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Smith Brothers Farms grew with ‘cattle drive from West Seattle to Kent’

Home delivery of groceries wasn’t invented by Instacart or even by Amazon. In fact, one local company is quietly marking 100 years of front porch service with a low-key celebration, and a lot of new customers.

If you live in the Puget Sound area, you’ve likely noticed a Smith Brothers Farms truck in your neighborhood. You might also have noticed the tagline “Delivered Fresh Since 1920” painted on the side.

Dusty Highland is CEO of Smith Brothers Farms. His last name isn’t Smith, but he is the great-grandson of company founder Ben Smith. Ben, who came to Seattle from the Midwest around 1907, was one of the two original Smith brothers; the other was Roy.

Highland says that Smith Brothers’ drivers deliver dairy products and other groceries from a fleet of 60 trucks based in Kent that fan out weekdays from Olympia to Marysville.

Smith Brothers Farms doesn’t have its own cows anymore – they sold off the herd in 2006 – but the operation does trace its beginnings to West Seattle a hundred years ago, and just a single set of udders.

“My great-grandfather Ben Smith, the founder, his neighbor was moving, so he bought the cow from him because he [had been] getting milk from his neighbor,” Highland said. “He would bottle it in little glass bottles and kind of peddle it around his neighborhood” on foot, making a few extra dollars to supplement his regular job.

The name of that inaugural Smith Brothers cow, Highland says, is probably lost to history. It was soon joined by another.

“More and more people started asking him for milk, and [my great-grandfather] ended up buying another cow,” Highland said. “And before he knew it, he said, ‘I was making a hundred bucks for the summer, and I thought I might be onto something here.’”

Ben Smith soon gave up his day job and bought a delivery truck. The company grew, and so did the herd of cows. By the late 1920s, the operation had become too large for the original farm in West Seattle.

“They had grown the number of cows to like 30 at that point and needed more space for them,” Highland said. “So they literally herded the cows from West Seattle down [what’s now] the Des Moines Freeway, down to Kent Valley to set up shop.”

“It was a cattle drive from West Seattle to Kent,” Highland said, chuckling.

The company eventually settled on a sprawling piece of real estate south of Kent along what’s now the West Valley Highway. On hundreds of acres, there was room for hundreds of cows to graze, for a milking parlor, and for a bottling plant – the company switched from glass bottles to cardboard in 1965 – and a shipping facility.

When Ben’s two sons Howard and Dan got involved with the company around the time during and just after World War II, the family also diversified their business interests. This included a John Deere dealership, home delivery of heating oil, and construction of what became Kent Airport on part of the old pasture — with a 3,000-foot runway and, eventually, hangars, a control tower, and a restaurant (the airport closed sometime around 1970). Dan Smith – Dusty Highland’s grandfather – began running the company in the 1950s.

Old newspaper ads from the 1940s and 1950s show that those decades were the glory years for Smith Brothers and a few dozen other dairies in the Puget Sound area. The rise of supermarkets in the 1960s and 1970s and changes in consumer habits around shopping – as well as the increase in real estate value of what had been rural farm areas — meant that most of those other dairies eventually went away.  Besides Smith Brothers, one of the other local holdouts was Vitamilk. That company shuttered its plant near Green Lake in 2003.

But Smith Brothers kept going, though they did start to make changes.

Founder Ben Smith died in 1978. In the 1990s, his granddaughter Alexis took over the company. In the 2000s, the company first moved their cows to Royal City in Eastern Washington, and then sold off the dairy farm part of the business. In 2013, they moved to a new headquarters and processing plant in Kent, and brought the delivery drivers in-house as employees (rather than independent contractors). The old Smith Brothers property on West Valley Highway was sold to local produce company Carpinito Brothers.

With these and other moves, Smith Brothers outlasted the first round of internet grocery delivery competition – anyone remember HomeGrocer or WebVan? – and they also expanded their product line beyond dairy staples to include items like bread, coffee, and produce.

While the pandemic forced scaling back of the company’s centennial celebration plans this year, it actually has done wonders for business. With many people reluctant to shop in person and risk exposure to COVID-19, Smith Brothers Farms’ customer base has grown in the past six months or so from 54,000 to 67,000. Orders from existing customers have increased, too.

Great-grandson Dusty Highland became CEO about eight years ago. He says the growth this year has been intense, and he admits it hasn’t always been creamy smooth.

“There were definitely some operational growing pains over the last six months,” Highland said, pointing to hiring challenges and difficulties, and delays acquiring additional trucks. “But, you know, the thing that we talked about internally was we had made enough advancements in technology and with our team here – and just the quality of people on our team now – that we’re able to handle it.”

Fortunately, Highland says, Smith Brothers Farms was ready for the increased volume that 2020 brought.

“Three years ago, I think it would have broke us,” Highland said. “I think we would have had to turn customers away.”

As far as any centennial celebrations are concerned, Highland says they might wait until next year to do some of what they had originally planned for 2020. In the meantime, there are special centennial milk containers, a Lego Smith Brothers milk truck, and expanded charitable activities to provide groceries to struggling households.

Along with most of Smith Brothers’ competitors, one more thing that’s disappeared from the edges of the city and from most Puget Sound suburbs is that distinctive dairy farm aroma. Highland says that when he was younger, he actually was a little embarrassed by this unavoidable aspect of the business.

“I grew up in the 80s and I was cool, and I didn’t want to be associated with the dairy farm,” Highland said. “And so I was always kind of embarrassed by it and didn’t appreciate it.”

With age has come newfound pleasure from what Ben Smith’s great-grandson once found objectionable.

“Now when I go visit some of the farms that we buy our milk from and talk to the farmers, there’s a nostalgia to the smell,” Highland said. “I actually it appreciate now.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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