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The milky fray

New Jersey’s once-thriving dairy industry is fighting for survival but help may come from Washington

Matthew Puskas, herdsman, Middlebush Farms. – AARON HOUSTON

Middlebush Farms is the sole dairy farm in Somerset County. Its 70 cows produce 900 gallons of milk every other day, and a tank truck picks it up and takes it to Readington Farms in Whitehouse for pasteurization. From there, the milk is sold to ShopRite.

It wasn’t always this way. Matt Puskas grew up on the farm, and as a fourth generation farmer — his young children represent the fifth — he remembers being one of seven or so dairy farms in the county when he was a kid. One by one, the others closed, often due to debt. Where some once stood, housing developments have popped up.

There are currently 41 dairy farms in the state. In 2003, there were 114, and in the 1960s, there were more than 500. To prevent further disintegration of the New Jersey dairy industry, U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-5th District, said he’s advocating for them to get their fair share of federal appropriations during budget negotiations, which began last week and will continue through July.

“The bottom line is now through July, we have to show the importance of why agriculture matters,” Gottheimer said. “If every farm goes out of business, it’s a huge economic hit, but from a food security standpoint it’s a big deal, too. Not being able to grow your own food means you’re dependent on the rest of the world.”

Some of the details up for discussion include grants or loans for programs such as the expansion of broadband internet to rural areas and updating farm equipment to improve operations and competitiveness.

Expanding to retail

Puskas is interested in one of those grants. He and his co-farmers — his dad, his uncle, and his wife — are looking into buying a small processing facility to pasteurize their own milk, not to replace their multi-generational operation selling milk to ShopRite but to provide a value-added, own brand of fluid milk and dairy products to sell right off the farm.

Middlebush Farms. – AARON HOUSTON

 

“We have people all the time coming down the driveway asking if we sell milk and we say ‘no, not at this point,’” Puskas said. “Where we’re at, it’s pretty much a no-brainer. There’s plenty of people around. It would sell … but there’s no numbers there to support it because no one’s studied it. If we go to the bank and ask for a loan for [on-farm processing equipment], they’re gonna look at us like we’re nuts. They’ll ask ‘how much can you sell in a week,’ and we don’t know. No one studied that yet.”

If the farm secured a grant or loan to help them buy a pasteurization facility, he said, it could be up and running in four to six weeks. He estimates it would cost no less than $200,000 and could run up to $2 million depending on what the family wanted to produce.

But to him, it would be a game changer.

“It would make the business able to survive for future generations,” he said. “You can grow your business drastically by processing milk on your farm.”

Herdsman Matthew Puskas and his son Joel, Middlebush Farms. – AARON HOUSTON

Beyond catering to those who wander up the driveway looking for milk, Puskas would be able to sell at local farm markets where New Jersey dairy is almost unheard of and maybe even pitch sales to local school districts, where he said parents want to know where their kids’ lunches are coming from.

Puskas also favors a federally mandated floor on pricing. Since the 1970s, he said, the amount of money farmers are able to get for their milk hasn’t increased, but the cost of production has.

“[Fluid milk for human consumption] should be at $18 per 100 weight. As a blend price we probably get $16.50. Even with inflation it didn’t go up, it didn’t follow inflation at all. Your fuel and equipment have gone up, and that’s stayed the same.”

According to Gottheimer, a price floor is not on the table at this time. Still, he said, bringing money into a small yet important part of the state’s third largest industry would be good for New Jersey overall.

“Too many people think of New Jersey as landing in Newark Airport or going out in Hoboken or Jersey City. They don’t realize how big of an agriculture state it is or how beautiful some of these areas are and what they produce,” Gottheimer said. “We have [some seventh] generation farmers, and they have deep roots, which is why we need to get these grant dollars back and see there’s a lot available on the agriculture front.”

Gabrielle Saulsbery
Albany, N.Y. native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at gsaulsbery@njbiz.com.