Milk Money

Dairy Farmers look for solutions to the predicted tough times ahead

By Gina Gallucci-White | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 04.12.15 – Feature, Food & Drink, Lifestyles

If Chuck Fry had been told six years ago that he would one day be making and selling ice cream in a retail shop on his farm, he wouldn’t have believed it. “I’d [say], ‘No way. You are crazy.'” Fast forward to today when he’s the owner of the Tuscarora-based Rocky Point Creamery, where a frozen-treat lover can devour dozens of different ice cream flavors and indulge in milkshakes, sundaes and floats.

Fry is the fourth generation to run the family farm that dates back to 1883. He previously tried to diversify the dairy operation by adding turkeys, but supplier downsizing caused his farm to cut that contract, prompting his foray into ice cream, opening the creamery in 2010. So far, business has been very good. “God has a lot of challenges he puts in front of you and you never know what is around the corner,” he says. “There could be opportunities. You cannot be afraid to open the door and see what will entail.”

“Milk prices historically follow a three-year cycle, and we have just finished the three high years and now are entering what will probably be the down years.”

Such an optimistic approach—and diversified approach to business—might be necessary in the near future as farmers like Fry face falling milk prices. “We are entering a downward trend in milk prices,” says Stanley W. Fultz, University of Maryland dairy science extension agent. “Milk prices historically follow a three-year cycle, and we have just finished the three high years and now are entering what will probably be the down years.”

Laurie Savage, secretary-treasurer of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association, agrees the immediate future for dairy farmers could be tough. “Last year, farmers received very good milk prices and by very good, I mean they were above the break-even point. Over the next few months, on-farm milk prices will be a or below the breakeven price meaning farmers will be losing a lot of money.

How many people are willing to go out to work every day, in the dark, in the snow, when they are sick, to make less than their expenses? It’s going to be a tough time ahead.” Her organization recently held its annual meeting in Frederick, with the focus being positioning dairy farms for the future.

“We always aim to keep dairy farmers in business into the future and we hope that the dairy convention gives them some good tools and information to take back to their operations.”

“We asked Gary Sipiorski [a development manager with livestock consultant Vita Plus] to speak to dairy farmers about what to do with their money when milk prices are higher in order to prepare for times when milk prices drop and then how farmers could weather the storm when the prices drop,” Savage says. “We always aim to keep dairy farmers in business into the future and we hope that the dairy convention gives them some good tools and information to take back to their operations.”

Fultz encourages farmers to run their farm like any other business, knowing production costs and planning ahead for the low-paying milk years that will inevitably happen. “University of Maryland
Extension can assist farmers to calculate production costs, so they know how competitive they will be compared to their neighbors,” Fultz says. “All financial assistance remains completely confidential.”

A Strong History

Even before the Revolutionary War, Frederick County was building an agricultural reputation. In Tillers of the Soil: A History of Agriculture in Mid-Maryland, author Paula Reed points to a letter written in 1772 from William Eddes, Lord Baltimore’s Commissioner of the Land Office, describing the county’s healthy land: “It is impossible to conceive a more rich and fertile country than I have lately traversed; and when it becomes populous in proportion to its extent, Frederick County will, at least be equal to the most desirable establishment on this side of the Atlantic.”

As early as the turn of the 20th century, dairy was the chief agricultural product in the county, with individual farmers typically milking between 15 to 20 cows twice a day, seven days a week. Many farms prospered and younger generations followed in the footsteps of their ancestors. But during the past decade, Frederick has seen an explosion in residential and commercial development, while tightening margins on milk prices have squeezed many family farms.

Even as Frederick County remains the top dairy producer in the state, farms are going out of business. The 2012 United States Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture found the county lost 134 farms since 2007, a 9 percent decline from 1,442 to 1,308. “The biggest challenge that I see is there are not young people out there that really want to do what we do,” says Fry, who is also president of the Maryland Farm Bureau and a member of the board of directors for the American Farm Bureau.

“The love of the animals, the love of the land and the seven days of hard work—people don’t want that anymore. They want to have their iPhones and play games and do what they want to do. They kind of forget to walk outside and look up and look at the world.” A former teacher, he understands the basic challenge in reaching the next generation. “It’s hard to teach kids to do anything, let alone something that is hard. They want the easy way out and that’s certainly not the case with dairy farming, unless you have that love of what the cows do and the end result.”

And if anyone thinks a decline in dairy farming only affects the farmers, they are wrong, Savage says. “Because, as more farms go out of business, there are fewer local dairy products on store shelves. Milk has to be shipped from further away and eventually, who knows, we may be getting all our milk and dairy products from China.”

Buying Local, Saving Cows

As people become more conscious about what goes into their food, there’s been a large push for more local products. “We have the benefit here in Frederick County of having so many farms and having our citizens be able to [buy local],” says Anne Bradley, agricultural liaison for the Frederick County Community Development Division.

On top of their dairy production, some local farms have branched out to offer additional services. Harkening back to the days of the milkman, South Mountain Creamery delivers its products straight to customer’s homes. With a menu that includes glass bottled milk, butter, beef, pork and turkey, its delivery area reaches out to Hagerstown, Northern Virginia and Baltimore and Annapolis. “It’s almost like getting a grocery store delivered to your door,” says Anastasia Gaines, South Mountain’s marketing and communications coordinator. “The ‘buy local’ movement is really strong [in the Washington, D.C., area], but they don’t have access to farms as easily as you do in the country.” By having a large delivery area, the creamery can service those customers.

“The ‘buy local’ movement is really strong [in the Washington, D.C., area], but they don’t have access to farms as easily as you do in the country.”

The Middletown-based farm also has an on-site store, a playground for children and holds two festivals a year that encourage people to come to their farm to bottlefeed baby calves and watch milking take place daily. “We are huge into agricultural education and ag tourism so those activities allow us to bring more people to the farm to educate them on local agriculture and get them talking about agricultural issues that will affect their milk and their deliveries,” Gaines says.

At Fry’s creamery, “people come out to the farm,” he says. “A lot of them have never been to a farm before. They see the cows and realize ice cream comes from milk. We talk about the dairy industry and why we do what we do.” While many customers are locals, some drive from far distances to sample the homemade ice cream. “There is no way in the world I would have ever predicted that we would have had the customer base out of the nation’s capital that we do today.”

This past winter season was hard for farmers who worked in zero-degree temperatures, with wind chills dipping into the negative numbers. “Those days will really, really challenge your core for anybody,” Fry says. “I don’t care who you are. … Whatever you do, those days are really tough.” But a love of the farm life drives him to keep going each year.

Fry cannot envision where a tremendous amount of growth will happen in the dairy industry in Frederick and the state. “That is very tragic and I don’t know how to fix that,” he says. “I know that everybody can’t get into a niche like we have. Not everybody can process and handle their own dairy products right on the farm because it is a two-fold problem: You have your work with cows and whatever is involved in making that milk and you have another job of processing it and selling it to consumers. Although there is a future in that buy local [movement] and staying within that local market, it is really difficult to be able to maintain the labor force to be able to do all that. That is the challenge.”

Toward the end of a conversation, Fry asks to be referred to as “the ice cream farmer.” “That always makes people laugh when I am in a group,” he says. “That’s my personality. You try to make people lighten up. I don’t want to be that gloom-and doom guy. The industry is not going to turn around and fold. I think it’s going to be a slow decline. I think there are opportunities for the right people doing the right thing but it’s going to be hard work. Those people are going to have to stick that out and really, really want that. There’s always a success story in there somewhere.”