Emerson Family Keeps Dairy Tradition Going

6/28/2014 7:00 AM
By Amber Bullock Delmarva Correspondent

MIDDLETOWN, Del. — It’s been said that a family that farms together, stays together. The Emerson family of Middletown, Del., proves that theory.

The fifth-generation dairy farm includes 200 cows and more than 2,000 acres of corn, barley, wheat and soybeans. They also do cow merchandising and have recently opened an on-farm ice cream stand.

Robert Emerson started farming by following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. His parents moved to Middletown, Del., in 1943 and purchased their first farm in 1947, where previously they had only rented land to till.

After his father died in 1955, he, along with his mother and siblings, kept the farm operating until he was able to purchase it in 1979.

Emerson and his wife of 50 years, Sarah, have four children: Lee, Denise, Beth and Loraine, along with nine grandchildren. Lee and his wife, Mandy, and children, Robbie, 25, and Laura, 22, are heavily involved in the farm.

Lee Emerson takes care of the cows, and manages the hay and straw sale business; Robbie and Robert Emerson do all the planting and mechanical equipment work; Laura, Robbie’s sister, operates the ice cream stand; and Sarah makes breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week, at the self-proclaimed home kitchen of “Sarah’s House of Pancakes.”

“We have our responsibilities, but we all help out wherever work needs to be done,” Robbie Emerson said.

Even though the Emerson sisters now work off the farm, they are still active in the business, including Beth, who is responsible for all of the accounting and book work.

Emerson Farms has seven full-time employees, all family members except for one.

“Pop’s the boss,” Robbie Emerson said. He also helps milk cows along with his grandmother, Sarah, and father, Lee.

Robbie Emerson graduated from Delaware Technical and Community College where he studied production agriculture with the intention of returning to the family farm.

The dairy portion of Emerson Farms has seen tremendous growth over the years. What initially began with about 40 cows grew to an average of 130 cows and has now reached 200 cows, which is the maximum number their facilities can milk each day.

The Emersons do not see growing beyond the 200 milking cows due to facility space and outside pressures such as housing developments.

Milk is sold to and processed by Land O’ Lakes.

The Emersons are active in showing their dairy cows at the Delaware State Fair and other national shows. For the past decade, they have been leasing cows to local 4-H and FFA members in order to help educate youth about the dairy industry. The youth leasing the cows often come out to the farm to help out as well.

The cow merchandising portion of their operation includes embryo transfers and in-vitro fertilization. This is done for the purpose of transferring the genetics of higher-quality animals.

Last year, the Emersons opened Cowgirl’s Creamery at Emerson Farms, an on-farm ice cream stand selling 22 flavors of ice cream from Woodside Farm Creamery, a local dairy farm and creamery in Hockessin, Del.

The idea began as Laura Emerson’s senior project in high school and quickly grew to a reality. One of the main reasons for starting the ice cream stand was for community outreach — to promote and explain agriculture and farming practices.

Currently, Laura Emerson manages the creamery with the help of two part-time employees. Cowgirl’s Creamery is open Thursday through Sunday and serves approximately 750-1,000 customers per week.

Since opening, the creamery has hosted farm tours for 4-H chapters and Boy Scout Clubs, and were featured at the Delaware Mud Run Jr., a charity event held earlier this month.

“This being our second year of the ice cream stand, we added additional picnic tables and fencing to make the area more established and permanent. Many customers have commented that it’s starting to look like we’re here for the long run, and they’re happy to see that,” Laura Emerson said.

She is currently a student at Wilmington University majoring in elementary education. Upon her graduation, the family hopes to expand the ice cream stand into a full creamery that will feature ice cream made on the farm from their cows’ milk.

“We have high hopes for the creamery to take off. We love being able to advocate to the public about agriculture and what we do on our farm,” Lee Emerson said.

The family plans to get more involved in agritourism in the future by offering regularly scheduled farm tours to explain their farm and agriculture to the general public.

“I’d like to expand the grain side of our operation as well, but it is difficult because those who have been renting or leasing certain land for a while aren’t willing to give it up,” Robbie Emerson said. “There is no retirement’ in farming, you just keep right on working, so it is more difficult for those of us who are younger to get our foot in the door to get started.”

With this realization in mind, Robbie Emerson has taken the initiative to purchase a farm in order to expand the operation and own land himself. He purchased a 112-acre farm in Middletown and put irrigation on it through the help of the Young Farmers Farmland Purchase and Preservation Land Program administered by the Delaware Department of Agriculture.

The loan program is designed to help young farmers acquire farmland through a long-term, no-interest loan.

“The young farmers program made it feasible and was extremely helpful for me to purchase the land, which I may not have been able to do without it,” he said.

Six years ago on a hot June day, the Emersons were faced with a tragedy that affected their dairy operation: a major barn fire. The exact cause of the fire is still unknown, but it is suspected to have been caused by either the grain elevator or something electrical near the stack wagon of straw.

The fire destroyed the free stall barn and part of the heifer barn and milking parlor. Fortunately, no animals or people were hurt.

“The support we had from friends and family was unreal. We never called anyone, but by word of mouth through the agriculture community, people started showing up to our farm. It was a reminder that there are still good people in the world,” Lee Emerson said. “Due to the community’s help, our cows were loaded up and taken to other farms throughout the state to be milked before the fire was even out.”

After the fire — with the barns and milking parlor destroyed — the family contemplated going back into dairy farming.

“It was a difficult time figuring out what to do. Robbie was still in college and all of our employees were family. It was extremely stressful,” Lee Emerson said.

“With my age, I could have gone without milking cows every day, but the rest of the family was still interested, so we decided to rebuild and carry on,” Robert Emerson said.

By August 2008, the family started rebuilding the barns and facilities. They brought back their cows for milking by Thanksgiving of that same year.

“Looking back now, we’re glad that we got back into milking because it is our family’s passion,” Lee Emerson said. “With farming, some days you’ve just had enough, but I remind myself that we love what we do and the opportunity to work with our family and be able to be around each other all the time is a luxury and a blessing.”

The true essence of being able to count on family was evident in 2010 when Robert and Sarah’s house caught fire as a result of lint being in the dryer.

Lee Emerson said his parents were in Texas when the fire started and remembers making that dreaded phone call.

“It was heartbreaking. How do you call someone and tell them they have lost everything except for what is in their bags on vacation with them?” he said.

Keeping their spirits high and with the help of family and friends, Robert and Sarah built a home in the same spot their previous house stood.

Emerson Farms still has great hopes for growth and improvement. They hope to continue <\h>expanding their grain operation and increase the merchandising of cows. The family also plans to keep up with technology and precision agriculture.

“We don’t make any individualized decisions on the farm. Everything is a group conversation. Each day we just focus on growing as a family and making the farm and ourselves better,” Lee Emerson said.

To learn more about Cowgirl’s Creamery at Emerson Farms, the on-farm ice cream stand, search “Cowgirl’s Creamery at Emerson Farms” on Facebook.

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