MECHANICSVILLE, Md. — Clover Hill Dairy began like many new dairies these days — as a life raft.
Amish farmers in Southern Maryland, well known for their thrifty resilience, were finally feeling the combined pressure of a recession and declining milk prices in 2009.
“You’re just not paying bills,” said one of the dairy’s partners — all Amish farmers — who declined to be named.
They decided to launch a unique dairy and cheese operation, which opened in 2014 and has rapidly grown into a thriving business that may have saved their small community of dairy farmers, the partners said.
The dairy has developed a close relationship with Hispanic consumers and wholesalers who buy its cuajada, queso fresco and other cheese varieties. It’s yet another example of dairy farmers discovering a future in niche markets.
“The growth has been a whole lot faster than we expected,” the partner said.
About 15 years ago, there were 30 dairy farms in Southern Maryland, said Susan McQuilkin, a marketing executive with the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission. Today there are 14 dairy farms, most of which are Amish.
After realizing their farms were struggling with milk prices that had fallen beneath the cost of production, several Amish farmers decided to take a risk and see if they could make more money by turning milk into cheese.
They didn’t realize it would take four years to get their project approved, primarily because they didn’t want it powered by the electrical grid. Though Southern Maryland’s Amish use batteries and other forms of electrical power, they don’t buy electrical service in their homes and businesses — a significant concern for regulators who would judge the safety of the new milk processing and cheese-making plant. The farmers needed help.
They found Bill Rowlands of Rowlands Sales Co. in Hazleton, Pa., about seven years ago. Rowlands designs and builds fluid processors for several food industries all over the world and had worked for Pennsylvania Amish. The Southern Maryland group had sought help elsewhere, but was turned away, Rowlands said.
The Amish wanted their dairy to run on a direct — or D.C. — current, rather than an alternating — or A.C. — current, which powers almost all homes and businesses.
“Everybody else they talked to said it was impossible,” Rowlands said. “You couldn’t do a milk pasteurizer with solely 24-volt D.C.”
Rowlands’s company figured out how to retrofit an old A.C. power system with D.C. componentry so the dairy could run on D.C. electricity, compressed air and hydraulics. The entire system is hooked up to a battery pack charged with a diesel motor.
The Amish also sought the assistance of SMADC, which worked with state regulators and former state Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton to make sure the processor followed federal and state safety requirements. Regulators were concerned that direct-current electricity could disrupt pasteurization and lead to unsafe milk, McQuilkin said.
“We had to convince the state that it could be done and that they could be held to the same standard as any other dairy,” she said.
They were approved, and the 12,000-square-foot creamery opened with a production room of two steel cheese vats capable of holding 4,000 gallons of milk. It has a finishing room, a walk-in cooler and retail space for consumers.
“As far as I know, (it’s) the only 24-volt D.C. milk pasteurizer in the United States,” Rowlands said. “It may be in the entire world. I don’t know.”
The last five years of business have been relatively charmed, the partners said. They make 25 varieties of cheese — several cheddars, Jacks and “Latin” varieties that attract Hispanic consumers from the region, many of whom were already buying fresh chickens and eggs at Amish farms in the area. Some farmers were also quietly making cheese illegally for those consumers.
“It just kind of started in a small way,” one partner said. “More and more people started coming. I don’t know where they all come from.”
Word of mouth spread to several wholesale companies, which became eager customers. The partners were able to leave the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative and push all their milk through the dairy, often for $4 to $5 more per hundredweight.
In their first year, they were making 200,000 pounds of cheese. Last year, they produced more than 800,000. In March, the creamery required so much milk — about half a million pounds — that the partners returned to their old cooperative to buy milk.
The lack of digital technology remains a challenge, McQuilkin said. For instance, the state must approve standard operating procedures for each new cheese variety.
“Everything in this dairy is handwritten and hand-done,” McQuilkin said. “That requires a lot of time, and as the rigors of the state increase, it really is a full-time job on its own. That’s the hard part: keeping on it. Record keeping.”
There have been three expansions since the dairy opened. Offices were added. More storage space was necessary to accommodate the dairy’s increasingly popular 5-gallon buckets of soft cuajada and Latin American cheese.
“We know they have a can-do attitude, and if they have to, they will get the job done,” McQuilken said.
It’s a success story in an industry with fewer of them each year.
“It turned out better than we expected, but it’s a huge, huge investment,” one partner said.