A love of farming keeps WNC’s small dairy producers going

PASSION FOR THE JOB: Bart Ramsey works 80-hour weeks on his Fairview dairy farm, but, he says, there's nothing else he'd rather do. Photo by Leslie Boyd

Bart Ramsey didn’t have to take over the family business, but there was something about dairy farming that drew his heart to it.

The 80-hour workweeks may be exhausting to some, but Ramsey loves the challenge, being outdoors and making a living selling milk, despite the challenges. “He could’ve been anything he wanted, but he wanted this,” says his father, Roy Ramsey.

The family, which includes Roy’s brother, former state representative and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey, has been in the dairy business in Fairview for more than 80 years, and Bart Ramsey is happy to recite the family’s history — and the challenges it has faced as industrial farming has forced prices down.

“It’s hard to compete with the big producers,” Ramsey says. “If it weren’t for government [price] controls, the big farmers would undersell all of us smaller farmers, and there would be no more family’s farms.”

The equipment used to milk cows, pasteurize the milk and bottle it is expensive, Ramsey says, and most small farmers can’t afford it, so they sell to processing plants like Milkco in Asheville, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Ingles Markets.

Cooperative approach

Until June, the 121 producers in Western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, southwest Virginia and the Upstate in South Carolina, sold to Milkco through an agent. But the group found it would be more economical to form a milk-producing cooperative and sell as a single entity, and so the Southern Appalachian Dairy Cooperative was formed, with Bart Ramsey as one of its founding directors.

Most of the milk producers in the region are as small as Ramsey Farm, producing about 1,300 to 1,700 gallons a day, which is too little to fill a milk tanker truck. The producers in the co-op can bargain more effectively while not spending so much money on operating costs, such as bottling equipment and tanker trucks, that they can’t stay in business.

There’s an economy of scale, says Bradley Johnston, who owns Mills River Creamery. When you have fewer than 50 cows producing milk, as he does, you need a minimum of three employees. But if you have 180 cows, you can also get by with three employees.

“You can buy in bulk, so you spend less per cow than you do on a smaller scale,” Johnston says. “On a per-cow basis, it can cost twice as much to operate a small farm.”

Johnston’s grandfather, Samuel Irving Johnston, bought land in Avery’s Creek a century ago and began selling milk directly to the community. He had a small farm, but his four sons all wanted to follow him into the business.

“You can’t support four families on 80 cows,” he says. “You have to have more.” So, the farm grew, eventually to 1,200 cows.

Four years ago, Johnston bought land in Mills River, and in November 2016, he started milking cows. Rather than join a co-op or sell to Milkco, he decided to buy bottling equipment (which can cost $1 million or more) and sell to the community.

“This area is one of the best places in the country to do this, because you have a community that’s willing to pay a little more to buy directly from the farm,” he says. “I felt like there was a market, and so far, I’m right.” But the market won’t bear 121 farmers all trying to sell to the community, he says.

The new cooperative sells its milk to Milkco, which bottles it for Ingles Markets under the Laura Lynn brand. “I’ll be honest,” Ramsey says. “If it weren’t for Ingles, most of us would probably be out of business.”

Close to home

Ramsey Farm has 350 milk cows, some of which are breeding and milking stock, some of which are too young to produce milk, and there are also a few bulls.

“We artificially inseminate most of our cows,” Ramsey says. Artificial insemination is safer for the cows, since there is a risk of injury when they breed out in the fields. Still, some of the cows do breed with the bulls, either before they’re artificially inseminated or if they don’t become pregnant following artificial insemination.

Ramsey's Holstein cows.
MOO CREW: Pictured are a few of the Holstein cows at Ramsey Farm in Fairview. North Carolina is home to 45,000 milk cows, mostly black-and-white Holstein and brown Jersey. Photo by Leslie Boyd

Brittany Whitmire of the Appalachian Sustainable Agricultural Project says Western North Carolina has 35 dairies, most of which are members of the new cooperative and have been sending milk to Milkco since the mid-1960s, when the plant was called Sealtest. It sold to Ingles in 1982 and became Milkco.

Most of the raw milk supply for Milkco comes from dairy farms within a 150-mile radius, and the finished products ship locally to retailers who carry familiar brands like Laura Lynn and Sealtest, as well as retailers throughout the Southeast, she says.  “That means that most of the milk in those plain plastic jugs that are ‘store brand’ milk can easily be considered local.”

Leah McGrath, Ingles corporate dietitian, thought placing signs at some of the dairy farms might help customers know that the grocery chain buys its milk locally and that the store brand is a local product usually on the shelves within 48 hours of being produced. While Mills River Creamery can get its milk on store shelves within 24 hours, it has the same shelf life as Ingles milk.

North Carolina is home to 45,000 milk cows, mostly black-and-white Holstein, which is the breed at Ramsey Farm. The next most common breed is the brown Jersey, most of which are descended from the herd at Biltmore, as are the cows at Mills River Creamery.

Most of the 175 dairy farms in the state are family-owned and -operated. Each cow produces an average of 8.1 gallons of milk per day — a total production in 2017 of just more than 952 million pounds, according to NC Dairy Facts.

Most of the milk from North Carolina is consumed as fluid milk. “Interestingly, many consumers don’t fully understand the differences in the milk options they see in the dairy case, especially when it comes to fat,” says Whitmire. “For starters, whole milk contains 3.25 percent milk fat by weight, which is much less than some people think.”

Reduced-fat milk, which contains 2 percent milk fat by weight, followed by low-fat milk (1 percent) and skim have relatively more fat removed before bottling, she continues. But the nine essential nutrients found in real milk — including calcium and protein — are included in all of the options, from whole to skim.

Cash cows

Dairy is a big contributor to the economy in Western North Carolina. Some 6,550 jobs are directly related to milk production, processing (including fluid milk, cheese, butter and ice cream) and the distribution and sale of those products.

Statewide, dairy supports 28,058 jobs with an economic impact of $2.85 billion dollars, according to Dairy Delivers. Include the total economic impact of dairy produced, distributed and sold in North Carolina, and the total jumps to $10.7 billion.

“Those figures are really large, so when you think of what the average dairy cow in America contributes to her community, it’s about $22,000 per cow,” she says.

Dairy farmers also grow much of their own silage of hay, corn and alfalfa, and the weather can wreak havoc on the crops. This year, because of the deluge in the last two weeks of May, Ramsey had to replant almost all of his corn. “If it hadn’t been that early in the season, we wouldn’t have been able to replant,” he says.

A lack of rain can mean less nutritious grass — and less grass. A midseason drought can mean only one hay crop, and that means less food for the winter. A single thunderstorm with hail can destroy a field of corn in minutes.

“Dairy farmers are resilient,” Whitmire says.  “Low prices, uncertainty in markets and tight margins are not unfamiliar to any farmer, including dairy producers. In reality, the gamblers in Las Vegas don’t hold a candle to farmers who go to work every day and risk bad weather, natural disasters, constantly changing consumer preferences, rising input costs, volatile output prices, etc.”


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