by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
After decades of dairying, Will Comley of Mexico, NY knows volumes about the industry. With the third straight year of low milk prices, he knew that his dairy, like many other family-owned dairies, was in trouble late last year. He already ran his 70-head dairy as efficiently as possible, but receiving the same prices as he did in 1984 meant his farm wouldn’t make it. Comley knew he’d either have to go into debt to grow or change his operation. He chose the latter.
In March, 2018, he opened Comley’s Country Creamery, funded by a private investor and built by Comley, his family and friends.
He took a class in pasteurization and learned from Bob Herrington, a consultant that had formerly worked as a state inspector.
The new branch of his operation includes a small milk plant and store so he can charge customers what he needs to run the farm, although he still sells some milk wholesale.
“I would prefer to connect with our own customers and have people say, ‘We’re out of milk, cheese or eggs. Run over to Comley’s,’” he said.
More than 600 people have patronized the 500 square-foot store for its bakery items, cheesecake, granola, and dairy case items. Comley also sells products from other farms with which he’s familiar, including honey, syrup, and cheese curd.
In addition to helping build the plant and store, his family and friends helps operate it, including his son, John, who runs the store, and his wife, Vanessa, and family friend Debbie Livergood, who bake. A neighbor boy helps with chores and Comley’s other adult children pitch in when they can.
Comley relies upon the nutritional advice of JJ Feeds in Central Square, NY. He rotationally grazes his herd on 44 acres of native grasses and legume pasture and, after first cutting, he uses another 40 acres for pasture mix and further grazing opportunities.
The farm grows 75 to 100 acres of high moisture corn and silage and 175 of hay and haylage. Comley also sells some hay.
Comley said his farm is not really of a size or of a profitability level to employ more of his adult children with a good wage on a regular basis.
“A person shouldn’t have to make a sacrifice to work on the farm,” Comley said. “My goals are that I could employ people at a wage where they can support a family and do well. I want to maintain my assets in a way that makes me happy. I don’t need grand renovations or new equipment but to maintain them in a way that gives me satisfaction.”
He said many farmers he knows have skipped replacing tractor tires or painting their barns this year because of low milk prices.
“Generally what you do is you catch up cash flow-wise and make repairs that you’ve been waiting to do,” he said. “But the better times are shorter than the tough times.”
He enjoys the hands-on work with his animals and didn’t want to become a manager of more people, so going retail seemed the best way to save the farm and keep it at a size that he’s comfortable with.
“Times and businesses change,” Comley said. “You can’t just do the same thing because your father and grandfather did it. I know several large farms that are really good farmers.”
He knows of other farms that he calls good farms that have dramatically increased in volume; however, he’s not sure that’s right for all farms and he knows it’s not best for him.
“I think we need to be careful about expansion in a time of low prices,” Comley said. “I don’t think it’s a good time to expand the herd during low prices. Frequently, we have expanded because we think it’s our right.”
He said he may expand someday, only if he lacks milk for his customers. Comley wants to preserve the farm for his children. He and Vanessa had seven, but two passed away.
“They all care about the future of the farm,” he said.
Last winter, a harvester caught on fire and ruined the feed. The accident set the farm back financially, but Comley didn’t lose hope or his faith.
“I don’t think you can survive without faith in God in these times,” he said. “Even when you can’t see a way clear lots of times, God finds ways to answer your prayers at the last possible moment. I’ve seen where you can analyze and negotiate and think things out all you want, but lots of times, God works circumstances so you end up seeing it was His hand as opposed to your own working things out.”
Stepping out on faith isn’t new to Comley. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck, he stayed up all night watching news coverage. By morning he had made a decision. He would sell the herd (though keep his land) and go help with the clean-up.
He had never been south before and knew no one there, yet Comley felt compelled to help residents after the Category 5 hurricane swept over the Gulf Coast. He took a loader, lowboy, dump truck and trackhoe and he and his son worked for almost a year, setting things right.
“It seemed like that’s what we should do,” he said, as if not understanding how anyone would act differently.
One of his sons was 17 and home schooling at the time. Comley said he told his son that working with him on the clean-up would teach him more than his book studies alone.
Since it was a disaster zone, the teen wasn’t required to show a commercial driver’s license, according to Comley. His other children attended school while he and his teenage son helped with the clean-up and the whole family stayed in a small camper.
“It was quite an experience,” he said. “It was truly a disaster like I’d never seen before.”
The experience impressed Comley about what’s important.
“I always say that what you have in this life isn’t your house or money,” he said. “It’s friends, family and your faith in God. If you have those in abundance, that’s the most important thing.”
Going retail Bolsters Dairy
by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant