Guided by The Voice’

6/22/2013 7:00 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

Md. Dairy Grows Into Diversified Farm Operation

MIDDLETOWN, Md. — On Friday the 13th in June 2001, Karen Sowers loaded freshly bottled milk into her purple Ford Explorer and delivered it to 13 customers.

Today, the Sowers family’s South Mountain Creamery, just west of Middletown, Md., has 75 full-time employees and sends up to 45 trucks loaded with milk, ice cream, prepared meals and eggs, out on the road, delivering to nearly 8,500 customers over a 23,000 square mile area covering four states and the District of Columbia.

The couple, along with their son, Ben, 32, farm 2,000 acres, 600 of which they own and keep upwards of 1,000 cows and a few beef steers.

South Mountain Creamery has grown to a fully diversified agribusiness that delivers milk the old-fashioned way and makes and markets a full range of value-added farm products.

All it took was a lot of borrowing, really hard work and a little help from a helpful voice that speaks to Randy Sowers when he’s scraping the cow barn every morning. That voice, over the years, has played a role in the family branching out into the egg business, getting out of contract farming and owning their own chickens, as well as buying another neighboring farm — the same one Randy Sowers father and grandfather grew up on sharecropping.

It’s fitting that Randy met his future wife, Karen, in the 4-H baby beef barn at the Frederick County Fair. They married in 1974. Grandparents on both sides had been dairy farmers, and both dreamed of getting back into milking. That happened in 1981 when they rented Everett Moser’s farm on Bolivar Road and borrowed the money to buy 100 milking cows. Karen Sowers continued her job as a media specialist at a local elementary school and her salary kept them afloat financially.

In 1987 the couple bought the farm and over the years have added more acres. They recently bought the 220-acre Locust Valley farm, four miles from the Bolivar Road home farm, and have added 120 cows there — and a robotic milking setup.

The business includes 17,000 laying hens, a full-fledged creamery and a retail store — it’s been there more than a decade but a few years ago was dubbed Karen’s Kountry Store. Shoppers there can fill up on ice cream (40 plus flavors), milk in glass bottles, cheese, butter, beef, chicken, pork and turkey. The family raise their own grain and hay, and when a soybean press gets going, they will produce their own soybean meal and recycle the soybean oil as diesel fuel.

But it was all about milking cows and Karen Sowers working off the farm until 1990, when “the voice” kick started the egg business.

Randy Sowers figures he’s scraped the cow barn at least 11,000 times in the last 32 years, so he’s had a lot of time to listen to his private business advisor.

A neighbor had put up a chicken house. He didn’t think much about it until one morning when he was out in the barn.

“I don’t know what it is out in that barn, why God got me out there, but there’s where I get my information. These ideas come into my head that I wasn’t even thinking about. That morning it was clear as a bell. Build a chicken house,’” he said.

Karen Sowers, recovering from thyroid cancer, jumped at the chance to leave her school job after 15 years to stay at home and work on the farm.

“If this is the way I get to stay home,” Karen Sowers said. “I’m going for it.”

But first, the couple needed to borrow more than $700,000. Randy Sowers formal education stopped after high school, but if on-the-job training counts, he’s got a Ph.D. in banking.

They got the loan after some diligent work convincing the bankers.

The Sowerses were contract farmers — first Paramount Feeds in Hagerstown and then Heritage Poultry Management Services paid them 3 cents a week per bird to take care of the chickens and collect the eggs. Karen Sowers took charge of this part of the business and at its peak, the family packed 98,000 eggs a day from 108,000 chickens.

That worked pretty well until the bottom fell out of the egg market. The contractors stopped paying bonuses and stopped paying the 3-cents-per-week- per-bird for the week or two the chicken house was empty between flocks.

“The voice” chimed in.

“This isn’t working,” is what Randy Sowers claimed it said to him one morning. “You need to put up your own chicken house.”

It took until 2010, but today the new chicken house further up the hill from the dairy — the old one is used for storage and hay — houses 17,000 of their own chickens and the whole operation is certified humane raised and handled.

The trucks deliver 70 percent of their fresh eggs as well as their milk, and the surplus goes to wholesale and to local food banks.

At about the same time a new milking parlor was being built in 1998, Ben Sowers heard about an Israeli-made milk processing set-up. He pushed his parents to get into processing their own milk instead of pumping it into a processor’s trucks. Another trip to the bank and the $1 million Pladot Mini-Dairy system was up and running — installation took four months instead of the advertised three days, but Karen Sowers made that first delivery in June 2001. At the time, South Mountain Creamery housed Maryland’s only on-farm milk processing plant.

But the family didn’t keep the Pladot system for long. Ben Sowers said the equipment caused numerous problems on the farm, mainly due to design flaws. He said parts were expensive to replace and getting technicians from Israel to come out and do a repair was too difficult.

It nearly put the creamery out of business, Ben Sowers said, so in late 2006 the system was taken out and replaced with used equipment from an updated creamery in Virginia Beach, Va.

The growth of the delivery business has been little short of phenomenal — it turns out a lot of people really do want fresh milk and eggs and want it delivered to their homes. In 2004, the creamery added its 1,000th customer; by 2007, that number was up to 2,200, and in 2009, Falls Church, Va., and Baltimore were put on the route, and the family was delivering to 3,000 customers. By 2011, South Mountain Creamery products were going to nearly 8,500 consumers.

Then a “For Sale” sign went up on the farm that Randy Sowers had farmed on. The family needed more acreage for crops, but Randy Sowers wasn’t sure. They were already carrying a lot of debt. The bank had warned that the loan for the chicken house maxed out their credit.

Randy said “the voice” chimed in again, basically saying, “Hey, stupid, buy the farm.”

The family did, along with the all-tile cow barn, which dates back to 1943. It housed the cheese enterprise.

“It was state-of-the-art in 1943,” Randy Sowers said. “Now it’s state of the art again, with the robots in here.”

Next door, two Swedish-made DeLaval Voluntary Milking Systems milk 120 cows each day, sometimes three or more times a day. The cows can drop in on the robot anytime they feel the need.

But it’s not quite the labor-saving device it is advertised, Randy and Ben Sowers agreed.

“They tell you, put this robot in and you won’t have to do anything with it,’” Randy Sowers said. But in reality, he and Ben Sowers will spend most of a day getting 20 new cows indoctrinated to the system. If a cow kicks off a milker, the robot calls Randy Sowers on his iPhone.

Randy Sowers said he spent more than $3,000 in one month bringing in outside help to keep the robots working. It is probably more cost effective to pay two employees in the milking parlor. And when he’s taking care of the robot, Randy Sowers said, he’s not doing his other jobs. But he has to respond or cows aren’t being milked. And it calls him a lot.

If you milk cows in the milking parlor — the main barn on Bolivar Road has a double-10, quick-exit herringbone that handles 20 cows at a time — Randy Sowers pointed out that a half hour later “the cows are back out, taking care of themselves. The robot calls you 24 hours a day. In the parlor, when you’re done, you’re done.”

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