Facing the reality of dairy farms closing or downsizing across the United States, Carroll County farmers formed a partnership that worked to secure a $40,000 grant to find solutions to this growing problem, according to a news release.

Local farmers reached out to the Maryland Dairy Industry Association, which then partnered with the Carroll County Agricultural Center to pursue the grant. The Maryland Agricultural Education and Rural Development Assistance Fund provided the grant for a Maryland dairy processing plant feasibility study, which was completed in the spring by AgVisory, a consulting firm based in Nassau, Delaware, the release states.

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The study recommended struggling dairy farmers pick a product such as queso fresco and “process it through an existing plant instead of incurring the capital costs of building a new processing facility,” according to the release.

“This grant was one of 42 Maryland Agricultural Education and Rural Development Assistance Fund (MAERDAF) grants totaling $1,093,930, which was distributed to 39 organizations in fiscal year 2018,” the release states.

“Our farmers are struggling. Our system is not set up to create cheap food," Laurie Savage, secretary-treasurer at the Maryland Dairy Industry Association, said in the release. "Dairy farmers are faced with soaring feed, labor and equipment costs while what we are getting in return are prices from 40 years ago.”

Savage and her family operate Savage-Acres Farm near Dickerson, south of Frederick.

“The milk price runs in cycles. You prepare yourself to weather the storm, but many of our farmers can’t hang on long enough for prices to swing back,” Savage said in the release.

Among the issues dairy farmers face are “low milk prices, increased expenses, and dropping milk consumption and exports,” plus people turning to alternatives such as juice from almonds, the release states.

“For the farmers managing the 353 remaining Maryland dairy farms, 24 of which are in Carroll County, the priority has been finding ways to determine their own destinies as opposed to being at the mercy of fluctuating milk prices. A small group of Carroll County dairy farmers tapped into this desire to better their situation by developing the idea of creating a collaborative effort to process milk to sell directly to consumers at retail prices, instead of just accepting the wholesale milk price, which is set on the federal level," the release states.

“Originally, the idea was to take a page from neighboring states who have reduced costs of milk processing by building a central processing facility that multiple farms could use. The farmers’ co-op would then market directly to the consumer under a state branded campaign," Savage said in the release.

But after the study, AgVisory offered the quesco fresco idea of repurposing existing facilities, according to the release.

That plan, Savage said in the release, will depend on finding “the right partner who has the time and money to manage the new business.”

“For Charlotte Davis, executive director of the Rural Maryland Council, the organization that administers the MAERDAF grant, the opportunity to fund the effort was all about supporting an important stakeholder in Maryland’s economy, which in turn supports local economies,” the release reads.

“The grant application provided an opportunity to explore ideas to stop the bleeding for the fourth most important agricultural commodity in Maryland: dairy. So many jobs are tied into operating a farm, such as equipment, vehicles, fuel, feed and workers. So if you can make the industry more sustainable, you can also better support the local economies which benefit from available dollars being spent in their communities,” Davis said in the release.

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