Through Transition and Expansion,Dairy Farmers Keep Positive Attitude

11/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Rick Hemphill Maryland Correspondent

SMITHSBURG, Md. — Fall brings the busy time of harvest to family farms. This keeps combines grinding away, along with a rush to finish up the last cutting of hay. At Misty Meadows Farm Creamery, there is the added stress of hundreds of school-age children scampering out of yellow buses to get their first glimpse of farm animals and take that hayride tour of a working family dairy farm.

“We get two or three thousand kids to come see the farm,” said David Herbst, the second generation on the farm located just south of the Mason-Dixon Line. “This time of year we have the corn maze and the pumpkins. We try to limit it to a few weeks each spring and fall to keep things under control.”

The creamery offers fresh ice cream using milk from the family dairy, which is supplemented by additional purchases of cream.

“The ice cream maker we bought is from Italy,” Herbst said, explaining the smooth texture of his product. “It was more expensive, but we picked it after tasting the ice cream and it does a great job with lower butterfat. I enjoy the fact that we are using our product, value-adding it and selling it directly to the public.

“They are getting something that is fresh and local and we are doing very well,” he added.

The farm has started selling its product at farmers markets.

“We make a lot of money vending at them, but they have a lot of set up and travel,” he said. “We have to decide if we want to get bigger or stay a small family operation.”

The Herbsts have been farming here since 1918.

“The home farm was 50 acres that dad bought from grandpap and we milked from a pan milker in the bank barn,” he said with a smile.

Making and selling ice cream is a full-time business that keeps David Herbst, his wife Betsy, their daughter Kimberly West, and several employees very busy seven days a week. After opening the creamery, David Herbst turned over the daily farming operation to his son, Andrew Herbst; his daughter, Jeni Malott; and their families.

“I never dreamed that when we opened the doors of the creamery that I would go cold turkey on dairy farming,” David Herbst said, acknowledging the dramatic change and reorganization that’s occurred during the last two years. “I figured I would be out on the farm some and I would be in the creamery some, but once we got started it was all we could do to keep the creamery running. My wife Betsy and I did it ourselves for the first six or eight months and these guys just picked up and ran with the farm.

“We all knew Jeni was going to do the cows from the time she was knee high to a grasshopper,” he added. “And Andrew had gone to school to be a mechanic, so we knew he liked to work on machinery and stuff, so mom and dad got pushed out to the creamery.”

Even though David Herbst still likes cows, milking cows started taking its toll on his body.

“When Jeni went to college, it was me, 12 or 14 milkings a week, and after about six months of that, it was just too much physically. I toughed it out for four years but I just can’t keep up that pace anymore,” he said.

David and Betsy Herbst have four children. Like many other farm families planning a transition to the next generation, it hasn’t been easy.

“Katie is married and lives on a dairy farm in Williamsport. Jeni and Andrew are here on the farm and Kimberly is working hard at the creamery. They are all married now and having children,” David Herbst said. “We spent five or six years looking at different things including ice cream and milk and the creamery aspect of it. We needed to expand the financial base and we looked at herd numbers. One of the options was to increase the herd to 600 cows, but Jeni was against that, so we had to explore other options and when we decided that it was time to do something, we opened this creamery.”

Justin Malott married Jeni in 2006. The pair have three girls, Vivian, 15 months; Jillian, 4; and Addison, 6.

“I have been dairy farming since I married my wife,” Justin Malott said with a smile. “I help milk the cows and do all the crop work with my brother-in-law Andrew. Things switched quickly in 2011 because David didn’t have time to do both.”

“I have been milking since I was 4,” Jeni Malott said proudly. “I am the herdsman and I take care of the cows.”

The farm includes 700 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat. It provides all of the forage and feed for the cows, say for a few minerals that are bought in.

“I think we have increased profitability. We are milking 9,500 pounds a day on 136 cows. We were milking 160 cows, so the number of cows went down, but the milk picked up and the bulk tank stayed the same,” Justin Malott said. “We participate in the soil conservation program and we plant cover crops over the winter to make sure something is actively growing.”

Dividing responsibilities up on the farm has had its ups and downs.

“I wouldn’t say milking cows is my least favorite thing. I enjoy running the machinery and Jeni does most of the milking. I do three-quarters of most of the mornings and she does the afternoons,” he said.

The pair’s middle daughter, Jillian, often helps mom during evening milkings.

“When they are less than 3, you are just chasing them, don’t touch that, don’t get into that, get back here, where are you going, where are you.’ Having the creamery is good because they will watch the baby while I milk in the evening or when I am doing stuff that is dangerous around the farm,” Jeni Malott said.

There have been many change on the farm over the last two years. Heifer facilities have been updated and three manure pits and two dry stack manure facilities were put in to give the farm six months of manure storage.

“The dairy barn is a slatted floor barn with a square pit underneath and another liquid manure pit will pick up the runoff in the yard,” Justin Malott said.

Andrew Herbst said his father and grandfather have always worked with the local soil conservation district on environmental issues and the farm has since gone 100 percent no-till.

“We strip-crop because we have rolling acres. We try to be a flagship so that people can come by and see that we do care about the land and the environment,” he said. “We build manure structures that absolutely catch any rain that falls on any hard surface and all that manure is caught or captured in a storage pit until the field can receive it. We even have a piece of our ground that we took out of our production and planted with trees to create a wildlife refuge. We thought it was a good thing to do, so we did it.”

All forage is stored in bunkers. Justin Malott jokes the silos were taken down because of Andrew’s fear of heights. But Jeni Malott said having the bunkers has made life easier.

“It is so much easier and faster to take forage out of a trench than a silo,” she said. “When you have a silo, the unloader breaks down, you have to climb up there to fix it, and it just takes a whole lot longer. With the trench, you run in there with the skid loader, you pick it up with the bucket.”

“The down side is that you have more surface area exposed in a bunker and you don’t get a hole in a silo,” Justin Malott said. “There are ups and downs to both.”

Running two separate farm operations between four families is bound to create some friction. Jeni Malott said she misses the days when the entire family would sit together for two meals a day.

“Now that we are two separate businesses, we are lucky to sit down together one or two meals a week. Communication is harder. The businesses are overlapped, so they need each other, but they are also separate so they have their different things going on,” she said.

David Herbst said running the business has become more complicated over time.

“I grew up dealing with cows and crops and that is where I am comfortable,” he said. “I knew that this would be one of our weaknesses as we didn’t have experience in communication and employees. I was the only son so that was easy in my day.”

Justin Malott agrees.

“We don’t schedule like we should. Somebody just yells when they need extra help and that doesn’t always fit someone else’s schedule,” he said. “They have three groups coming tonight and no one told us. The creamery knew, but the farm didn’t. I’ve already planned my day and that wasn’t in the plan.”

But Jeni Malott keeps a positive attitude.

“We always make it work. We may get the milking done early to help with the tours. Every family business has their arguments,” she said.

Andrew Herbst said most people visiting the farm are surprised with what they see.

“We are not the farmers most people expect to see,” he said. “We are young and we have to know a lot of things to be a good farmer.”

Answering questions from the public can be exasperating.

“People want to know if we are organic and I say, no, because I care too much about my cows,’” Jeni Malott said. “My cows are like my family and you’re telling me that if she gets pinkeye I should kill her or send her to auction because it is highly contagious and I can’t treat her organically? So how fair is that when with one injection of antibiotic it’s done?

Interacting with the public gives the family a chance to set the record straight about what truly happens on farms.

“The amount of cows on a dairy farm that get antibiotics is tiny and if they do get a shot, their milk is dumped and not used,” she said. “People think we are injecting them with crazy stuff and that is not true.”

“The biggest problem with the public is that there is a lot of perception that agriculture is negative,” Andrew Herbst said. “We just want to be out there as a positive voice for farming. You have to know a farmer and go to them and ask them what the stuff is about.”

Even though he’s young, Justin Malott still thinks about the challenge of transitioning the farm to his own children as he watches his 15-month-old daughter frolic across the paddock.

“Our challenge is the next transition through generations. It has already been passed to us and we are the third generation. There is going to be the challenge of who wants to do what and how we are going to support the fourth generation. I guess we will just have to see what the kids want to do in the next 10 years,” said.

David Herbst said he’s committed to keeping his family on the farm.

“Everybody is going to be different and you have to look and find out where your niche is,” he said. “I don’t think commodity farming is going to compete with the guys in the Midwest, what with all the regulations we have here now. We have looked at people as a problem for years and years and now we have to turn that problem into an asset. We have to make use of it and sell direct to them. That is going to be the future of agriculture here in Maryland and the tristate area. Selling direct to the consumer, whatever you are doing.”

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