Most of the cattle barns on the Smith Brothers farm in Kent are empty. Beneath corrugated tin roofs, rows of vacant stalls sit eerily still...

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Most of the cattle barns on the Smith Brothers farm in Kent are empty. Beneath corrugated tin roofs, rows of vacant stalls sit eerily still, and rusted gates swing wide open.

South King County’s iconic family dairy farm still delivers milk to porches daily, but its products no longer come from cows it owns.

The 87-year-old dairy sold its herd last year when new federal regulations made it too expensive to both run a dairy farm and process milk.

Technically, Smith Brothers is no longer a dairy farm. The milk processed at the Kent dairy is trucked in from a dozen or so farms around the state — but business is growing, proof that fresh farm milk and door-to-door service are more than enough to keep the family business alive.

“It’s still local, Washington cows,” farm-operations manager Dave Dorn said. “We feel like it’s just as high of quality as it always was.”

Smith Brothers keeps 100 steers on its land and raises them to be sold. It also leases land to other farmers.

The farm was hit hard when the federal government passed a law last year that regulated milk prices for producer-handler dairies like Smith Brothers, dairies that have their own herds and also pasteurize and package milk.

“It kind of removed the incentive to have your own farm,” Dorn said.

The new rule meant that Smith Brothers had to pay money into a pool to buy milk it was getting directly from its own cows. That cost the dairy $1 million more a year, Dorn said.

That was too much. The family made the tough decision to sell the herd because it was the only way the dairy could survive, said Alexis Koester, granddaughter of Ben Smith, the founder of Smith Brothers Farms.

Dairy cows haven’t filled the barns at the Kent farm since 2001, when the herd of 3,000 was moved to Grant County in Eastern Washington. The herd had outgrown the pastures at the Kent and Snohomish farms, Dorn said.

It’s been almost a year since Smith Brothers joined the milk-pricing pool. It now buys milk from the Northwest Dairy Association, a co-op of local dairy farmers who own Darigold.

The raw milk is the same, but it’s handled differently. Smith Brothers milk tastes better because it’s pasteurized the old-fashioned way, said Gary Waldie, plant manager at the Kent farm. Most commercial dairies use “ultra pasteurization,” a method that heats the milk to a higher temperature, giving it a longer shelf life but a different taste.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who’s fresher, unless you’re milking the cow and taking it into your house,” Dorn said.

Pete Ellis, 50, believes in the milk. A grandson of the founder, Ellis has spent most of his life working for and with Smith Brothers Farms.

“I raised my family on it,” Ellis said.

Ellis has been a Smith Brothers milkman for more than 30 years. He started shoveling cow feed for $1 an hour when he was in sixth grade and worked his way up to owner of an independent company that delivers Smith Brothers products.

Tully’s Coffee has used Smith Brothers milk “forever,” said Tully’s spokeswoman Ali Hummels. Local milk was a priority for the Seattle-based chain. Tully’s gets the milk through Medosweet, a Smith Brothers wholesale distributor.

“The fact that it’s locally produced was very important,” Hummels said.

Such long-standing customers have kept the farm in business. Although the change in federal regulations cost the dairy its herd, the farm is doing well, Dorn said.

Now that milk prices are regulated, there’s less risk, and business is stable, he said, and orders are growing about 5 percent a year.

Independent delivery companies deliver Smith Brothers products to more than 40,000 homes from North Bend to Olympia to Mount Vernon. Smith Brothers also provides the milk for the Kent School District.

The dairy is confident that the milk it buys meets the same high standards Smith Brothers has always had.

“We were a good dairy farm, but there are a lot of good dairy farms,” Dorn said. “We make sure we get our milk from them.”

Lauren Vane: 253-234-8604 or lvane@seattletimes.com