In ice cream, dreams of cold cash

Profits: Dairy farmers look to new products to ensure economic survival.

October 03, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

As their numbers dwindle, Harford County dairy farmers are turning to related lines of business, including the production and sale of ice cream, to enhance their chances of survival.

According to C. John Sullivan, agricultural coordinator with the county's Office of Economic Development, four of the 30 remaining dairy farms in the county have moved into the production of ice cream or are in the process of moving into the business.

In most cases, the farmers are assisted in their new venture by a one-of-a-kind county agricultural grant program that takes some of the financial risk out of their expansions.

Broom's Bloom Dairy, off Route 543 about 10 miles outside of Bel Air, is a good example of the changing face of Harford's dairy business, an industry that was the backbone of the county's economy during the World War II era, when about 600 farms dotted the landscape.

Kate Dallam and her husband, David, owners of Broom's Bloom, are nearing completion of the construction of what looks like a small barn that will serve as one of two on-the-farm ice cream stores in the state.

"It's an attempt to stabilize the volatile nature of milk prices, which are always going up and down - but mostly down," Kate Dallam said of the expansion into ice cream.

Although the board and batten structure was bare, she expressed confidence that she will be serving up dishes of vanilla, strawberry and butter-pecan ice cream to customers sitting at tables inside or out on the porch before Thanksgiving.

Economics played a major role in their decision.

The Dallams were among 135 dairy farmers from 12 states who attended a two-day conference in Frederick in 2000 on the future of dairy farming.

The University of Maryland Cooperative Extension and the Maryland Department of Agriculture sponsored the conference.

Farmers heard over and over that if they didn't want their operations to join the growing lists of farms that have gone out of business, they needed to give serious consideration to value-added production. They were told they could get more money for their milk if they were able to convert it into ice cream, cheese or other dairy products.

"We've never lost money," Kate Dallam said of her farm's 70-cow dairy operation, just outside the county's development envelope. "But we have broken even many, many years." She laughed and added: "It's hard to sustain an operation when the best you can do is break even."

She credits the 220-acre farm's survival so far to a lean operation that does without the luxury of hired help. "We're very labor-efficient," she said.

"David is 40," she said. "He works like a machine. But what happens when he turns 50 and he is not able to do all the work himself and we're not sustainable?" she asked.

"We needed something to provide additional income and to ease the burden on everyone."

Shortly after returning from the Frederick conference, the Dallams moved into the production of cheese.

"Kate has told me, `It's cheese that puts dinner on the plate at night, not the cows,'" said Sullivan.

The Dallams are now ready to take their value-added production to the next level.

On-the-farm store

By opening an on-the-farm store, the Dallams are hoping to recapture a part of the county's past. Fifty or 60 years ago, Kate Dallam said, it was common for consumers, especially those in rural areas, to drive to a neighboring farm for a serving of ice cream while picking up milk, eggs and other farm-fresh items.

"People loved the experience," Kate Dallam said. "It helped them connect with agriculture and farming in a nice setting."

Visitors to Broom's Bloom Dairy will find more than ice cream and a trip down memory lane when the store opens.

"We'll sell a variety of farm products," said Dallam. "We'll have lamb from Woolsey's Farm in Churchville; beef from Level Farm" and free-range eggs from another farm.

The store will stock country sausage made from hogs raised on the farm. "A butcher in Carroll County will make the sausage," said Kate Dallam, "and he will use all the cuts of meat, the hams and the loins. Most sausage is just made from the scraps. When you use all cuts, the sausage is leaner and tastes better."

There will be a variety of cheeses made from milk produced at the farm, local produce and soap made from milk and olive oil.

Sullivan said county officials are hoping that such diversification will help retain the county's agricultural heritage.

"It's not nearly as big as it used to be," he said of the dairy industry. "We're down to 30 farms today. Seven years ago, when I took this job, we had 38."

To slow this trend, the county established in 2002 an agricultural economic development program that was designed to keep farmers farming.

The program - the only one of its kind in the state - provides grants to farmers for training and to pay for such things as equipment, marketing brochures and signs to promote their business.

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