Kentucky, Tennessee hope to slow dairy decline, up interest

Editor’s note: In 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 states— Kentucky and Tennessee.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Though far from being major dairy states, Kentucky and Tennessee are in some ways ideal settings for dairy farms. Both have four seasons that don’t get lasting cold spells or extended heat or drought like other parts of the country. A long growing season and adequate rainfall allow many farmers to grow their own inputs, and major population centers provide plenty of demand.

“Historically, Tennessee was a large state for dairy production,” says Jessica Carter, director and professor of animal science, Middle Tennessee State University School of Agriculture.

Carter notes that like many states, Tennessee has lost a number of dairy farms in the last few years due to loss of milk contracts and low milk prices. Currently there are 189 dairy farms in Tennessee (184 cow dairies) and 29 licensed dairy processing facilities, according to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. USDA reports Tennessee milk production was 634 million pounds in 2018, down 8.5 percent from 2017. General Mills has a major Yoplait plant in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, while the recently-bankrupt Dean Foods processes milk and ice cream at Purity, Country DeLite and Mayfield facilities in the state. Minnesota-based Bongards’ Creameries also has a cheese plant in Humboldt, Tennessee. However, Carter says some of the local processors bring in milk from elsewhere.

“Tennessee is pretty big in the processing area, but we have farms here locally that are unable to access (much of) that market. They bring milk in from farms from other states,” she says, adding that infrastructure also has declined and fluid milk prices haven’t increased much for farmers over the past several years. “It’s been a good region for dairy production. Farmers would like to get back into business if they have the market.”

Kentucky has just less than 500 dairy farms in the state, which range from Amish or Menonite farms milking about 50 cows each to large dairies with more than 1,000 cows. Milk production in Kentucky totaled 1.01 billion pounds in 2018, USDA reports, down 3.2 percent from the previous year. According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, there are 19 dairy processors in the state. Commercial fluid milk processors include Borden’s, Prairie Farms/Southern Belle and Kroger’s Winchester Farms. Bluegrass Dairy & Foods operates two large dairy ingredient plants. Bel-Kaukauna and Saputo operate specialty plants in the state, and Dippin’ Dots makes its cryogenically-frozen ice cream there as well.

• Supportive programs

The Kentucky Dairy Development Council was formed in 2005. Its activities are funded partly through tobacco settlement funds that the state directs each year to agricultural diversification grants, and partly by fluid milk processors and other sponsorships. The council provides dairy consultants throughout different regions in the state and has helped improve quality and efficiencies in the dairy industry.

“We have a young dairy initiative, and a lot of farm meetings throughout the state,” says H.H. Barlow, executive director, Kentucky Dairy Development Council. “One of our main purposes is to educate and improve practices, try to make dairy more sustainable. The key for all of our programs is to make farmers more profitable.”

Kentucky dairy farms used to face a lot of quality issues, Barlow says. But since 2008, they have cut the average somatic cell count for milk in half — from 437,000 to now less than 200,000. Collaboration with consultants and university experts through the Dairy Development Council over the last 14 years also has helped raise annual milk production per cow from 13,000 pounds to nearly 19,000 pounds, he adds.

Market conditions have left Kentucky dairies in “survivability mode” in recent years, Barlow says, but he sees potential for expansion in the future. Kentucky has plenty of land available since many of its tobacco farms took government buyouts. A recent survey from the Dairy Development Council shows fewer farmers planning to exit the business than in recent years, and there is a strong group of next-generation farmers on almost all of the state’s larger dairies.

“We need more production from our farmers, need our dairies to expand, or attract new dairies into our state,” Barlow says. “If certain factors could be changed — I think we need co-ops to find a way to help us expand in this part of the world some. I know it’s real easy to pick up three or four loads of milk a day in Michigan above us, or in Wisconsin. I think we could have many, many dairies here.”

Tennessee’s dairy producers also have a support network through the industry and state government. The Tennessee Dairy Producers Association (TDPA) was created in 2009 as an organized group to represent dairy farmers in the state. Since then, TDPA members from across the state have met with legislators on the state and national levels, provided input to allied industries and worked to curb the decline in Tennessee’s dairy farms. Dairy farmers also can participate in state programs for cost sharing and innovation, and the University of Tennessee Extension’s Center for Profitable Agriculture offers a value-added dairy program to advise on milk processing enterprises.

Last year, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture launched an official Tennessee Milk logo to help market milk that is entirely sourced, processed and bottled in Tennessee. Middle Tennessee State University was one of the first producer/processors to use the logo on the milk produced from its 100-cow dairy and processed on-campus.

“We sell every drop of what we produce; we’re just limited on what we can process,” Carter says, noting that farmstead processing operations have found ample support in their communities.

She points to Hatcher Family Dairy, a farm that in 2007 started bottling its own milk to stay in business, and has grown into a successful enterprise.

“Another alumni also is starting a dairy processing facility in a neighboring county, and I don’t think they’ll have any problems selling their product. There does seem to be good support for local,” she says.

• Added value

Sequatchie Cove Creamery, Sequatchie, Tennessee, has found both local and national success with its farmstead raw milk cheeses, and now its owners are looking to expand production using milk from other local dairy farms.

“I feel very fortunate to be a dairy farmer in Tennessee. It can be a very hard position to be in, but it’s a privilege,” says Padgett Arnold, who co-owns the creamery and dairy herd with her husband and cheesemaker Nathan Arnold.

The Arnolds first started working with the vegetable gardens and CSA program at Sequatchie Cove Farm, owned by four generations of the Keener Family. They eventually transitioned to the farm’s livestock and launched the cheesemaking operation in 2010, gradually expanding and developing a milking herd to suit the needs of the creamery.

Sequatchie Cove is best known for three award-winning cheeses: Shakerag Blue, a Blue cheese wrapped in fig leaves marinated in Chattanooga Whiskey; Dancing Fern, a soft, washed rind Reblochon-style cheese; and Cumberland, a Tomme-style natural rind cheese that showcases flavors of the milk from the creamery’s pasture-grazed cows.

“Our customer base quickly became larger than our immediate area,” Arnold says. “We focused on selling to more distributors and wholesalers instead of farmers’ markets. What we’ve learned over the past decade, and the direction we’re headed now, is something we never saw ourselves getting into, but it’s very exciting.”

As demand continues to grow for Sequatchie Cove Creamery’s products, the Arnolds have decided to temporarily shrink their herd and dry off the cows over the winter, saving on inputs while pasture is unavailable. They plan to buy milk from other local dairy farmers to continue year-round cheesemaking and expand production. While they still plan to make raw milk cheeses from their own milk, they also are installing a pasteurizer that will allow for more production volume and new types of cheeses that aren’t required to age as long and appeal to more mainstream retailers and consumers.

“We’re excited now, not only about the different types of cheeses and new customer base, but also partnering with other farms and helping to keep dairies in business. That’s a really big deal,” Arnold says.

“The trend we’ve seen for some time is everyone going out of business,” she says. “We can help preserve those dairy farms, maybe make them better, make all of us a little more profitable. It’s really our big, long-term mission. We’re here to stay in Tennessee. We’re not going anywhere. This is our home.”


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