Over the last few weeks stories of despair have appeared in the news and on social media regarding the plight of family diary farmers. Record low prices that don’t even cover the costs of production combined with cancelled processing contracts have hundreds of dairies throughout the country selling their milking herds and turning out the lights. Digital memes ask us to buy an extra gallon of milk or order extra cheese on our pizzas and tacos and when all else fails, there’s always thoughts and prayers.
According to the USDA, the cost of milk production in the United State averaged $22.27 per hundred weight. [Note: milk is sold by the hundred-weight, abbreviated cwt. A gallon of whole, raw milk weighs 8.6 pounds so there are 11.63 gallons in cwt]. Unfortunately, the current price per cwt, which is set by the government based upon the commodity price of a 40-pound block of cheese on the Chicago Exchange, is currently around $11.75 cwt, about half of production costs.
Unlike water faucets, cows cannot be turned off. Even when dry, meaning they are not in milk production, cows still must be fed, housed and bedded. Since many dairies have bred their cows for numerous generations to have the traits specific to that farm’s needs and environment, cows are not something that get bought and sold as prices for milk fluctuate. Add to that the personal interaction from twice daily milking, cows tend to become part of the family. When dairy farmers lose their cows, it cuts far deeper than merely losing a job. It’s no wonder dairy processors are including suicide hotline numbers along with dwindling milk checks and contract cancellation letters.
The renaissance of artisan cheese and farmstead creameries can be directly attributed to the backlash to the “get big or get out” mentality of the USDA in the 1970’s. In the mid 1980’s rising costs and shrinking commodity prices brought about major agricultural losses spawning Farm Aid and other non-profit organizations geared toward helping farmers once again become profitable.
When you purchase milk, ice cream, yogurt or cheese at Central Farm Markets, you are ahead of the pack and for that matter, so are the farmers. By choosing to bottle their own fluid milk or turn it into value-added products such as cheeses, yogurt, and ice cream that are retailed directly to customers, smaller dairies have been able to stay afloat and even thrive in the hostile commodity dairy arena.
I spoke with a few of Central Farm Markets’ dairy product vendors to help our customers better understand the economics of small dairies, farmstead, and artisan creameries.
Fluid Milk & Ice Cream
“If we were milking cows to ship milk to a processor we might as well dump it down the drain,” said John Fendrick, the friendly face at Rock Hill Orchard at the Bethesda Central Farm Market.
As many multi-generational dairy farmers were planning their exit strategy, John and his family chose to build a dairy from the ground up and in 2013 began milking a small herd of Guernsey cows, processing their own milk and selling directly off their farm and at market. They were the first new dairy to open in Montgomery County in over sixty years and are part of the county’s agricultural reserve.
John credits their success to several factors. First, the project was planned from the start to be sized appropriately to sell everything at their on-farm market and farmers market. Instead of milking hundreds of cows, Rock Hill only milks around 35 cows, a number that rises and falls depending upon the season. Secondly, their cows are grass-fed using managed intensive grazing which means they are moved several times a day to fresh pasture. This provides Rock Hill with premium cream line milk to bottle or to turn into delicious ice cream. And third, they opted for a robotic milking machine. Yes…a robot. By utilizing the latest technologies in dairy automation, John can minimize his labor. “Cows milk when they want to milk. It’s on their routine, not mine which makes for happier cows.”
The final factor of Rock Hill’s success has been the return to diversified farming. Although customers only see bottled milk, ice cream and honey at the market, Rock Hill raises vegetables and fruits, including the ingredients for their ice cream flavors such as peach and ginger.
If you want to compare the price of a cloth-bound and waxed cheddar to what is available at the grocery store, there’s no denying the hand-crafted wedge is going to be several times the cost of a plain, vacuum-sealed block from a national producer.
Customers new to locally produced artisan cheeses sometimes experience sticker shock, however, the cost of the cheese is a more accurate reflection of the true cost of production. Farmstead and artisan cheese makers rely on the quality of their raw ingredient – the milk – which is dependent on multiple factors including the breed of cow (or goat or sheep) and how it is fed while producing milk. Once they have produced or purchased high-quality fluid milk, it must then be turned into cheese.
According to Susan James, proprietor of Stonyman Gourmet Farmer (at all CFM markets), there are many factors that go into producing fine cheeses. “It depends on the breed of cows, what they are eating, how they are kept,” she began.
Small-scale cheesemaking requires a significant investment in a plant and approved stainless steel or copper vats. Some types of cheeses, such as soft, fresh cheeses require a pasteurizer – a very costly piece of equipment. Add in cultures, inoculants, coagulants, salts, cheese molds, presses and specialized tools such as curd cutters, cheddar mills, bluing needles and production costs on top of the milk begin to grow.
Hold on, there’s more. Once the cheeses are made, molded and pressed, affinage (aging) begins. This is much more than simply setting blocks or wheels on a shelf. Storage must be in temperature and humidity-controlled environments and each cheese must be regularly inspected to ensure it has not contracted any rogue bacteria, fungus or mites. Some cheeses are washed in beer or wine, some brined in large tanks with special salts, others rubbed with olive oil or lard and some sprayed with an additional inoculant all to develop an outer rind.
“There is a big difference between a wine that is two years old versus one that has aged for ten years to develop character. The same is true for cheese. Affinage can turn a good cheese into a great cheese,” explained Susan James.
For producers of raw-milk cheeses (meaning the milk is not pasteurized prior to production), their products must be aged a minimum of 60 days to meet FDA requirements. That is two full months before the producer can begin to recoup their costs. The bottom line is that storage costs money.
When the time comes to sell, add in cutting, packaging, labeling, and getting the cheese to the customer. Those expenses add up and must be reflected in the final cost of the product.
As one of the founding vendors at Central Farm Markets, Stonyman Gourmet Farmer has seen the demand for quality local cheeses grow. “Our customers demand better and better cheeses.”
The question of why dairy producers go to great lengths is often asked. Dairy farmers are by far the most passionate agriculturalists there are. They will work full-time jobs in addition to farming and cheesemaking (both full-time jobs in their own right) to afford their craft while building a business. Their livelihoods are dependent upon nature – the weather, the seasons, their livestock. One common thread in successful dairy producers is their fierce independence and dedication to their craft. The vendors at farmers markets who offer dairy products have overcome incredible odds in an environment where the deck has been stacked against small producers. They have survived and thrived because of customer support and thanks to you, they are here to stay.