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Florida dairy trending toward large farms, fewer operations

Editor’s note: As part of our series, “From Cow to Curd: A Look Across the Nation,” Cheese Market News takes a look at the cheese and dairy industry across the United States. Each month we examine a different state or region, looking at key facts and evaluating areas of growth, challenges and recent innovations. This month we are pleased to introduce our latest state — Florida.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Florida may not have a large number of dairy farms, but its dairy farms generally have large numbers of cows, with the average herd size well over 1,000.

Currently there are around 80 permitted dairy farms in Florida, producing roughly 2.5 billion pounds of milk annually. Florida also is home to 21 Grade A milk processing plants and eight cheese manufacturing facilities, according to Florida Dairy Farmers, which promotes the sale of milk and other dairy products by communicating to Florida’s diverse population of 21.3 million residents and more than 105 million domestic and 11 million international tourists that visit the state each year.

“As the third most populous state in the country, Florida’s dairy industry is ripe with opportunity because of the sheer volume of new consumers that flood into the state each year,” says Brian Chapman, director of industry relations, Florida Dairy Farmers. “The demand for fresh, local milk in large markets like Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa and Orlando will continue to necessitate dairy production in the state.”

• Dairies declining

Heat and humidity can be hard on dairy herds, though Florida’s climate does offer advantages such as an extended growing season for many of the forages cows eat, Chapman notes.

“The cows in Florida consume many byproducts of other industries that thrive in the state such as leftover citrus pulp and brewers’ grain from distilleries, reinforcing the important role dairy farmers play in environmental sustainability and protecting our state’s precious natural resources,” he adds.

The number of dairy farms in Florida has gradually declined due to several factors, including volatile milk prices, labor shortages, rising land values and feed costs, and there has been some farm consolidation, Chapman says. According to the most recent USDA data, there were 118,000 head of milk cows in Florida in November 2018, down from 124,000 head a year earlier.

Florida is largely a fluid milk market, and the state’s largest dairy processor is T.G. Lee, owned by Dean Foods. T.G. Lee has two milk plants in the state — one in Orlando that processes more than 230,000 gallons of milk per day, and another in Orange City, Florida, that processes 100,000 gallons of milk, juice and other drinks per day. T.G. Lee also distributes a full line of cultured products, cream, butter, eggs and Mayfield ice cream throughout Florida.

Two-thirds of Florida’s total farms and approximately 75 percent of the state’s milk are represented by Southeast Milk Inc. (SMI), which was created in 1998 by the merger of two Florida dairy cooperatives, Florida Dairy Farmers’ Association and Tampa Independent Dairy Farmers’ Association Inc. Today SMI, based in Belleview, Florida, represents farmers mainly in Florida and Georgia, as well as members in Alabama, South Carolina Mississippi and Louisiana. The largest concentration of Florida’s milk is in Okeechobee County in the southern part of the state, while there is another concentration in the northwest.

Travis Senn, market analyst, SMI, notes that like other parts of the country, the Southeast and Florida have struggled through recent years of low milk prices, as well as ongoing challenges like the lack of a next generation willing to take over farms and rising land values.

“The number of milking cows has decreased 30,000 head over the last 20 years, and over 80 licensed herds in the state have closed since 2004, according to USDA data,” he says.

“Urban encroachment continues to buy up agricultural land for developing properties, as more and more people continue to add on to Florida’s population of over 20 million. Climate continues to put pressure on producers here, especially during the summer months.

Hurricanes have ravaged rural areas each of the last two years as well.”

Cheryl Wainwright Finney, whose family owns Wainwright Dairy & Creamery in Live Oak, Florida, has seen dairies in the state dwindle since she was a child on the farm her parents started in the 1960s.

“There are very few dairies left in Florida. When I was a child, we went to school with countless other people who grew up on dairies.

That was their livelihood,” she says. “It’s not the case anymore. The majority of them have closed down ... if they stayed in business, they had to become a mega-dairy.”

• Farmstead cheeses

Wainwright Dairy took a different path to keeping the business sustainable for future generations. In the 1990s, founder Carl Wainwright set out to make the farm more self-sustaining by growing its own non-GMO feed, and he later started plans to build an on-farm creamery. Wainwright Dairy eventually started bottling milk and making cheese in 2009, and Finney says her family’s products have been growing in quality and quantity ever since.

“If the family didn’t know to put in cheesemaking equipment early on, it might have been too late by the time we knew the market was not coming up,” Finney says. “My dad had the wisdom and vision and knew what we needed to do.”

Wainwright Dairy & Creamery maintains about 300 cows — very small compared to most Florida dairies — and sells its non-GMO milk, chocolate milk, kefir and several varieties of cheeses throughout the state.

“Coffee shops love our milk,” says Finney, who manages creamery operations.

For cheeses, Wainwright Dairy offers Cheddar in various sharpness levels, Colby, Pepper Jack with Chipotle and ghost pepper varieties, Baby Swiss, and a seasonal specialty cranberry Cheddar.

Nancy and John Mims, owners of another farmstead cheese operation, Cypress Point Creamery in Hawthorne, Florida, also started value-added processing as a means to help keep their small dairy profitable. Nancy’s parents, third-generation dairy farmers from Wisconsin, started the dairy when they moved to Florida, and the Mims later purchased the dairy from Nancy’s mother.

“The cheese business came along because we felt like we had very little control over what we were being paid for our milk,” Nancy Mims says. “We made our first cheese in March of 2010. We do European-style cheeses — Gouda, Havarti, Feta, Tomme and a Swiss, and we’re just starting to play around with a Camembert.”

Most of the milk from the herd of about 120 Jersey cows still goes to their co-op, SMI, and about 10-15 percent is used in the cheese plant. The cheese is handled by two distributors out of Orlando, and it is served at resorts and restaurants in the state, including at Disney World.

Mims says she sees interest in local cheeses, though there are not a lot of cheesemakers in the state.

“Florida has a totally different mindset when it comes to milk production. It’s mainly about producing a lot of milk and selling it as fluid milk,” she says. “Historically, Florida has not been able to produce enough fluid milk for its own consumption. But that’s changed, and now there is too much. A lot of smaller dairies wish they had looked into (value-added products) earlier.”

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