Connie Surber and Laura Ginsburg's farmhouse kitchen serves as a laboratory for strange and delicious concoctions. The two women are working on a variety of ice cream flavors studded with chunks of cherry pie, spice cake or salted caramel and brownies. The leased farmhouse, which looks like a square metal box, stands in the middle of 40 acres of golden pasture pinched between the Mission Mountains to the east and the National Bison Refuge to the west. Five cows and a clutch of chickens laze about outside their back door. It's here that these two young farmers are hoping to break into the world of dairy production with a new type of business model.
"We are both super passionate about dairy and we both truly believe that small dairies can be successful today," says Ginsburg, 30. "We are really hoping that as our farm grows, we can help other beginning dairy farmers get into it."
Ginsburg and Surber, 34, are the first and only farmers to successfully use the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition's Land Link program, which connects landless farmers in the Missoula area with retiring farmers who own land they are willing to rent, lease or sell. The two women also say their small operation, called The Golden Yoke, constitutes Montana's first new cow dairy to be built from the ground up in at least 20 years.
"Connie and Laura came into the land link program with energy and enthusiasm and a solid plan for their farm," says Annie Heuscher, CFAC's land-use program manager. "The whole point of the land link program is to create opportunities for young farmers and it really did that for them."
Surber and Ginsburg opened The Golden Yoke in December 2012 and are in the process of acquiring a herd of dairy cows, obtaining state licensing and planning the construction of a milking parlor. They are also raising money through Kickstarter.com to buy an industrial ice cream maker, and eventually they hope to buy their land outright. Their plan is to turn their milk into ice cream and sell their product directly to retailers and customers.
But The Golden Yoke enters the dairy industry at a time when many farmers are struggling. Strict state regulations, high real estate prices, expensive feed and transportation costs, and a lack of enthusiasm among younger generations have hurt Montana's dairy farming. Though milk production has remained constant or even grown over the last few decades, the number of dairy farms in the state has plummeted.
The Milk Control Bureau reports that there were 204 licensed dairies in Montana in 1990. Today there are 69, says Steve Merritt, public information officer at the Department of Livestock. The statistics show an increasingly centralized industry with less space for smaller operations.
"Montana is on the verge of being considered a state without a dairy industry," says Ginsburg. "When there are so few dairies, there are very few dairy equipment suppliers, only two genetics companies, less dairy-quality feed, and everything gets more expensive."
Corvallis dairy farmer Jeff Lewis provides an example of the challenges. Until recently, Lewis raised 250 cows and produced fluid milk at his 80-acre farm. He milked year round and sent daily shipments of his product to the Darigold processing plant in Bozeman. But Lewis, who sits on Montana's Board of Livestock, sold his cows to a dairy farm in Charlo and says he is leaving the milk production business.
"One of the biggest problems farmers have is that if you look at their piece of the pie, they are getting hosed," says Lewis. "All the middle men have margins built in, but the farmer is the last guy in line and until farmers get a little more organized and get the middle men out, they will keep getting hosed."
Lewis says a major difficulty was the exorbitant price of feed, which he relied on because he did not have enough land to pasture his cows. He also had trouble finding experienced employees. And the $12,000 he paid to the state each year to have his facilities inspected didn't help his bottom line.
"If I was ever going to milk cows again," he says, "I would not do it under the same business plan."
Surber and Ginsburg hope to avoid the expenses that plague farmers like Lewis by pioneering their own alternative business model. Rather than maintain a large herd of cows and sell milk to one of three processing facilities in the state, they hope to have a maximum of 20 cows and sell their ice cream in the local area.
They plan to milk their small herd seasonally, and will maintain their cows on pasture so they do not have to rely on buying feed. Their small size will also greatly reduce the amount they pay for state inspections. And because they are not selling liquid milk, they can avoid buying a state-mandated quota, which is required for liquid milk producers in Montana.
"Small dairies used to be part of the foundation of rural communities and they are not there anymore," says Ginsburg. "We want to do our part to reverse that trend. When you have more small farms, you have more small processors and more people eating local food."
When Surber and Ginsburg get their state licensing and start milking their herd, they will be able to put their business plan to the test and see if small dairies still have a place in Montana.