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The Aegis
Harford County

Harkins Hill Farm in Harford County ceases dairy operations, part of a countywide and nationwide trend

David Harkins is no stranger to how demanding running a dairy cow farm is.

“Dairy cows [are] a seven day a week, almost 24-hour day operation,” he said.

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The cows need to be milked twice a day and require a special feed that helps them produce more milk — as opposed to beef cows that can simply graze on grass most of the time.

“If a cow was grazing on grass all day, it’s kind of like eating potato chips,” Harkins said. “We don’t want them to fill up on the grass because what we’re feeding them is much better for them. That’s why dairy cows are staying in the barn all the time.”

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Harkins is the fourth generation to lead Harkins Hill Farm in Forest Hill. His great-grandfather Herbert Brooks Harkins purchased the farm in 1909, and his grandfather, Walter, started their dairy operation in the mid-1930s. David Harkins has helped his father, Herbie, run the farm since he was about 10, he said.

“I’m not crazy about milking cows, but at the same time, neither of us want this to end on our watch,” David Harkins said. “I mean, it’s been going on forever. Nobody wants it to end.”

But after nearly a century of dairy farming, the last cow was milked on the Harkins Hill Farm in Forest Hill in March, when their dairy cows were sold to a farm in Baltimore County.

The Harkins Hill Farm is part of a long-term trend. Andrew Kness, University of Maryland Extension agricultural agent for Harford County, said the number of dairy farms nationwide has dwindled in the past 20 to 30 years.

Some of the reasons it’s become harder to run dairy farms are high land prices — developers are willing to pay top dollar for farmland — and the amount of care dairy cows require.

“It’s a high-performance animal,” Kness said, “and it needs to be cared [for] that way.”

Kness also noted the difficulty of maintaining a small farm, as opposed to a larger operation.

“As you get larger, you get more efficient and your cost per unit goes down,” Kness said, “and it’s especially true for dairy operations. It’s really tough to make money on fluid milk sales when you’re small.”

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David Harkins estimated that it would take a farm of about 300 to 500 dairy cows to make some money. Herbie Harkins said their peak was about 210 cows, but the last two years, they had about 100.

“Unfortunately, in order to be in the milk business now, you have to be big,” Herbie Harkins said.

Kness said the last time the dairy industry was booming in Harford County was 2014. Then, there were 24 dairy farms in the county, according to a report from the Maryland Dairy Industry Oversight and Advisory Council.

Today, there are only about 15 dairy farms in the county, according to a county spokesperson. Nationwide, the trend toward consolidation is also apparent: the number of U.S. dairy farms fell below 30,000 in March, which Kness calls an “all-time low.”

“[Dairy farming] is probably one of the hardest professions to actually step away from because you handle your animals every single day, multiple times a day,” Kness said. “It becomes who you are.”

Kness also said that Harford County, in the past, was historically a “dairy county.”

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“For a long time, dairying was a very stable way to make a living,” Kness said. “You weren’t gonna get super rich off of it, but you always had a source of income because you got that milk check every week.”

Janet Archer, who runs the Fawn-View Manor Farms dairy farm in Pylesville and is the former president of the Harford Farm Bureau, remembers a few decades ago when there were closer to 500 dairy farms in the county.

“All the dairy people used to always stick together,” Archer said. “It’s sad to see people going out of business, but I understand why.”

Harkins Hill Farm is not the only local dairy operation to end recently. Keyes Creamery in Havre de Grace will no longer raise dairy cows because the land it rented to raise them on since 1954 is being sold to a developer who wants to build a housing community. The creamery will continue to operate, but the ice cream will no longer be made from Keyes milk.

“It’s tough,” said Megan McMillan, manager of Keyes Creamery, “because you have hope that you can raise your kids the same way that you grew up, and you can’t.”

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McMillan has tried to see the good and bad of the situation: She’ll be able to focus more on starting her own family, and her parents, David and Kelly Keyes, can focus more on the creamery, which they own, and spending more time with family.

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They’d raised 90 to 100 cows, McMillan said — about a third of which were sold last June. A third were also sold recently to a Pennsylvania couple looking to start their own herd, and the remaining cows are older and will likely be sold to a meat processor.

“It’s a hard thing to let go of,” she said.

And while dairy farming has ceased at Harkins Hill, David Harkins will continue raising crops like corn, soybeans and maybe some alfalfa. He’ll also continue to raise the lower maintenance beef cows as well. And while Herbie Harkins is technically “retiring,” he still plans to do some grain farming and fix up some of the equipment around the farm.

“I probably will never stop working until I can’t work anymore,” Herbie Harkins said.

While David and Herbie Harkins will certainly have more time to use their camper for an occasional vacation, without the dairy cows, the farm won’t be the same.

“I’ll miss working with him every day,” David Harkins said. “That’ll probably be what I miss the most.”


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