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Our View: Study offers no cure-all for dairy farmers, but out-of-the-box thinking like it is welcome

The decline in the number of dairy farms in Carroll County is staggering. From 731 in 1959 to 205 in 1978 to 92 in 2002 to 53 in 2012 to 24 today, according to Bryan Butler, University of Maryland Extension agent, quoting numbers from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. “Our farmers are struggling,” Laurie Savage, secretary-treasurer at the Maryland Dairy Industry Association, said in a news release from the Rural Maryland Council. “Dairy farmers are faced with soaring feed, labor and equipment costs while what we are getting in return are prices from 40 years ago.”

Unfortunately, we’re not so sure a recently commissioned study suggesting that dairy farmers begin producing Queso fresco will be a cure for all that ails the industry. But, under the right circumstances, it could potentially help some of the 24 .

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A group of Carroll County dairy farmers developed the idea of creating a collaborative effort to process milk to sell directly to consumers at retail prices. They reached out to the Maryland Dairy Industry Association who partnered with the Carroll County Agricultural Center to secure a $40,000 grant from the Maryland Agricultural Education and Rural Development Assistance Fund to conduct a Maryland dairy processing plant feasibility study, which was completed in the spring by the consulting firm AgVisory, according to the release.

AgVisory recommended something else entirely: “Pick a product like Queso fresco, a fresh, unaged cheese, and process it through an existing plant instead of incurring the capital costs of building a new processing facility.” It’s an intriguing idea. But as Savage said in the release, implementing the suggested plan will come down to finding the right partner who has the time and money to manage the new business.

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Time and money. Unfortunately, those both seem to be in short supply for local dairy farmers.

“Most dairy farmers already work 18 hours a day,” Gary Dell told us. He is the fourth generation of his family in the business, his children the fifth, farming about 2,400 acres between Gamber and Littlestown, Pennsylvania. Dell Brothers milks 90 cows, down from 140 cows, and dairy accounts for only about 20% of their overall revenue.

Dell pointed out that most small, family-owned dairy farms don’t have the capital investment or the labor force to build and staff a manufacturing plant. But the study did suggest an existing processing plant. Perhaps the right partner could be found, there could be a collaborative effort and Carroll County could become known for its fresh cheese?

“I encourage our dairy farmers to think about all the options available to make their farms more profitable,” Savage said in the release. “I don’t want to discourage those who wish to process their own milk by building their own creamery onsite, but I would like them to succeed by asking the right questions up front.”

Make no mistake, it’s critical that the dairy industry survive and flourish. It’s the fourth-most important agricultural commodity in Maryland, according to the release, and there is a ripple effect. “So many jobs are tied into operating a farm, such as equipment, vehicles, fuel, feed and workers," Charlotte Davis, executive director of the Rural Maryland Council, said. "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,”

Matt Hoff, owner of Coldsprings Farms in New Windsor, is a fifth-generation dairy farmer with 1,200 milking cows who is also president of Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association. He told us no one goes into dairy farming “thinking they’re going to be a billionaire.”

He is right about that. But they do need to be able to make a living. Otherwise, the decline in Carroll dairy farms will continue unabated. So a little out-of-the-box thinking — such as, perhaps, a co-op Queso fresco plant — is welcome, as long as it isn’t expected to be an elixir.

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