by Tamara Scully
In central New Jersey, not too far from the Delaware River, Fulper Farms may be one of the last of the dying breed of what once was a thriving enterprise in the state: dairy farms. Or, it may be one of the first of a new, reborn breed: a value-added dairy, where the milk doesn’t only flow into the processor’s tank, it also flows into the farm’s own dairy products.
While making yogurt, cream, ricotta, mozzarella and butter isn’t a new thing for dairy farms to do, it is a rarity in New Jersey. Onerous regulations can make adding the infrastructure necessary cost-prohibitive. While some commercial dairy farms are beginning to craft their own farmstead cheese, products such as yogurt, cream and butter are not yet commonly produced.
A fifth-generation family dairy, in operation for over a century, Fulper Farms raises Holsteins. The cows are housed in a free stall barn, and milked in the milking parlor twice per day. The family farms on over 1,200 acres, raising hay, corn, soybeans and straw. They use 350 of the acres to produce their own rations.
“We harvest all of our own feed,” Breanna Fulper said. “We control exactly what goes into the cow.”
The farm is recognized as a Dairy of Distinction, and they have put into practice numerous environmentally-friendly, sustainable methods of operation.
The farm hosts solar panels, installed in 2011, which power all of the farm operations. They were one of the first in New Jersey to practice no-till cropping, and have long been utilizing cover crops, for erosion control and to increase soil fertility. The farm received an Honorable Mention in the 2013 U.S. Dairy Sustainability Awards.
Breanna and her father, Rob, are partners in the dairy products and agritourism business, while her father and uncle Fred are partners in the dairy. Her grandparents are still active on the farm, along with other family members. Her brother, RJ, has just returned from college, back to the farm. Along with the rest of the family, they are all working together to continue the farm for the next generations.
Breanna, a recent Cornell graduate and a financial planner, has always wanted to remain on the farm. Realizing that there was no stable future in milking cows and selling to a processor, she developed the agritourism branch of the farm several years ago. Their farm camp was popular from the start and continues to fill up each summer. Birthday parties, tours and an annual fall festival bring families to the farm year-round.
Fun and educational, the tourism activities on the farm include farm games, hay wagon rides, face painting, cider and caramel apple dipping. And they also include a tour of the hay fields, dairy barn, milking parlor and demonstrations on milking a cow. These serve the purpose of introducing non-farmers to farm living, allow the farm to showcase its operation, and add income to the farm operation without detracting from the farming itself.
The next step in maximizing the farm’s potential was to find a viable way to utilize their milk to make their own dairy products. One year ago, the dairy launched its line of products, and hasn’t looked back.
“Down the road, I see us becoming more and more of a creamery,” Breanna said.
The Fulper family isn’t making the products themselves. The cost of the infrastructure, plus the time needed to devote to the crafting of high-quality product just doesn’t exist. Instead, they hired a cheesemaker, who has his own facility off-farm. He crafts Fulper Farms products exclusively from their own milk, to their specifications.
Going this route meant no initial capital investment, no need for new buildings or infrastructure and equipment. It was the most feasible means of entering the value-added dairy market. They hired employees to assist with the farm marketing and sales of the dairy goods, including a sales and marketing manager.
Fulper Farms value-added dairy is focused on fresh, not aged products. The cheeses they make are fresh mozzarella, either brined or dry, ricotta, and curd.
“I like fresh product.” On the downside, she added, “It is more perishable.”
In order to sell the fresh product, the farm participates in 11 area farmers’ markets, and is looking to add more. Breanna is exploring online farmers’ markets, seeking to collaborate with other area farmers and offer online ordering and delivery of local products. The farm already sells complimentary products from another dairy farm — Klein Farms, in nearby Easton, PA. The farm also sells to local-only distributor Zone 7, who brings farm-fresh products into grocery stores and restaurants around the Central New Jersey and New York City area.
Fulper Family Farmstead products include yogurt, which is non-homogenized, leaving the cream on top. The yogurt is currently offered in vanilla and plain varieties. They will be adding heavy cream, and once they purchase the equipment, butter.
It is a testament to the popularity of the farm’s agritourism efforts, as well as their involvement in 4-H programs, that many of their first employees have been graduates of their farm camps, or 4-H participants and their families.
The farm’s dairy product sales are currently about 50 percent retail, and 50 percent wholesale. While they capture more of the profits selling retail, the farmers’ markets are only open through the fall, and with the farm stand somewhat “off the beaten path,” they are left without a viable retail sales venue in the winter. Breanna is working on finding a winter farmers’ market. She is also seeking to add wholesale accounts.
The farm is currently processing 600 pounds of milk per day. Milking 120 cows, the farm produces 8,000 pounds of milk each day. The potential to grow the value-added business is enormous.
“We would like to use 100 percent of our milk,” in their value-added products, Breanna said. But they need to build demand and think about the infrastructure they’ll need in the future.
“Our goal is to make it (ourselves). It probably won’t be on the farm. I’d like to have some sort of store frontage on Route 31,” Breanna said.
But still, she’d connect this future market back to the farm, with some type of tour that would bring customers a few miles off the highway and into the dairy barn, to see the cows being milked. After all, when it comes right down to it, for the Fulper family, it’s all about those Holsteins. With “famous cows,” such as the NJ State Junior Champion, Shakira, and the New Jersey State Grand Champion, Claudia, a legacy of conservation, and soon-to-be-famous dairy products, Fulper Farmily Farmstead has a bright future, growing on century-old roots.
by Tamara Scully