Iconic Dairy Herd’s Dispersal Paves Way for Transition

9/28/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

CONESTOGA, Pa. — The dairy farm long associated with ice-cream and iced-tea maker Turkey Hill is no more.
Frey Dairy Farms, which was a separate entity from the manufacturer but was founded by members of the same family, held a complete dispersal Sept. 18-19 as part of the Frey family’s transition plan.
The dairy farm’s 75 acres on Turkey Hill, a scenic Susquehanna River bluff, are adjacent to both Turkey Hill Dairy and Frey Farm Landfill, owned by the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority.
The authority bought the farm on Dec. 31, 2012, for $2.65 million, according to Lancaster Newspapers. The landfill leased the acreage back to the Freys for 18 months to give the family time to move its operations to its 300 remaining acres on the other side of River Road.
Tom Frey, the owner-operator of the farm since 1987, explained the reason for dispersing his well-known herd of more than 800 cows:
“I’m ready to slow down,” he said, “and I’ve got a son-in-law who wants to keep farming, but not cows.”
Many people were surprised to hear that Frey was selling the operation, but Frey said that as he got older, he thought the time was right to pass the farm on to his farm manager, Tracy Martin, who is married to Ruth, the third of Frey’s five daughters.
While plans for the future operation are still tentative, Martin is looking at raising turkeys — an appropriate choice given the new farm site’s proximity to Turkey Hill.
Frey plans to continue working for Martin, just at a slower pace than before. The family also has several hundred acres of rented land to work with.
Frey said family turmoil, which ruins many family farms, did not contribute to the decision to disperse.
“I don’t think there was really any problem, except we wanted to make a change,” he said.
As for the sale, “it went very smoothly,” he said. “The hard part was getting (the cows) on the right truck to leave.”
Total gross receipts from the sale, which included equipment as well as livestock, added up to more than $1.1 million.
Frey said his cows were a “very good grade herd,” as opposed to a registered herd.
According to The Cattle Exchange, the auction company handling the dispersal, the average sale price for the 481 milking cows was $1,315, while the 130 dry cows averaged $1,310 and the 168 heifers averaged $1,288.
The landfill was interested in buying the neighboring farm because it likes to have buffer areas around its land, not because it necessarily wants to expand the landfill, Frey said.
The fate of the many barns on the sold land is unclear, as “it’s not uncommon” for the landfill to leave buildings standing for years after acquiring properties, he said.
Turkey Hill Dairy might want some of the land, too, he said.
Several of the farm’s 15 employees will be sticking around to help with the new venture, though others will be leaving.
“I’m going to be here as long as the cows are,” Caitlin Stoltz, the herd manager, said.
After that, she is departing for Mason Dixon Farms in Gettysburg to work with robotic milking.
Stoltz had been the herd manager at Frey Dairy Farms for three years and had only been in dairy for four or five years before that. Around age 20 she switched to dairy from produce to get year-round work.
Stoltz got familiar with dairy partly through Mason Dixon, which she visited during an environmental studies class at Gettysburg College. She graduated from Gettysburg with degrees in history and Spanish. She even started graduate school in New York City, but she left to work in the field she had always returned to over her school breaks.
“I just always did what I wanted to do,” she said. “It doesn’t pay the most, but it’s what I enjoy.”
The transition and sale period has been “an adventure,” Stoltz said.
“This is my first cow sale, let alone where I know the cows,” she said.
She was sad to see the animals go, especially one in particular, but “you can’t get too attached,” she said.
Stoltz enjoyed seeing the good points of the cows she worked with being celebrated as they were offered for sale. It was interesting for her to see what people paid for the animals and to see price tags put on all of the farm equipment, calf hutches and milk bottles she had used for years.
At the dairy’s peak, Stoltz and her staff milked 716 cows and produced 50,000-55,000 pounds of milk a day. All of the milk went to Turkey Hill Dairy, though Turkey Hill uses much more milk than what the Freys were providing.
“Hopefully, they’ll be able to keep making ice cream,” she joked.
After the sale was announced, production decreased as the workers culled some of the weaker cows to ensure the feed would last until the sale.
The remaining silage and ryelage were auctioned off on the second day of the sale just before the heifers.
Frey Dairy Farms was not immune to the effects of low milk prices and had to sell its milking herd once before, in 2009, just before Stoltz arrived.
According to Lancaster Newspapers, the farm also sold 51 acres to the landfill that year to make room for wind turbines.
Now, though, the cows are going for good.
“It’s been a good place for me to learn,” Stoltz said.
Terry Martin, Tracy Martin’s brother, worked at the dairy farm as a feeder for the past three years after 11 years in the insulation business.
Terry Martin came to work for his brother after the insulation company closed, and “now we’re going out of business again,” he said.
He does not have a job lined up. “I’m just unsure of the future, you know,” he said.
Terry Martin spoke of the farm as a good place to work that provided generous notice about the workforce reduction.
“It was kind of a shock when we found out,” he said.
“It’s strange” to not have a full barn, he said on the second day of the sale. The roughly 600 milk cows sold on the first day.

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