By Leigh Glenn
Imagine a local dairy farm and you might envision something like Nice Farms Creamery in Federalsburg on Maryland’s Eastern Shore: 120 acres of permanent pasture, fenced into paddocks with a mixed herd of Holsteins and Jerseys, crossbreeds of Friesian, Milking Shorthorn and Lineback, moved regularly to fresh grass. The land supports 35 to 40 milk cows of 85 in all.
Too much snow to access the pasture? They get hay. At milking time, they receive a little grain and fresh fodder in the form of barley grass that’s grown hydroponically in a room off the milking parlor.
What’s unusual about Nice Farms is that this dairy used to be in the distribution system that covers most of the industry, in which milk is collected in bulk tanks, hauled away, mingled with milk from other farms, pasteurized and homogenized, bottled and delivered to grocery stores. But Nice Farms opted out of that system and other dairy farmers around DC have begun to do so as well.
Most dairy farmers work in a system that doesn’t let them call the shots. Dairy is a big global business worth billions of dollars. In the United States, the federal government sets prices and processors like Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) and Land O’Lakes predominate—they spent $2.28 million on federal lobbying in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—and hold sway over farmers, who are under great pressure to get big or leave. In February, for example, DFA announced plans to “de-pool” 900 dairy farmers in the Northeast, says Peter Hardin, longtime industry observer and publisher of dairy industry journal, The Milkweed. That means farmers will lose their distribution channel—and maybe their businesses.
Similar dynamics are at work in the organic dairy industry. Either way, the outlook for most dairy farmers is as bleak as an overcast winter day. They are subject to decades-old prices and present-day expenses.
Despite the credo of “get big or get out,” with the misery has come opportunity—for farmers willing to take risks and go into direct sales. This has been a boon for DC–area dairy lovers, who today have many choices about whose milk, yogurt, ice cream and butter to buy. All of the dairies in this story run pasture-based operations. The land benefits from the fertilizer in the form of manure and the dung beetles that break it down. The cows benefit from getting access to fresh grass. Farmers benefit from fair prices and customers benefit from having direct relationships with the farmers and the knowledge that they can enjoy high-quality products and support their local economies.
New Models for Maryland Dairy
In Maryland, where dairy farms number 417, down 143 in the last 10 years, dairy farmers have built a dozen on-farm processing facilities since 2008. This includes three who used to do bulk collections through the co-op system.
Nice Farms is one of them and you might say it took a war for dairy farmer Bob Miller Jr. to see a way forward—not the battle in the dairy industry, but the one in Iraq. Former Army Captain Miller was on patrol in Kirkuk in 2008 and noticed farmers coming into town to sell what they grew directly to eaters. Many of the Iraqi officers with whom he patrolled also were farmers and he asked about this. It was a revelation: Even with stringent restrictions on direct sales in the United States, Miller thought going that route could help his family’s dairy survive. But first, he needed to build an on-farm creamery, so Miller resigned his commission in 2009 and invested his savings in making it happen.
The transition came just in time. When Nice Farms was still selling into the co-op system, there were two other dairies nearby. Within a few years, both had closed.
Today, Nice Farms is at capacity, both in terms of stocking rate—the number of cows the pastures can support—and products sold. Customers include Rise Up Coffee’s flagship store in Easton, Chesapeake Bounty in North Beach and St. Leonard and other local grocers. Miller also sells at markets in Salisbury, Lewes, Stevensville and Annapolis, where people line up on Sundays for his milk, yogurt, ice cream and hand-churned butter, which often sells out.
Northwest of Frederick is a dairy family that’s stayed in the cooperative system, but since 2001 has developed direct sales via home delivery, farmers markets and an on-farm store.
Given the fluctuations in what dairy farmers are paid in the co-op system, South Mountain Creamery wanted to stabilize its income stream. “Things are more expensive, but the price to the farmer hasn’t changed in 30-plus years,” says Tony Brusco, CEO of South Mountain. “Sometimes there are periods where the prices are so low that farmers are living on credit cards and trying to stay operational that way.”
For Brusco and his wife, Abby Sowers Brusco—daughter of founders Randy and Karen Sowers, who began dairying in 1981—starting the creamery was a natural offshoot of the way they shopped: buying meats and breads from a local butcher and baker in Frederick. But they didn’t see the potential until, in that first year, they had an old-fashioned hog-butchering day at the farm, with big, steaming kettles that attracted people driving by. And it dawned on them, they might have something people would be interested in.
“People today want to know who is providing their food, that the food is coming to them fresh and wholesome,” says Brusco. “They want to know it’s safe.”
Today, deliveries of South Mountain products—milk, cream, yogurt and more—within a 70-mile radius, plus sales on-farm and at the markets, account for 40% to 50% of the farm’s dairy sales.
In contrast to those who’ve been dairying for a couple generations or more, John and Mary Fendrick of Woodbourne Creamery in Mt. Airy got their start through their children’s 4-H activities when they got a Guernsey for their children to show. That was 17 years ago.
When Rock Hill Orchard came up for sale, the Fendricks decided to go for it. The farm lacked dairy infrastructure, but had 60 acres of corn and soy that could be converted to pasture.
While creating the pastures, the Fendricks also toured other small dairies’ on-farm processing facilities. They visited a Greencastle, PA, farmer who used a robotic milker. They were sold on that technology, because the cows come in whenever they are ready to give milk. A scanner reads the radio-frequency ID tag in the cow’s ear and adjusts the equipment to fit her teats. The machine cleans and disinfects the teats, attaches the milker, milks the cow, disinfects the teats again and she’s free to go. The system, says Fendrick, saves on labor and increases quality of life.
After running numbers and exploring business plans, the Fendricks decided it would be best to sell their own milk directly to customers. “The price you get is totally in your hands,” says Mary Fendrick. “If you go through the co-op system, you have to pay to have your milk shipped. The price of milk is set by the government based on the price of cheddar bought and sold on the commodities market. If you come out even, most small-scale dairy farmers consider themselves lucky.” But, she adds, in that system, farmers almost need to milk 3,000 to 5,000 cows to make anything—and that’s not a scale that can be handled by a family.
And in Virginia…
About an hour southwest of Woodbourne Creamery, near Winchester, is Hedgebrook Farm, the first dairy in Virginia to get into “cow boarding.” Third-generation dairy farmer Kitty Hockman-Nicholas chuckled at a man who’d bought two Jerseys from her to hand-milk and who was returning the cows; they’d kicked over the bucket. He still wanted the milk, though. Her attorney, she says, went to then-State Milk Commission Administrator John Beers and returned with a cow boarding agreement.
Virginia law prohibits raw-milk sales, but recognizes cow-share programs on a case-by-case basis. Farms that have cow-share programs are not subject to inspection, but if they have Grade A licenses, like Hedgebrook, they are inspected. With cow-share programs, owners buy a share in the cow, entitling them to milk from the cow. They are also responsible for the cow’s upkeep including feed and veterinary expenses. Should the cow die or be dried off, they are not entitled to get milk.
“It’s just been wonderful,” says Hockman-Nicholas, who notes that the share owners’ herd has grown to 10 Jerseys. Hedgebrook delivers twice a week into Northern Virginia.
Hockman-Nicholas probably would have kept selling milk into the co-op system, except that the co-op told her to get out of raw milk or leave the co-op. She didn’t feel she could exist on what they were paying her, so she left.
At that point, Hockman-Nicholas had been making cheese for about six years and has added butter to the mix of products, which includes honey and grass-fed beef. Hockman-Nicholas wants people to understand where food comes from, so she and daughters Shannon and Jackie run an on-farm B&B and will soon have a quartet of “tiny houses” where people can stay. She is also obtaining organic certification to serve as a supplier to Sandy Lerner’s Gentle Harvest fast organic restaurants.
Hockman-Nicholas, who just completed a huge fencing and water project, so that water is available in all the paddocks, drinks her milk with lunch every day. “If I didn’t believe in our product, I wouldn’t do this,” she says. “You are what you eat, just like the cows are what they eat.”
Tasting Notes: Local Diary Farms
by Susan Able
We put local grass-fed dairy milk to the test—well, the taste test. Two experts known for their palates, Chef Omar Rodriguez from Oyamel Cocina Mexicana and Nadine Brown, wine director at Charlie Palmer Steak DC, joined a gaggle of milk aficionados as Edible DC poured milk from four Maryland family-owned dairies against two brands of grocery store milk. All the milk we tasted was whole milk. We cleared our palates with cookies.
The local dairies we tasted all make what is called creamline milk, the most natural form of milk. This milk is pasteurized, but not homogenized and immediately we noticed a color difference. The local milk was slightly more yellow and the farmers tell us in high summer, grass-fed milk becomes decidedly yellow. All of the dairy farmers in our tasting pasture raise their dairy cattle solely on grass, with hay in the winter.
Also, and this is key: All the local milk we tasted had been bottled within the previous 48 hours.
The grocery store milk did not compare in quality or flavor on any dimension to local dairy milk. The color of grocery milk was closer to pure white. Grocery Store A’s milk was a national brand and though it was whole milk, it tasted lean and almost watery compared to the rest. And, it tasted, well, not fresh. As Chef Omar said when I asked him to describe what “not fresh” tastes like, “It’s muted, there is no brightness or complexity. Old milk degrades; even though it isn’t spoiled, it just tastes dull.”
Grocery Store B’s milk was from a large commodity dairy in Pennsylvania. It poured white, and while it was better with more flavor than the first sample, it still did not have the character or fullness of flavor of small-dairy milk.
And the winner?
Well, we didn’t have one. Each of the tasters had a personal preference, but we all agreed on one thing: There was nothing like the flavor of fresh local milk. It was surprising how unique each one was in flavor. If you think of milk as a uniform beverage with one canvas of flavor, think again. Like wine, the way the milk tasted changed as it warmed, developing a stronger flavor and an even fuller, fatty mouthfeel.
Nadine Brown summed it up: “This was very different than I expected, because I didn’t think each milk would have such a distinct taste. But just like wine, what makes tasting the milk come alive is hearing the stories of each of these farmers, what kinds of cows they have and their approach to dairy farming. It makes you appreciate their work, just like you can appreciate tasting a wine when you know the story of how it was grown and produced.”
Woodbourne Creamery Whole Milk, Mt. Airy, MD
Purchased at Bethesda Central Farm Market, $4.50 half gallon
Montgomery County’s only grass-fed dairy, this milk is produced by a herd of 60 Golden Guernseys. It was also slightly more yellow than the rest.
“This milk was rich and balanced, with afternotes of butterscotch. It must make great ice cream.”
“This milk had a distinct buttery and sweet flavor. I don’t drink a lot of milk, and I would go out of my way for a glass of this.”
South Mountain Creamery, Middletown, MD
Purchased from Baltimore’s 32nd Street Market, $4 half gallon ($2 bottle deposit)
The area’s only home-delivered milk, produced by a herd of Holsteins, the black-and-white cows known for producing more milk than other breeds.
“This is the milk we use here at Oyamel. I like that it is balanced and clean, with a flavor richness.”
“For me, this was my favorite. I appreciate the others and they are great, but they had a higher fat content, and this one tasted a little cleaner. It would be my go to.”
Nice Farms Creamery, American Corner, MD
Purchased from Anne Arundel County Market, $4 half gallon
This Eastern Shore dairy produces its milk from 50 cross-bred dairy cattle: Jersey, Dutch Belted, Milking Shorthorn and Lineback. The intent was to develop smaller, hardier cattle that can thrive in a grass-based system and maintain a solid milk performance.
“This milk was pure and had a great creamy texture. I could see drinking this at home, it’s nice.”
“Creamy and balanced, not as sweet as a couple of others; I like that for everyday.”
Clear Spring Dairy, Clear Spring, MD
Purchased from FRESHFARM Markets Dupont Circle, $4.50 half gallon
A solar-powered milking operation, Clear Spring Dairy’s farmers, Mark and Claire Seibert, produce milk, yogurt and butter from 45 Jersey cows, known to produce milk high in butterfat.
“This milk was rich, and you could taste a grassy note on the finish—in a good way.”
“A sweet buttercream taste.”
Read two additional diary stories: