BERLIN — As milk prices continue to skyrocket, Danny Holland wishes he were three years older. The third generation dairy farmer said he was about three years too young to help his father stay in the local milk business. As a result, his father was forced to give up selling milk to local stores and do what the few remaining dairy farmers in the state — and the country, really — had to do in the 1980s: join a cooperative.
Holland is pragmatic about the situation, however, pointing out that hindsight changes very little. Besides, it was a good deal at the time. The costs of operating and maintaining the farm and pasteurizing equipment added to the regulations that required local milk be priced higher than imported milk made the decision a no brainer.
There were also the predictable business hassles that corporations don’t have. No one calls the president of, say, Pepsi in the middle of the night to make sure they’ll have enough soda in the morning.
But as costs rose and prices dropped and milk farms closed up shop all over the state, Holland had to figure out a way to diversify. And anyone who has ever had the resulting Chesapeake Bay Farms products is surely thankful things worked out the way they did.
True, the company doesn’t sell its own milk. But in recent years it has developed one of the best tasting and most successfully marketed cheese and ice cream products in the region. Stop by the shop on a warm day and you are sure to find the small dooryard packed with kids and grownups enjoying the handmade ice cream.
As it turns out, Holland’s wife, Laura, is an ice cream genius. She is constantly developing, testing and producing some of the freshest, finest ice cream there is. Moreover, by choosing to get into the ice cream business, the Hollands will be able to diversify even more locally.
The Holland’s farm is expanding production facilities with an eye on making ice cream mixes to sell to local restaurants. They hope to soon produce enough volume to serve ice cream purveyors such as Dumsers.
A project like this is precisely what the local movement is all about. Should the mixes deal be successful, the restaurants who sell it will get a superior quality ice cream from a local producer, making it at least much more sustainable and, as gas prices climb, possibly even reduce everyone’s production costs.
In the next year, Laura plans to go to Italy to learn the authentic production methods of gelato. Anyone who has had authentic gelato understands the difference between it and its mass-produced likenesses. The fact that it is also a bit healthier than ice cream makes it popular, but to do it well in a place where no one else is will make it an indispensable asset.
Gelato and mixes aside, the demand for Chesapeake Bay Farms ice cream has gone well beyond the bounds of their Berlin store and is available at almost as many places as is their cheese, which is made in Pennsylvania.
This is where decisions about diversification become complicated. When Holland decided to begin selling cheese, ice cream, and the best butter you’re ever likely to have, Maryland did not allow on-site cheese production. The rules did not allow it so the few remaining Maryland dairy farmers who wanted to diversify had to ship their milk to Pennsylvania, have it processed there and shipped back.
In retrospect, it’s easy to call choices that don’t work out poor ones. But as food prices continue to climb, decisions made in good faith and for honest public health concerns are beginning to appear ill conceived. And the only thing worse than an ill-conceived idea is an entrenched one.
This is a fact the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (MDHMH), the state regulator of dairy products except for eggs, has accepted more rapidly than many government agencies. It has come to realize that the rules for processing dairy products in the millions aren’t reasonable to enforce for smaller producers.
To that end they initiated a pilot program that would allow some dairy farms to produce cheese onsite. The difficulty for farmers like Holland is that the up-front equipment investment combined with the fact that cheese is complicated to produce well makes the proposition a fiscally dangerous one.
Four creameries around the state have decided to give it a try, however, notably Chapel’s Country Creamery in Easton, and its experiences are informing the way Maryland might legislate to improve local sustainable production while continuing to protect public health.
This isn’t to suggest that the state has eased production requirements, only that it is working to adjust them to scale and reason.
One of the major difficulties for producers is that they are, in a way, on islands. Holland can’t make ice cream with purchased milk and his cheese-producing counterparts are under the same constraints.
According to Laurie Bucher, chief of the division of milk and dairy product safety and the MDHMH, one of the possible outcomes of the pilot program is her department might recommend that the legislature consider allowing milk produced elsewhere in the state to be used in the production of cheese. The program still has another three years worth of data to collect before the department will make its final recommendations.
During these first three years, however, the department has helped farmers make the transition to the stringent hygiene practices required for larger production and has learned that a government regulatory agency has to be flexible.
A small ice cream producer on the western shore, for example, sought permission to use a cream separator circa 1950. Bucher said that after discussion and examination, it met all the requirements and her department decided the fact that it produced in the gallons rather than in the thousands of gallons shouldn’t be a factor.
This is the breakthrough moment — although it is at the DHMH and not at the Department of Agriculture — where the regulatory agency demonstrated they were more interested in protecting public health than public policy.
It may be a while before the new laws are passed — the agribusiness lobby hasn’t weighed in with the legislature yet — the encouraging news is that there is now an official difference between, say, Chapel’s Country Creamery in Easton and Kraft peel ‘n’ eat cheese.
This kind of groundbreaking take on bureaucracy might provide the legislative incentive needed to rethink other entrenched poor choices. As prices rise and as the public’s participation increases, that incentive only increases.