A hundred years ago every city in the U.S. was surrounded by dairy farms. It took hundreds of dairy farms to supply a large city and dozens of dairy farms to support a smaller city. But all that has changed. Dairy farms were bought up by larger dairy corporations and folded into regional and national dairy distribution systems. The family dairy farm either got bought up by corporate dairies or sold off as land for other purposes.
Family dairy farms that remain viable local dairies are left to their own devices. Basically each family has to find a way of survival that works with the resources that are available to them. The Fulper family have been farming outside of Lambertville, New Jersey for a hundred and six years. They’ve seen the transition of their family business as it has been handed down from generation to generation.
A Commitment To Each Other
Farmers are resourceful and usually jacks of all trades (or at least many trades). Earlier this week I spoke with Breanna Fulper about her family’s farm. I spent twenty minutes looking at the farm’s website before I got on the phone with Breanna and I was amazed at how much information I already had down before the interview even began.
The Fulper Farm is 1200 acres and has 120 cows. The family and their few employees participated at eleven farmers markets last summer and they continue to sell at five of those markets over the winter. Farming involves a lot of hustle. The family is up at 4:30 AM every day and Breanna’s father and his brother work thirteen days out of every two weeks.
Demanding work hours require a purpose and the Fulpers purpose is to sustain the farm and hand it along to the next generation. It takes a deep felt commitment to make a diary farm survive in the ever changing marketplace. There was a time when the farm was substantially a wholesale milk business, selling their milk to a larger company that bought it by the hundred weight. But to make a living in wholesale commodity dairy these days requires more than 1200 acres. That’s where the resourcefulness comes in.
Breanna and her father began restructuring their farm business three years ago; they began moving towards retail by selling at farmers’ markets and also adding agritourism to their business. The longer term vision is to bring all the people who work with Fulper Farms onto the farm. At this point the Fulpers have established a working business relationship with a Sicilian cheese artisan who makes their cheeses. Currently he does not work on the farm and that means time and money shipping products.
There are also plans to open a farm store on the farm property and sell directly to local customers county wide. The most sustainable way of running the farm is to cut down on non-productive resource usage, like fuel and time for shipping. The Fulpers would like to evolve towards a more retail based farm so their profit margins become higher than they are in the wholesale market they are coming from. Selling in wholesale commodity milk the farm was profitable some of the last ten years, but operated at breakeven or below on other years.
Bringing It All Together
As a family farm, the Fulpers offer 93 percent of their milk to a wholesaler and 7 percent is sold to local restaurants. The Fulpers also offer yogurt, creams and cheeses. To do all this there is active interest from four generations of Fulpers and the family gathers on the farm for family events several times a year.
It’s funny, in talking with Breanna Fulper it was difficult to tell if the family keeps the farm together or the farm keeps the family together. I suppose it works both ways, but what is apparent in talking with the Fulpers is their passion for farming and their firm resolve to find a way to make it work. Farmers used to be great at fixing fences and repairing machinery and they still may have to do a good bit of that, but in the twenty-first century farmers have to know about marketing and websites also.
The diversity of skills required to make the Fulper family farm operable is interesting. Having a multi-generation family involved helps with some of the new technology. At this point the farm’s website is impressive. It presents the family and farm in genuine simple pictures and text. The Fulpers are also on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and have an email list, so their digital skills are considerable. Combine all that with a five year business plan and the Fulpers have a clear forward direction in which they are guiding their farm over the coming years.