Selling country and sunshine
Like all dairy farmers, Chuck Fry plants crops to feed his cows, his cows make milk and he sells the milk. But Rocky Point Dairy in Tuscarora, MD, isn’t like most dairy farms. The end product is more than milk – it’s ice cream – which makes Chuck the “Ice Cream Farmer.”
The farm near the Potomac River has been in Chuck’s family since 1883. Today, it’s where Chuck and his wife Emily Snyder keep happy cows. But it hasn’t been an easy road.
“My grandfather had the farm, went through the Great Depression and lost everything,” said Chuck. “My dad was an accountant, came back to the farm and started farming with dairy cows in the early 1950s. They built a barn for 24 cows, then added 24 more cows.” The family was milking the herd in a stanchion barn, which Chuck said was a lot of work. Adding a pipeline in 1972 helped, but managing the herd was still labor intensive.
Although he was raised on the farm, Chuck went to college to become a teacher and didn’t intend to continue dairy farming. When he discovered teaching wasn’t for him, he returned to the farm. He admitted farming was a scary prospect, but when he came back to the farm in 1982, the family doubled the herd.
“In 1985 when the dairy buyouts happened, I bought a milking parlor that had only been used for a short time,” said Chuck. “We took the roof off, cut it into sections and moved everything on a trailer. It was a double-five and I could milk all the cows myself.” By then the herd had grown to about 140 cows.
Chuck became heavily involved in Farm Bureau and served six years as president of Maryland Farm Bureau, which often took him away from the farm. Although he was quite familiar with what it takes to run a dairy farm, he found it difficult to locate and retain good labor. The answer was adding a robotic milking system.
“Once you start with robots, it’s all one-dimensional,” said Chuck. “I was used to stripping cows and putting milkers on, feeling the udder and being deeply connected with the cow. I knew the cows, knew the routines. Going from that to the robots and just looking at a screen was overload at first.”
Remodeling and construction for the robotic system began in early 2021, and the first cows came through shortly after the two robots were installed. Emily said acclimating to the new system wasn’t intuitive, and that despite training from the dealer, using the new system was intense. It was also a lot for the cows to get used to, and on the first day the new system was ready to use, the herd crowded at the gate to enter the robot. Chuck said it took quite a while to break them of gathering at a set time.
“Think about the cows’ routine,” said Chuck. “You open the gate and the cows go to a holding area for the parlor. That happens twice a day and the cows are used to it. I looked at the [robotic] records and they were coming in to be milked at pretty much the same time – five in the morning. Over the course of three months, it evened out. They figured it out and now we’re into a year and a half of cows milked around the clock.”
Despite the initial challenges, Chuck and Emily are seeing the benefits. Cows are more productive, they’re peaking higher than what they had been and they’re calmer. Chuck can look at records and determine when cows are in heat based on their steps. He has also learned to adapt to one-dimensional milking in which he looks at a screen to find out just about everything he needs to know.
Despite making their lives easier, the Frys wanted to derive additional farm-based income. A trip to an ice cream convention sealed the deal on a decision to add a creamery, and it’s paying off. “We talked with others who were making ice cream, and most said the addition was positive,” said Chuck. “If we were going to start something out in the middle of nowhere, we only had one shot at it because people have too many choices.” Chuck referred to the initial venture as low budget with used equipment, but they’ve since upgraded.
Rocky Point Creamery started making ice cream in late 2011. “December is the worst time to open an ice cream store,” said Chuck. “We did a soft open, learned how to use the cash registers, learned how people come and go and set up the POS system. There are so many things we didn’t know about a retail business so I’m glad we opened in an off-season.”
Like other businesses that successfully endured through COVID, the creamery thrived during the shutdown. “Kids were off school, so we stayed open,” said Chuck. “Revenue was outstanding. Lines wrapped around the building, people were happy to get out of the city and we were the only ones open.” The initial plan for the creamery didn’t include a drive-thru window, but Chuck said he’s glad they included that feature.
Emily noted that about 40% of sales today are via the drive-thru window. A later remodeling project provided a window for walk-up service so people wouldn’t have to come into the store, and that doubled their capacity. 2020 was the creamery’s best year, and Chuck and Emily expected sales might drop afterwards, but that hasn’t been the case. Customers who started coming during the pandemic continued to visit, and business is still growing.
Since high components are an integral part of good ice cream, the Rocky Point herd is bred for optimum fat production. “All cows are bred with sexed Jersey semen,” said Chuck. “And Jerseys work well with robots because they’re curious. It’s their nature.”
The 130-head milking herd thrives on a home-raised diet of corn, wheat, soybeans, barley, alfalfa and grass hay. “We do a lot of cover cropping,” said Chuck. “We’ve been no-tilling on this farm for 35 to 40 years. It was a cheap way for me to get started in farming because I didn’t have to work so much ground. We’ve seen soil tilth increase. We’ve had some highly erodible land, and the cover cropping combined with no-till has made this farm more profitable because of best management practices.”
About 90% of the acreage is planted in cover crops, and crop selection varies depending on the year. If it looks like feed will be short, Chuck plants oats after corn silage and harvests the oats in December. “I like hulless barley for a cover crop,” he said. “It looks more like wheat and weighs about 60 pounds to the bushel.”
Rocky Point gives back to the community through a large sunflower patch on the farm. Farm visitors can pick sunflowers for a donation that goes to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
“We sell a lot of country and sunshine,” said Chuck. “We’re the real deal – the farm that has cows people come to.”
Visit Rocky Point Creamery online at rockypointcreamery.com.
by Sally Colby