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Dairy farmers in Maryland making hay with prize-winning cheese, fresh ice cream


Customers will tell you that Kilby Cream serves up the best ice cream in Cecil County.

And, judges at an international cheese competition say FireFly Farms in Garrett County produces some of the best cheeses in the world.

State officials point to Kilby Cream, an on-the-farm ice cream store outside Rising Sun, and FireFly Farms, a tiny operation in Bittinger, as shining examples of dairy operations that are pursuing new revenue by turning their milk into other products.

Agricultural officials at the University of Maryland have been encouraging farmers to consider such practices -- called value-added production -- as a way of slowing the loss of dairy farms.

Since 1991, nearly a third of the dairy farms in Maryland have succumbed to low milk prices or high land values caused by expanding suburbia.

FireFly Farms was one of them. But it switched from cows to goats several years ago and began making cheese. The transition caught the attention of officials around the world.

This month, two of its cheeses -- Mountain Top Bleu and Buche Noir -- won silver medals at the 2006 World Cheese Awards in London.

"This is like the Academy Awards for cheesemakers," said Andrea Cedro, director of marketing at FireFly. "There were about 700 different cheesemakers from around the world at the London judging. We were up against cheesemakers from England, France and Italy who have been making cheese forever."

FireFly is considered a newcomer to world competition, having made cheese for five years.

But its products were an immediate success. In 2002, its Mountain Top Bleu won the American Cheese Society's gold medal. It has since picked up nine national and international awards.

Visitors to the small production plant in a white cinderblock barn with red trim often say FireFly cheese doesn't taste like it was made with goat milk, said Matt Cedro, Andrea's husband, and the farm's cheesemaker.

Each month, the farm produces about 1,000 pounds of cheese, which is usually aged three to six weeks before going to market.

About 25 percent of FireFly's cheese is sold at farmers' markets in Silver Spring, Chevy Chase, Dupont Circle in Washington, and in Northern Virginia.

The bulk of the production is distributed to grocery stores and restaurants in the Mid-Atlantic region. While FireFly cheeses will retail for about $15 to $25 a pound at stores, prices are lower at the farmers' markets.

Andrea Cedro said the farm frequently sells $1,000 worth of cheese on a Saturday at the Dupont Circle market.

In the Baltimore area, FireFly cheese is sold at the Whole Foods Market in Mount Washington. Phillips Harborplace restaurant uses Mountain Top Bleu in its salads.

Andrea Cedro said the farm has shipped cheese to customers as far away as Texas and California.

"There was a woman in Spain who wanted our Mountain Top Bleu, but it would cost $140 to ship it," she said. "That was a bit expensive. She decided to have a friend pick some up during a visit to the U.S."

The success of its cheese prompted the operators of the 130-acre farm to make another major transition last month -- they sold their goats.

Matt Cedro said cheese production grew to the point that the farm needed to substantially expand its herd of 240 goats, which would have required a sizable investment. Instead, FireFly moved in the opposite direction, selling the herd and now purchasing milk from three nearby Amish goat farms.

Economics also played a key role in the decision to start the Kilby Cream ice cream store.

"You couldn't make any money from milk three years ago," said Lisa Kilby of the family's nearly century-old, 400-cow dairy farm. She teamed with her sister-in-law, Megan Coleman, to open the store last year at the end of Strohmaier Lane.

Kilby, 34, and Coleman, 27, invested about $200,000 in the store and plant that produces up to 250 gallons of what they call "farm fresh" ice cream each week.

"It's the best ice cream in Cecil County," Pauline White said as she enjoyed a cone of key lime ice cream outside the store one day last week. Her granddaughter, Callie, 12, was finishing off a vanilla milkshake, or "Mooshake," as it is listed on the menu.

A steady stream of customers drove down the quarter-mile gravel lane leading to the red metal store that is about the size of a convenience store. All had the same desire: satisfying a sweet tooth.

"On a good weekend we will have 500 people a day come in, including children," Kilby said. "In addition to the local folks, we get a lot of customers from Pennsylvania, Delaware and Harford and Baltimore counties."

The offerings include packaged ice cream to take home, ice cream pies, baked goods, coffee and soft drinks.

The store has a homey feel, with cabinets and ceiling tiles in the black-and-white pattern of Holstein cows. Benches and a high-back wooden rocker on the front porch invite shoppers to linger.

Children explore a petting zoo with calves, a pony and a goat. A playground behind a white picket fence features a wooden, child-size tractor pulling a hay wagon, as well as swings and a slide.

The endeavor was financed in part by a $50,000 federal grant that helped pay for advertising, marketing and office equipment.

The ice cream is made at the store from milk that sometimes is taken from cows the same day.

"A lot of people tell us our ice cream is rich and tastes like cream," Kilby said as she filled an order for a chocolate cone.

Kilby said she earns twice as much for her milk by converting it into ice cream. She said sales are up about 20 percent this year and she expects to be profitable in another year or two.

Ted Elkin, chief of the division of milk control at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said about 10 on-farm dairy production operations are up and running in Maryland. He said Kilby Cream would be a good operation to duplicate.

Other farms ship their milk to production plants in Pennsylvania to have it made into cheese, butter or ice cream, he said. "There's still room for more producers to get in the business," said Stanley Fultz, a dairy science extension agent with the University of Maryland.

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