FREDERICK -- Financially struggling dairy farmers are looking at turning their milk into cheese, butter or ice cream to fatten their pocketbooks.
One hundred and thirty-five dairy farmers from 12 states met over the weekend to discuss the opportunities for value-added production on the farm.
Farmers were told that the same urban sprawl that has caused them problems in the past now represents a potentially big and viable market for fresh-from-the-farm goodies.
The conference, held at a Frederick restaurant Saturday, was sponsored by the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in conjunction with the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
James Hanson, an agriculture economist at the University of Maryland, College Park said the conference was established with hopes of pumping new economic life into Maryland's rapidly declining dairy industry. The state has lost nearly 30 percent of its commercial dairy farms since 1991.
"Adding value to our products makes a lot of sense," Hanson said.
Gary Frank, an agricultural economist in the Center for Dairy Profitability at the University of Wisconsin, said that for an investment of about $150,000, dairymen could set up a small, on-farm, cheese processing plant that could net up to $40,000 a year within a couple of years.
In the beginning, he cautioned, a successful, 25-cow operation might net only $5,000.
"I find this an exciting area for a small cheese processing operation," he said of Maryland. "It's much better than Wisconsin. In Maryland, you have a large population living very close to farms."
William Zepp, head of the division of milk control for the Maryland health department, corrected an impression among farmers that it was illegal to produce dairy products on the farm. But," he said, "you have got to meet the guidelines," and went over health and environmental regulations.
Zepp was not aware of a single on-farm milk processing plant in Maryland, which he attributed to a lack of equipment for small operations until a year ago.
Another speaker, Scott A. Rankin, a dairy food specialist at the University of Maryland, encouraged farmers to look for niche markets to boost their chances of success. "You're not going to make a product to compete with Kraft singles," he said.
The audience was noticeably younger than is the case at most farm meetings, reflecting a willingness of young farmers to do things differently than their parents in an attempt to save their farms.
"We're looking for some way to make our farm more profitable," said 37-year-old David Rice, who came from Williamsburg, Pa., with his wife, Terry.
"We think we can do a lot better if we make our milk into yogurt," his wife said.