WEST AMWELL — The long rows of milk cartons at supermarkets tend to give the impression of great abundance and demand. However, at one of New Jersey’s remaining dairy farms the milk production has not translated into robust profits in recent years.
Only a few times in the past 10 years have milk prices actually been high enough to cover their costs of production, say members of the Fulper Farms dairy farm on Rocktown-Lambertville Road.
Like many farmers, they have diversified into other agricultural and non-agricultural activities to raise their revenues. Now, they are branching into the production of mozzarella cheese and Greek yogurt.
“We’ve always had to change with the times,” Robert Fulper, 54, said. “Originally, we had orchards and vegetables, some of which we sold to Campbell’s Soup. In the ’50s, we decided to go into dairy, so my father installed a state-of-the-art milking parlor. I took over in the ’80s and expanded into straw and hay.”
Fulper Farms, a five-generation dairy business, is working with a subcontractor to have the cheese and yogurt produced off-site until machinery for production and packaging can be installed at the West Amwell farm.
In the meantime, the Fulper Farms label will appear on a new line of products that include Greek yogurt and regular yogurt, as well as soft cheeses such as mozzarella and ricotta — products that will go on sale at farmers markets and local restaurants starting next week. The goal is to one day get the products into supermarkets.
Robert Fulper’s daughter, Breanna, 24, is the mastermind behind the plan to create a Fulper line of products. The Cornell-educated farm girl has been experimenting with ways to keep the family business profitable since she was in high school, when she urged her family to begin offering farm tours and birthday parties.
“I think I got my entrepreneurial mindset from my father. I was the youngest and I got to learn how to run the farm from him, and I got my education from Cornell,” she said.
The problem with milk production is that wholesale prices are fixed by the federal government and haven’t gone up in decades, she said.
“To give you an example, we’re paid $16 per 100 pounds of milk,” she said. “At the grocery store 1 gallon sells for roughly $5. That’s 8 pounds of milk. If you do the math, we are not getting the profit the middleman is, so we’ve decided to be the farmer and the middleman.”
That means turning their milk into a retail product, such as cheese and yogurt, rather than trying to remain afloat by selling milk at wholesale prices.
Fulper Farms decided to highlight Greek yogurt as its inaugural product, Fulper said, because it’s much more nutrient-rich than regular yogurt, because it is stripped down to its bare essentials. Plus, she added with a smile, it’s one of her personal favorites.
“Having our own brand will allow us to connect with our consumers, give them a local product fresh off the farm, and tell them our story,” she said as she ducked into a large building situated in the main hub of activity on the more than 2,000-acre farm.
“And all of the milk used to make these products will come from these girls,” she said as she rounded the corner to reveal the “girls” in question — more than 100 Holstein cows standing in two orderly rows, as far as the eye could see.
The family still takes pride in the quality of its livestock and dairy farming seems likely to remain the core of the farming business for a long time to come.
Robert Fulper, who runs the farm with his brother, Fred, showed off their prize-winning cow, Claudia, recently. He pointed to all the cows and noted with pride that every one of them is descended from the first cow his great-grandmother, Mary Fulper, purchased in 1909, when she founded the farm.
Today their herd of cows produces up to 8,000 gallons of milk a day, some of it used by Wegmans Food Markets for their signature brand.
However, being a dairy farmer in this day and age is not easy.
“In the last 10 years, the price we’ve gotten for our milk has been over the cost to produce only twice,” said Breanna Fulper. “The cost of production just continues to climb.”
The shrinking number of dairy farms in New Jersey proves the point.
“Once there were thousands of dairy farms in New Jersey, and now there’s only 60 or 70,” Robert Fulper said with a shrug. “The fact that we’ve been willing to evolve and change with the times is why we’re still around.”
To that end, the Fulpers have been finding ways to continue to sustain the business, including going green by using solar-renewable energy and renting unused land to other agricultural businesses. They’ve also branched out into agritourism, offering farm tours, field trips and a weeklong day camp to educate kids on where their food comes from.
The Fulpers hope the new offerings will continue to narrow the divide between farmer and consumer and capture more of the retail dollar by providing consumers with an identifiable local product.
“Consumers these days want to know where their food comes from and how the animals were handled,” said Robert Fulper.
“I don’t know of any other farm in this area who is making raw milk and creating a product from it,” noted Breanna Fulper, adding that if the initial foray into yogurt and cheese is successful, they plan to add more products.
In spite of the difficulties in keeping a dairy farm going in New Jersey, Robert Fulper — who said he cannot honestly think of a time he wanted to be anything but a farmer — remains optimistic. He continues to work a day that on average runs from 4:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., with three generations of his family (including his 85-year-old father Bob) by his side.
“Less than 1 percent of people have a farmer in the family these days. People are becoming further removed from the farm at a time when they need to understand just what it takes to feed the world,” Fulper said. “We have the opportunity to be instrumental in educating people.”
Originally published by Mark Syp for The Times