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Wednesday, 10 August 2011 13:00

Dairymen struggle for footing, but milk regulations limit their options

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Farming is not an easy life — the hours start early, the labor is pretty backbreaking and success often depends on the vagaries of weather. One factor, however, that’s been working in the farmer’s favor is the recent trend in local food.

With farmers markets popping up across the country, and campaigns like Buy Haywood and the statewide Farm-to-Fork initiative encouraging consumers to patronize local growers, small farmers are tapping local markets where they can share their bounty. The Center for Environmental Farm Systems estimates that they’ve funneled $6.6 million dollars back into local farms in the last year alone through their 10 percent program, which urges people to buy 10 percent of their food locally. And they’ve only got 324 businesses signed up.

But there’s one segment of the farm population that isn’t jumping as readily on the local, straight-to-consumers bandwagon: dairies.

It would seem like a natural progression, especially in this area. The Southeast drinks more milk than anyone else in the country, so why not buy it from the dairy next door?

The simple answer is cost. But the factors that play into that are far less simple.

“It’s just a lot more complicated once you get into it,” said Ronnie Ross. He runs Ross Dairy in Haywood County, and the farm has been in his family for 45 years. “The equipment is really expensive, and you would have to have someone full time, someone really competent full time, to manage the other end of that, the marketing and the selling. Unless you went into it in a big way, I don’t think it would be cost effective. I think you would be losing money, a lot of money.”

For a regular farmer to sell their produce to neighbors or friends or farmers market customers, the regulation is pretty low level. In fact, in North Carolina, it’s nearly nonexistent. If you want to sell your produce, you can set up a stand and do just that.

For a dairy, the regulations are infinitely greater.

Diaries on the whole are heavily regulated, requiring testing and licensing and paperwork at the state and federal level. But those selling to the public require a whole other raft of costly licenses and equipment.

Peter Jackson has seen that problem firsthand. He is the executive director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, and he’s been working with and surveying dairy farmers in the region for years.

“You know, we’ve been losing those dairies. That used to be a really big industry in Western North Carolina,” said Jackson. “The cost of processing it yourself is just huge if you weren’t already, if you were sending it away on a truck.”

And because of that high cost, that’s what most dairies in the region do.

Ross sends about 16,000 pounds of milk — almost 2,000 gallons — each day to Milko in Asheville. Milko is what’s called a milk pool; they buy from farmers and then process and package it for sale. At Milko, which is owned by Ingles and produces their Laura Lynn brand, around 80 percent of the milk comes from a 120-mile radius.

“We have the most local milk supply in the Southeast,” said Buddy Gaither, the plant’s manager. “But there’s not enough milk in Western North Carolina to supply our needs.”

Because, in recent years, dairy farmers in Western North Carolina have found it hard to compete with farms in the east, where contiguous, arable land is much cheaper and easier to procure. And where regular farmers might be able to turn to their local markets to boost sales, it’s hard for dairies to do that.

According to a 2007 study done by Jackson’s group, dairy farmers had dwindled by 70 percent in the region since 1985.

“Most of the 68 who were left said they weren’t going to be there another decade,” said Jackson.

In WNC, there’s only one dairy that sells its own milk, the Spring Ridge Creamery in Otto, just before the Georgia line in Macon County.

And their business isn’t hurting. They’ve got a pretty steady milk trade and they also process it into cheese and ice cream that sells fabulously on those hot summer days to travellers traversing U.S. 441.

But Jim Moore, the dairy’s owner, got into the business when startup costs were lower and second-hand equipment was much easier to come by.

Jackson said he now knows of farmers who would love to get into the business, but can’t afford the tens of thousands required to get going.

Of course, there are always under-the-table sales, which, Jackson said, are likely happening around the region.

With the recent trend in raw milk — milk that hasn’t been pasteurized — he posits that there are probably farmers selling to folks on the side.

Although raw milk has a wide interest base, it’s still illegal to sell for human consumption in North Carolina. After a spate of sicknesses last month caused by raw milk smuggled back over the border from South Carolina, it doesn’t seem like the law will soon be changing.

But while the outlook for local dairies may not be particularly bright, it’s not quite apocalyptic just yet.

Yes, it’s costly, but it is possible, especially for farmers who get into just cheese, rather than milk. That doesn’t require living up to the more onerous grade A standards.

Jackie Palmer is proof of that fact.

Palmer is the owner of Dark Cove Creamery in Cullowhee, and hers was the first licensed goat dairy in Western North Carolina. She’s been running the business for about 15 years and started it by depleting her savings.

“I’m the sort of person that doesn’t like to have debt, so I just worked a little at a time and it was paid off as I worked,” said Palmer. “I just bought the equipment that I needed when I had the money. It took me a number of years to make it happen. I just was lucky I guess.”

But she was also smart, making sure not to place a larger financial burden on the dairy than it could handle.

“The dairy is a huge part of this farm, but I find for sustainability purposes it’s good to diversify,” said Palmer.

The goat business is probably the main breadwinner, said Palmer, but she keeps other enterprises running because she wants to keep the dairy small. That’s part of what makes it successful.

“I believe in a tiny business,” said Palmer. “I think I can produce a better product if I can stay small. It’s a cleaner product, a more consistent product and something that I’m really proud of.”

And that’s essentially the conclusion Ronnie Ross and his family have always come to.

“We’ve thought about it, and it would be a nice thing to do, but it’s just so much work and stress and we’re pretty much loaded up as we are,” said Ross. It can work, said Ross, if you go really big or really small. But you’re heart really has to be in it, and even then it can fail.

He tells a story of a Buncombe County dairy that tried producing their own products and went under, despite valiant efforts.

So for those who get their produce from the farmer next door, finding the dairy next door might not be as easy.

But they’re still out there, like Palmer, you just have to know where to look.

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