As the number of dairy farms in Frederick County has dwindled, one family has remained determined to to find a sustainable solution for milk.
By: Samantha Hogan
Source: The Frederick News-Post
In 1981, Karen and Randy Sowers moved to Middletown and launched the milking herd at the heart of South Mountain Creamery, and, in the past year, their children have taken over the operation.
“The second generation was ready to take the reins. We had been operating the business as a whole for a while,” said Tony Brusco, their son-in-law and the new CEO of South Mountain Creamery.
The farm operates a creamery that bottles its own milk and other milk-based products, but its herd of cattle, flock of chickens, fields of crops and shelves of prepared meals are what have transformed it from a dairy farm to a business.
“The milk is where we started, but we quickly expanded,” Brusco explained.
He, his brother-in-law Ben Sowers, and their wives operate three farms and a commercial kitchen that employs 80 people in Frederick County. The recipe to their success: diversification.
In the 1980s, while milk prices were down, the Sowerses contracted 110 laying hens to balance the farm’s books with the idea that when milk prices are down, egg prices are up. Then in 2001, following good prices in the 1990s, the farm opened its creamery to cut out the middle man and better control the sale price of its milk.
The creamery wasn’t an instant success. The family hosted festivals at the farm to raise the $15,000 to $20,000 it needed to buy its first tractor-trailer’s worth of glass bottles. Payroll was done on credit cards, and it wasn’t until two or three years after the creamery opened that the family started to feel secure.
Still, the family believes that it was Randy Sowers’ aggressive growth plan that catapulted South Mountain Creamery to where it is today.
“I want to believe there’s lots of ways to the promised land,” Brusco said. “It’s just what works for us.”
The local food movement has also worked in the family’s favor. They raise grass-fed cattle and dairy cows and avoid genetically modified crops. They have also sourced 150 vendors from farmers markets who share their values to provide products that South Mountain can’t make or grow at certain times of the year.
“What people want is for you to raise the best [animals] you can, not the cheapest,” Brusco said.
But, sustainable agriculture is not just farmers taking care of their environment, he said. Truly sustainable agriculture includes customers buying local and supporting small farms — even with higher prices — so that farmers can make a living wage and sustain an operation for the next generation.
“We’re trying to build a sustainable agricultural community,” Brusco said. “… We don’t want to see anyone go out of business.”
For Brusco, it was hard to see the Char Mar Dairy Farm in Jefferson go under recently. The farm will be sold at foreclosure auction Jan. 26, and when a sale like this happens, not only does Frederick County lose another dairy farm but a family loses their home, livelihood and family legacy, Brusco said.
Brusco and his wife, Abby, have two children, and Ben and Kate Sowers have four. The hope is that eventually the third generation will want to take over the farm. The diversification of the business, however, means that they could study accounting, marketing or agriculture and have a place in the family business.
“We have encouraged our kids to find their passion, and if their passion aligns with the farm — great,” Tony Brusco said.
To stay ahead, the farm has also tried to look to the horizon for both the good and the bad.
Recent rumblings of E. coli in romaine lettuce in North America shut down a portion of their produce and prepared meals businesses in recent weeks. They decided to stop selling their most popular salad, Caesar, and pull romaine from their produce sales until the situation was under control, Abby Brusco said.
“It’s not a major issue yet, but you can see it brewing,” she said.
Other times, the farm tries to prepare for potential niche markets. A2 milk — a potentially more digestible milk — is a product that could take off in the future, and the farm has been breeding its milking herd with bulls that carry the A2 gene in case it does.
A herd’s genetics is not something that can be changed overnight, so long-term planning is often necessary.
More immediately, though, the creamery will be moving into the wholesale market and offering plastic containers of its milk. This will hopefully open new markets in commercial kitchens and restaurants for them.
At the end of the day, though, its about producing and selling a local product.
“We can do local better than anyone else,” Tony Brusco said.