Western Md. dairy farm bets future on new retail operation
WILLIAMSPORT, Md. — Brooks and Katie Long have good reason to thank the dairy industry.
They met as children in their local 4-H program. Later, dairying provided an income for the married couple as Brooks, in his 20s, took over more duties at Long Delite Farm, his family’s multi-generational Washington County dairy.
Now, they said, their future in that industry hinges on the success of a risky entrepreneurial leap.
The couple plans to launch Deliteful Dairy this spring — a 5,200-square-foot processing plant and retail store where the couple will market all kinds of milk, including flavored “craft” milks, and drinkable yogurts, cream, butter, homemade cheese, free-range eggs and homegrown meats.
The new operation is a way for the family to take greater control of their dairy operation as the industry around them flounders due to several years of low milk prices, Brooks, 35, said. Many regional dairies have either closed or liquidated their herds over the last several years as the industry consolidates and shrinks.
“This farm cannot be self-sufficient in any other (way),” he said. “There’s nothing else I could do that this farm would completely sustain a family.”
Brooks and Katie Long purchased the farm operation — minus the land — from Brooks’ father, Galen, in 2009. They milk between 60 to 70 rotationally-grazed cows. But the dream of launching a retail store for local customers had been with Brooks for about two decades, he said. He wanted to start the business in 2012, but his grandfather, Lawrence, who still owned the land, didn’t believe in the idea.
“He didn’t know how bad things had gotten,” he said.
By 2015, the financial picture had worsened, and Lawrence Long, who was 92 years old at the time, agreed to sell the land. He died on Christmas less than two days after signing the 160 acre-property away to his grandson.
The following fall, the Longs began working in earnest to launch the dairy store. Over the last two years, they’ve invested roughly $500,000 in the operation, building the store and acquiring necessary equipment, including an ice maker, walk-in coolers, a butter churn, a pasteurizer and a cream separator. It’s an investment they wouldn’t have been able to afford had the farm not already been in the family, Brooks said.
“I got the farm for a really good price — a family discount if you want to say,” he said. “If I had to pay full market value for it, I’d be bankrupt by now.”
They hired Kelsey Kidwell as their processing manager, and she and Katie attended a short course at Penn State University on cheese making in November. The course covered everything from the microbiology of cheese to the production process.
“It’s a lot science, but it’s a lot art too,” said Katie, 36.
At first, she said, the dairy will produce several cheddars, a feta, a chevre and others. She wants to develop an Old Line Cheddar flavored with Old Bay.
“That’s going to be a pretty popular cheese just because everybody in Maryland loves Old Bay,” she said.
They also plan to sell ice cream, though they won’t be making it. They’ll carry ice cream produced by Misty Meadow Farm Creamery in Smithsburg, owned by Katie’s father, David Herbst. It won’t be an ice cream parlor, however.
“I want to be more like a grocery store,” Brooks said. “The more products you have available to make it worth (customers’) while to come get here is the goal.”
They’ll have milk, cheese, cream, eggs and meat products, all produced on the farm, but they’ll also be able to fill their retail store with local food, including a bakery area.
The Longs plan to continue their 50-year relationship with the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association, but if the dairy store is successful, they’ll ideally push all their milk through the store, Brooks said.
When the couple first made the decision to move forward, Brooks said he figured they could build a retail operation and open in as few as 12 months. It took more than double that.
“Here we are in 2019, and we still haven’t sold a drop,” he said. “It’s a touchy time to go to a bank and say, ‘Hey, you want to give me half a million dollars and see if this works?’”
Local residents are excited about the store’s pending opening, he said. A Facebook page for the new business has nearly 1,000 followers.
“I think the flavor of our milk is just going to sell itself,” he said. “I think there’s a growing market of people that are willing to pay more for a premium product straight from the grower.”
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