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Young Md. farmers provide hope for dairy industry

WALKERSVILLE  — Phillip Thompson and his girlfriend Lauren Tickard will begin their careers as dairy farmers in the fall.

“It’s what I know and love and it’s been my dream since I was a kid,” Thompson said.

The young farmers, both 21, will begin to milk 70 cows in Union Bridge.

The dwindling numbers of dairy farms, fluctuating milk prices and high operation costs have caused some older farmers to lament the industry’s fate, saying it would be near impossible for young people to start a farm today.

But some youngsters in Frederick County, such as Thompson and Tickard, are bucking the trend.

“It wasn’t easy getting a loan,” Thompson said. “Farm Credit (Agency) wouldn’t lend us the money. They said it was too much risk for a startup farmer.”

Starting the operation was possible thanks to a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, Thompson said.

Andrew and Matt Toms, both in their 20s, have each independently begun a dairy operation on farms that adjoin Walkersville.

“These farms serve as greenbelts and give me hope for both the dairy industry and maintaining the small town milieu rather than being swallowed up by Frederick,” said Suzan Thompson, a Walkersville resident who volunteers many hours annually, grooming future farmers.

“I know of a number of young people involved in the industry,” Suzan Thompson said. “One thing most people don’t comprehend is that the amount of knowledge dairy farmers need to know is astronomical.”

Today’s dairy farmers need to be versed in genetics, nutrition, obstetrics, medication administration, profit margins, economies of scale, cattle appraisal, crops, mathematics and more, Thompson said.

And even though there are fewer cows in Frederick County, they provide a lot more milk than those of the past thanks to newer feeding and management techniques, Thompson said.

Middletown farmers Chris and Jamie Derr, 26 and 28 years old respectively, will begin their dairy business in October.

He has been working on other people’s dairy farms his entire life, Chris Derr said, and he wants to continue the family tradition of dairy farmers.

“It’s a way of life I want my son to grow up in. There’s lots of benefits to growing up on a farm,” Chris Derr said. “It’s an expensive endeavor but we’re in a situation where we have family and resources to help.”

Starting a dairy farm without his family’s help would have been impossible, Chris Derr said.

Curtis Rhoderick graduated from Virginia Tech in 2010 with a degree in dairy science and a minor in agriculture and applied economics. He works full time as a self-employed cattle fitter, clipping dairy cows for shows or sale.

Rhoderick’s job takes him to three states and as far away as Texas and Wisconsin but he doesn’t intend to continue the work after three to five years.

“At some point, I want to own a dairy operation, depending on what opportunities are presented to me,” Rhoderick said. “I definitely wouldn’t leave the industry, maybe a dairy management position with a larger dairy operation.”

Even though there’s interest in milking cows among young people, the career comes with challenges, Rhoderick said.

Farmers should accentuate the positive

Frederick County’s dairy farmers are known nationally for producing top quality embryos and semen that are marketed to Japan and other international markets, and farmers aiming for these markets don’t have to milk 2,000 cows to make a profit, Suzan Thompson said.

“I’ve been attending the World Dairy Expo in (Wisconsin) for the last several years and surprisingly, the dairy farmers across the country have a different view of our county,” Suzan Thompson said. “When we tell them where we’re from they all know exactly where we’re from and can name off any number of farms with high quality cattle.”

Local farmers often discuss the negative aspect of the dairy industry, Suzan Thompson said.

“Most farmers will give you a dismal view (of the industry) because I sort of think they want to discourage young people or fear competition,” Suzan Thompson said. “Or, they feel it’s bad luck to say things are good.

“Have you ever heard a farmer talk about the times milk prices have gone up? I know several farmers who started back up when this happened. They also talk the same way about the weather — it’s always too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry,” Thompson said.

The public can help maintain the industry by checking the label of every dairy product and boycotting everything that lists milk protein concentrate as an ingredient, Thompson said.

“This is a dried protein from China that is imported and added to make more money for large corporations, with cheese and yogurt being the most commonly adulterated products,” Thompson said.

Thompson said she has been on a soapbox about milk protein concentrate for years.