Shrinking craft dairy’ stays positive, diversifies

6/21/2014 7:00 AM

Michael Short

Delaware Correspondent

REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. — For 14 generations, Nelson Warren’s family has tilled this land.

Almost in the shadow of Rehoboth Beach and its thousands of summer tourists, the Rehoboth Dairy and Rustic Acres Farm Market continues to thrive.

Hundreds of outlet stores, six lanes of Route 1 traffic and Delaware’s “Gold Coast” are within walking distance of this quiet dairy farm nestled on a dead-end road.

At one time, it was a large farm with 200 head of dairy cattle. “Now, it’s 15 acres and my brother and me,” he said. The dairy herd numbers about 11 cows.

The Warrens are looking to grow the milking herd and have an additional 30 calves and heifers.

“You won’t see a smaller dairy farm,” he said. “(But our response) has been overwhelmingly positive. I enjoy the response and the support.

“You’ve heard of craft breweries. This is a craft dairy,” he said.

The farm may have shrunk in size, but it is carving out a niche for itself in an area where few dairy farms remain. Warren and his family grow vegetables and sell them fresh in the farm market.

Warren works the farm with his brother Nathaniel. His parents and uncle also help in what is almost completely a family-run farm. The only exception are some of the staff in the farm market.

The loss of much of the family land has not been an easy pill for the family to swallow. But at a time when many young farmers are leaving the business, Warren, 28, decided to push on and he believes the future is promising.

That decision was partly because it has always been his family’s business and partly because he still believes he has options. “My family has always raised cows. There have always been cows here,” he said.

“I live in an area surrounded by people. Eighty thousand people come here. If I can get even just a fraction of them to come to the market,” he said believing there was marketing opportunity.

Four years ago, Warren opened the market to take advantage of the movement toward healthier eating and consumers knowing more about farmers and the food they purchase. “There really wasn’t a demand for value added products in 1997 ... But there has been a groundswell.”

The cattle are grass-fed and no artificial hormones are used. The milk is sold in glass bottles, which customers pay a deposit on.

The milk is pasteurized and bottled right on the farm, making it Delaware’s only licensed on-farm milk processor.

Warren says the milk is different from what is sold at the store because it’s produced, processed and sold at the farm.

The farm also features Amish baked goods, butter, cheeses, beef jerky by the slice, free-range brown eggs, hand-dipped ice cream from Chesapeake Bay Farms, meats from Haass Butcher Shop in Dover, or the briskets, kielbasa, burgers and ribs that Warren’s father smokes himself.

This fall, he plans to introduce a line of eggnog made from only fresh eggs, milk and cream.

Besides the farm market, he plans to open a produce wagon on Route 1 to sell the broccoli, tomatoes, sweet corn, Swiss chard, cauliflower, cabbage, zucchini and a myriad of other vegetables to tourists on their way to the beach. “I planted 16 rows of sweet corn. My father said I was planting too much, but I told him that I have to feed the deer as well,” Warren joked.

Warren also raises hay at other locations, tilling some 35 acres in all. To help makes ends meet, he cleans beaches of trash.

Warren can be found on Friday afternoons at the local farmers market in Milton. One of his best customers sells his wares at the Rehoboth Beach Farmers Market.

There is a “Support Local Cows” flyer on the front door of the farm market and a cowbell on the counter. If the staff steps out for just a moment, ring the bell for service.

It’s a niche market relying on farm-fresh products and milk that may have been grass earlier that morning.

Warren knows many of the customers by name. He and his family and staff take time to explain the farm and how it works to visitors.

He even knows their favorite flavors of ice cream. “I wouldn’t even say our customers are customers,” he said. “These people are friends.

“You are looking now at four generations of people alienated from how their food is produced ... (For our customers), it is basically like coming home.”

Rustic Acres Farm Market and Rehoboth Dairy are located at 37217 Rustic Acres Lane, turn off Route 1 onto Glade Road just north of Rehoboth Beach, Del.


Is the EPA being unrealistic in its timeline to reduce farm runoff into the Chesapeake Bay?

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11/28/2014 | Last Updated: 4:00 PM