 

“There’s room for everybody in the market if we’re all specializing in different things,” Kate said. “Nobody else here makes skyr. I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes.” 

Expanding the business to yogurt had been John’s dream 25 years ago, he said. 

“Except, at the time, my kids didn’t need a job, my kids were a job,” John said. 

Kate Steensma holding the reins of a calf.
Kate Steensma, naturally, was involved in 4-H as a child. She recalls presenting on how to make yogurt to her peers. (Kate Steensma)

“He’s stoked,” Kate added of her dad, “but it also means his retirement is a little delayed because I can’t manage the cows all the time right now. He’s 65, so he’s very tired, but he’s also kind of invigorated by this.” 

Kate’s return to the family farm was welcomed, but not pressured, she said. She graduated from Seattle Pacific University with a bachelor’s degree in ecology. No agricultural programs existed at the urban college, but Kate missed growing her own food. She and a friend started a gardening club and a community garden on campus. 

“She and I both are farmers now,” Kate laughed. 

She went on to grad school at Michigan State University, where she became one of only several people in the U.S. to earn a master’s degree in dairy cattle grazing behavior with robotic milkers. Her speciality led her to work for a company that makes robotic milking machines. Kate worked for them for around seven years, traveling the continent, and sometimes overseas, helping farms of all sizes implement technology. 

A cow is milked by a machine in the Steensma family's barn.
A cow is milked by a machine in the Steensma family’s barn. When a cow enters the robotic milker, her neck chip is scanned and the machine can tell which cow she is, when she was last milked, her udder configuration and more. The robotic milker washes the cow’s underside and stimulates the feeling of a calf nudging the udders to produce oxytocin. Cows voluntarily line up to the machine to be milked throughout the day. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

During a work trip to Europe, Kate flew Icelandair, where she was first served skyr 35,000 feet in the air. She stayed in Iceland for a week on an “extended layover” and fell in love with the food. She also tracked market research, which showed Nordic and Icelandic food products were becoming increasingly popular, especially in the Seattle area. 

Kate returned to her family farm in 2019 — after seeing the massive scale of some farms through her job, she missed the smaller herds she grew up around. 

“If I was a cow, I would want to be on my own farm,” Kate said. 

The Steensmas treatment of their animals is part of the reason employee Carrie Crockett was attracted to the job. 

“It’s really important to me to work somewhere that lines up with my values,” said Crockett, during a tour of the creamery. “Animal care is really important to me. And this product is so pure. I sell it at the Ballard Farmers Market, and it just sells itself.” 

A cow tied to a pole by the rope around its neck.
A cow hangs out in the barn with dozens of others on a warm May afternoon. Climate change has played a role in dairy farming, Kate Steensma said. In 2021, temperatures hit 106 degrees one day, persuading Steensma to set up misters in the barn to try to cool off the cows. That winter brought a 6-degree day, when they had to move calves into their house in front of the fireplace to keep them warm. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

As for the future of Steensma Creamery, Kate is happy taking their ascent into value-added products slowly and carefully. They do plan to expand production eventually, and that might include other foods like fresh cheeses. Perhaps they will even build their own creamery one day, Kate said. 

“There are a few different opportunities that are starting to percolate, but nothing is set in stone,” Kate said. 

“Big picture, things are working out,” she added.  


Visit Steensma Creamery during Whatcom This Whey from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 10 at dairy farms throughout Whatcom County. Steensma Creamery fare will also be featured at an Edible Everson Farm to Table Dinner Series Saturday, June 17 at Alluvial Farms. Info: wadairy.org or alluvialfarms.com

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