The Dells view farming near a city as an opportunity, not an obstacle
Few U.S. dairymen milk cows in the shadow of a large city, yet that is the daily reality for Gary and Crystal Dell, who farm near Westminster, Md. Their operation is a scant 30 miles west of Baltimore, with a population of 600,000-plus.
Most farmers believe that the urban sprawl accompanying such a city creates obstacles to growth, but not the Dells. They view it as a potential resource to help build their dairy business, which includes 180 cows, 80 of which they currently milk.
Specifically, the Dells are looking for opportunities to tap into the fledgling agritourism industry fueled by urban residents who want to know how their food is grown.
"We already give a half dozen or so tours and milking demonstrations each year to area preschool students, teachers and parents," Gary says.
In addition, about 40 teachers from across the state gather in Westminster each spring for the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation annual meeting. During the conference, the teachers trek to the Dells’ dairy to see the cows and enjoy the country landscape.
New stream of income. This year, the Dells hope to ramp up the educational visits and turn them into income-generating tours. The revenue would help strengthen the Dells’ financial resources, especially as the dairy industry has been hit hard in recent months by increased feed costs.
Gary and Crystal have evaluated a variety of income-generating ideas since they took over the dairy operation full-time in 2010. Until then, the dairy was part of their extended family’s operation, which includes 2,300 acres of crops. Farm Journal succession planning expert Kevin Spafford has been working with the Dell family to develop their succession plan. One of the first moves was to separate the dairy operation from the family farm and transition ownership to Gary and Crystal.
Initially, the couple considered selling milk and dairy products directly to consumers in Baltimore. However, they soon decided that venture required too much capital and manpower.
That’s when they began to evaluate the dairy tours and demonstrations and Gary developed a business plan. He estimates the family needs a minimum of 600 people to visit the farm next year to make the agritourism project financially viable and break even.
"We’re starting slow, but that’s what we need at the very least to make it worth our investment," explains Gary, who works on his father’s grain farm in addition to running the dairy.
The family plans to advertise their dairy tour and demonstrations to schoolteachers in their county and to the teachers who toured their farm this past spring. The latter group found a flier from the Dell family waiting for them when they returned to their classrooms this fall.
"While we’re still fresh on their mind, we want to encourage the teachers to return to our dairy for a tour with their students," Gary says.
Based on their success this year, Gary and Crystal hope to broaden their reach in the second year to include teachers, students and parents in the greater Baltimore area.
Long-term, their goal is to build their agritourism business so it can eventually include their children. "This could be a way for our kids to get involved in the farm," Gary says. "Two of them are still in high school, so by the time they’re out of college, this could be a viable business."