WASHINGTON – From summer to fall, David Keyes and his employees pack up his trailer, hitch it to his pickup and travel to farmer’s markets in Harford County selling ice cream and cheeses made from his dairy cows’ milk.
Although going on the road is sometimes grueling and eats into family time, Keyes, 50, might expand his cheese and ice cream business, separate from his 200-acre dairy operation in Havre de Grace, because it turns a profit — a sometimes elusive goal for farmers.
What made that profit possible was a unique program from the Harford County Marketing Cooperative. Keyes was one of 14 farmers to win a grant from the group designed to help farmers move toward financial viability and independence by rewarding innovative ideas to expand their businesses.
The idea for the cooperative, in existence since 2002, came from discussions about how the county could help farmers make more money from their goods, said John Sullivan, agricultural coordinator in the county office of economic development.
Last spring, Keyes received $2,600 from the nonprofit’s pool of $25,000 and bought an ice-cream dipping cabinet and devoted some money toward advertising.
Keyes began selling cheeses made from his cows’ milk about five years ago and ventured into ice cream in 2003. The cheese is made by an Amish man in Pennsylvania; a friend in Delaware makes the ice cream.
Initially, low milk prices and the thought of maintaining economic independence and control prompted Keyes to venture into direct retail.
Keyes, who knew of one other farm selling cheese in the county, thought, “If they can do it, then we can do it to,” he said.
Although he said he’s unsure how much money he made from his ice cream and cheese this year, Keyes said he’s certain it is at least double what he could get commercially.
The $1,900 dipping cabinet Keyes bought with his grant stores three sizes of the 14 ice cream flavors he sells in 8-ounce cups, pints and quarts. He is not licensed to hand dip the ice cream, so it is sold in pre-packed containers. Keyes also sells three kinds of Colby and nine types of cheddar cheese.
Being a dairy farmer isn’t easy, said Kate Dallam, a dairy farmer and president of the cooperative’s nine-member board of directors. Typical dairy farms sell to cooperatives that work through brokers to sell their product to grocery store chains and other companies, she said. The money then is funneled in reverse order to the farmer.
“They say you can’t sell milk unless you’re selling cigarettes and gasoline,” Dallam said.
Dallam started her own cheese-making business in January 2001, and operates Broom’s Bloom Dairy, a retail store in Bel Air that sells locally-produced ice cream, cheese, vegetables and other products.
Dallam shares a kinship with fellow farmers, especially younger ones who are innovative in their grant proposals that come before the board each October.
“Sometimes all it takes is for someone to support your idea,” she said.
Among the ideas the board has considered, Dallam said, were ice cream startups, tires for a cow manure spreading business, organic farming and a semen tank for cow embryos.
Awards are announced around February, said Bill Tharpe, board vice president. Requests last year were for more than $41,000, following the recent trend toward more requests for money than there is funding available, he said.
During the last two grant cycles, $25,000 was divided among grantees, whose requests ranged from $500 to $10,000. The cooperative likely will become more discriminating in the future, Tharpe said. The organization also is looking for state and federal aid to expand its funding.
To get a grant, farmers have to commit to the new aspect of their business for three years and only use the money for it. As a precaution, the cooperative writes the checks directly to the business providing the farmer with the necessary equipment or service.
Failing to meet the requirements or closing the business before the three years is up, means any unused funds must be repaid, Tharpe said. So far, no one has reneged on the rules.
“It’s not like we’re bankrolling these ideas,” Dallam said. “When you get to the point where you’re about to sell the farm there’s not much we can do to help.”
The number of Maryland farms has steadily decreased. According to the state’s Agricultural Statistics Service, there were 12,100 farms last year, but 14,500 in 1994, a 16.5 percent decline. At the beginning of the 20th century there were 49,000 farms in Maryland. The 2002 Census of Agriculture said there were 683 farms in Harford County, fifth overall in the state.
The grants may not be much, Keyes said, but, “It’s money we didn’t have to spend ourselves. It makes a difference when you have to pay for everything yourself.”
Keyes recently bought a 40-acre farm in Aberdeen, and leases the Havre de Grace farm. If he decides to expand his ice cream and cheese business, Keyes said, he’d likely have to scale back on working with his dairy cows.
Although not economically feasible, Keyes said, “I wouldn’t mind if I could give the product away . . . it’s the kids really, I see their eyes light up and they say, ‘Ice cream.'”