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Maryland Dairy Digs Deep to Diversify
The farms in Cecil County, Maryland, some established more than 200 years ago, are undergoing a transformation. Amish families, who have outgrown their traditional farming area of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, are moving rapidly into the area, buying farms.
The Rising Sun Herald in February 2018 reported that 20 of Cecil County’s 29 dairy farms are now Amish-owned.
One of the remaining English dairy farms is Chesapeake Gold Farms, owned by Bob and Diane Miller and their three sons, Wes, Matt, and Ben. Bob graduated from Rising Sun High School in 1980 and is the fifth generation on the farm. The family lives on Dr. Miller Road, which is named for his great-grandfather, Charles Francis Miller, who had a medical practice on the farm.
Bob has made the farm a success, but it wasn’t easy. “When I was in high school, we probably had the lowest herd average in the county,” he says. “At the county fair, they were having a cow milking contest, and another farmer said, ‘The Millers ought to bring one of their cows because they don’t give any milk.’ I made my mind up that I may not be the best, but I will NOT be the worst. That inspired me to do a better job.”
When he came back to the farm after graduating from the University of Delaware, he had to convince his father and uncle to make changes. “The back of the barn was always sealed up tight, and we would lose calves in the wintertime, so I opened it a little bit. Uncle Grove came down and said, ‘You better put those windows back in and seal things up or you’re going to kill these calves.’ I said, ‘Let’s see how it goes.’ He reluctantly agreed. We stopped losing calves.”
At the time, the family farmed about 175 acres and milked 50 cows. The income had to fund several families. “It wasn’t working,” says Bob, simply. Over the years, he and Diane bought the farm from the rest of the family and expanded it. Today, they are milking around 300 cows at two locations and have a thriving custom hay operation targeting horse owners. Their three boys joined the farm after graduating from Penn State University.
FINDING A NICHE
One third of the Miller herd is Holsteins, with the rest crossbreds or purebred Guernsey. That golden-colored breed is “the solution” for the farm, says Diane. She chose the name Chesapeake Gold for the farm way back in 2000, thinking it would look good on a cheese label. “We feel we are pretty good at marketing,” she says. “We are successful with our hay operation because we give our customers good service.”
Bob agrees. “I don’t think the East Coast is going to be able to survive selling commodity milk. We don’t have the land base to build those big dairies. It gets extremely expensive to haul manure. Everybody is looking for that niche.”
In 2018, the Millers were at a crossroads on the farm. They needed to build the farm business to a size that could accommodate three boys. They decided to plunge into the retail cheese business. Chesapeake Gold Cheese hit the artisanal cheese market in fall 2018. Milk from the farm’s herd is sent to an Amish business in Lancaster County to be made into 12 varieties of cheese, including Crabby Cheddar (with Old Bay seasoning), Horseradish Cheddar, and Garlic & Dill. The family sells the cheese on the farm and in several local stores. (For more information, go to facebook.com/chesapeakegoldfarms.)
Setting up a niche farm business was a better option than expanding the farm, says Diane. In fact, there is little chance of buying more land in Cecil County, she explains, because of competition from the Amish.
“The Amish are moving in and buying farms. We can’t afford to pay $10,000 an acre for a farm. There are more Amish dairy farms in Cecil County than English dairy farms. That said, it’s great to see the farms stay as farms, and the Amish are good neighbors.”
The Millers could never get the farm’s cost of operation low enough to compete on the world dairy market, explains Bob. “We had to hit that niche market.”
Their higher cost of production is partly due to the Chesapeake Bay they all love, says Diane. “Farmers have a saying around here: ‘If you can think about it, Maryland can regulate it.’ The farmers have done a tremendous job in this county voluntarily, willingly, and effectively, but ag is still being blamed for the woes of the Chesapeake Bay.”
Maryland has always been on the forefront of conservation, says Bob. Nobody wants to pollute the Bay. “Every year, we do a better job and look for ways to improve. The farmers in this area have been extremely proactive.”
He and Diane visited dairy farms in New York a few years ago and were amazed at the manure running into streams. “We told them, ‘It’s coming for you,’ ” says Bob. “We can’t spread manure in the wintertime. When farmers in other states can spread it, it gives them a competitive edge. We have to have more labor and bigger equipment, because we have to spread our manure in a narrower window.”
The Millers inject most of their manure, partly because there are so many houses close by. “We don’t want to lose the nitrogen, and it is about being good neighbors,” says Diane. “They outvote us, and we want them to think we are decent people and support us.”
Bob has planted cover crops for years. “I just never like to see bare ground.” The guidelines set out by the University of Maryland make it hard to put enough nitrogen on the crops, he says. “We need to put a little fertilizer on to get that cover crop started. If we can get a better root system and thicker mat, it would be better for the environment. We are short-changing both the small grain crop and the corn crop that follows it because we are not able to put enough nitrogen on.”
Diane sums it up. “They are so convinced it’s going to end up in the water that they won’t let us put it in the crop.”
Labor on the farm is always a struggle, says Diane. Fewer kids have a farm background. She taught high school in Cecil County for 10 years and is now the FFA teacher at Oxford (Pennsylvania) High School. “The youth need something positive to do. You see kids congregating in the parking lots because they want to be social, but that can turn into something uncomfortable.” Serious drug issues can be a problem in the area, too, she says.
She uses agriculture to reach out to kids. “They may have an interest in conservation and decide ag is really cool. I’ve turned kids on to soil. They are now interested in doing something in an ag-related field. There are still a lot of young people out there who are ripe to be involved in agriculture, we just have to make an effort. We have to keep ag in schools. Agriculture is the original STEM. We call it STEAM: science, technology, engineering, agriculture, and math.”
The sprawl around Rising Sun, which is 6 miles west of the farm, continues, says Diane. “It’s like breaking the yolk of an egg – it spreads.” Luckily, farmland in Maryland and in Cecil County has benefited from a healthy land preservation program. More than 800,000 acres of farmland are protected by easements in Maryland, the greatest ratio of farmland preserved to total landmass of any state. In Cecil County, 27,000 acres have been placed into protective agricultural easement with 50,000 total acres protected from development.
In September 2018, the Cecil Land Trust acquired a 535-acre easement on Long Green Farm to protect productive farmland as part of the Fair Hill Rural Legacy Area. “The conservation easement acquisition will enable a next-generation farmer to take over a working farm that’s been in the same family for over 250 years,” says Cecil Land Trust president Bill Kilby.
The Miller farm was protected from development in the 1980s. “We were one of the first farms preserved in the county,” says Bob. “If my dad and uncle had not preserved it, I’m not sure Diane and I would have been able to buy it.”