The gently rolling fields of Cleveland County were once home to more than 100 dairy farms scattered across the rural Piedmont County.
Today, that number has dropped to three.
Greg Traywick, county extension manager, said dairy farms have disappeared in Cleveland County.
“During the 1950s and 1960s, Cleveland County was home to over 150 Grade A and Grade B dairy farms,” Traywick said. “After a steady decline in numbers over the next 20 years, milk production dropped dramatically in the late 1980s due to the federal whole herd buyout program.”
In 2017, the USDA Census of Agriculture reported only eight dairy farms with 563 dairy cows in Cleveland County.
“Drooping profit margins and the retirement of older farmers have put other dairy farms out of business,” Traywick said.
Currently there is one large commercial dairy still in operation – Bell Dairy at Kings Mountain – and two smaller niche market dairies, Underwood Family Farms and Bridges Dairy, also known as Guernsey Girl Creamery.
Farmers say diversification, mastering technology and finding new ways to sell have kept them in business.
At the northern end of the county, somewhere between Lawndale and Polkville and almost in the shadow of the Southern Mountains, Christy and Michael Underwood run a small farm.
Christy Underwood said her husband dreamed of one day having a dairy farm and the very first farm animal they ever had was a dairy cow.
“We are somewhat new to dairy products. We started our dairy in 2014,” she said. “We didn’t have parents in the business, we’re starting from scratch.”
Michael is primarily from Pennsylvania and Christy is from a small town in eastern North Carolina. Their journey to farming was long and unexpected.
Initially, Michael was on his way to becoming a teacher and was working on a history degree in Wilmington. Christy was pregnant with their first son when Michael came home one day with a magazine article about sustainable agriculture. He immediately felt that this was their calling.
The couple completed a year-long agricultural internship in Asheville, then began looking for their own land.
“We started driving around Asheville and Charlotte,” Christy said. “We absolutely loved Cleveland County.
Over the next few years they rented and leased land before finally landing on their own farm near Lawndale.
Christy Underwood, said that at this point in their farming journey, they are half meat and half dairy.
They started with pasture-raised meats because they rented land and didn’t want to invest in infrastructure on land they didn’t own.
They got a sheepdog, some sheep, then moved on to a dairy. Christy said selling lamb was getting expensive due to butchery costs and ultimately they wanted to build a closer relationship with the animals instead of just ending lives.
It took nine years for their dream of a dairy farm to come true.
Currently they have about 35 cows, that’s all they can maintain on their 90 acres. Michael said they’re not traditional and milk once a day, but it gives them time for family and helps prevent burnout.
“We don’t get as much milk, but we have a much better quality of life,” he said.
They bottle twice a week and are open to the public on Mondays and Fridays when people can pick up meat and dairy orders from the farm. They also sell in local markets.
The Underwoods said that by directly marketing their milk, they could stay afloat.
And they’ve built a customer base of around 500 people, some of whom have been buying into the Underwoods for the 17 years they’ve been farming.
“They watched our farm evolve,” Christy said.
They sell beef, pork, veal and milk, with meat bringing in more money than milk.
They have learned from other farmers and are closely connected to the local farming community.
“It takes a whole community to run a dairy farm,” Michael said.
Although they use organic practices, they are no longer certified because it was too expensive.
“Small farms have to figure out how to make more money with less,” Michael said.
On Bridges Dairy Road, Ashley Bridges McMurry runs Guernsey Girl Creamery.
A third-generation dairy farmer, his grandfather started the dairy in the 1950s and after a farming accident claimed his life in 1999, his father took over.
When milk prices fell in 2011, he was at a critical point to make a business decision and decided he wanted to sell the herd.
“Unfortunately, I think at that time, 2010, 2011, a lot of farmers made that decision about their livelihoods, stay or grow. A lot of them didn’t care about getting bigger. More infrastructure, more “equipment, more food, more help. I totally understand why a lot of people have sold out over the years,” McMurry said.
She said her father pushed her to herd cows and process her own milk.
It was then that McMurry launched Guernsey Girl Creamery. She received a $10,000 grant from RAFI, the Tobacco Trust Fund, and started her business.
With 35 to 40 head of cows, the dairy is considered a microdairy.
“I knew I had a really good product,” she said. “We are still the only 100% Guernsey dairy in the state. That being said, that’s not really what I originally wanted to do. I wanted to be able to milk cows and sell the milk to someone else who wanted to process the milk.
She said no one was willing to do the treatment, so they ended up doing it.
Initially, she took another job and ran the dairy farm next door, trying to make ends meet. They used to sell at farmers’ markets until four and a half years ago when they decided to build a small store and bring people to their farm to buy produce.
They haven’t been to a farmers market since.
McMurry said her husband grows and processes his own beef and sells pork and honey.
The store is open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and operates on an honor system.
They keep the milk and beef in the fridge along with the produce and honey and people can drop by and drop payment in a box or send payment through Venmo.
The McMurrys sell buttermilk, whole, chocolate and seasonal flavored milk, cheese and, since last year, fried cheese curds that McMurry says are like mozzarella sticks only better.
“It was something new and different, but when you’re small like us, you have to branch out in a lot of different ways to maintain an income,” she said.
In Kings Mountain, the only commercial dairy carries on a family tradition.
Mary Beth Black of Bell Dairy said it goes back three generations.
“My grandfather was a farmer when he was a young man in the late 1940s, early 1950s, and then my father took over the Grade A farm around 1974,” Black said. “Category A is like selling liquid milk, the best quality milk. Most dairies are Grade A. So that’s when the farm started. At that time there were thousands of farms all over the county, there were dairies everywhere.
She said they managed to hang on for two reasons.
“We’re probably a little crazy,” she laughs, “and we’ve stayed on the cutting edge of technology and always reinvested in the business. Some dairies fell into disrepair and decided it was time to shut down.
Bell Dairy is constantly keeping abreast of new methods. She said that in 1997 they installed a new milking parlour, and now they are installing robots, which means farmers won’t have to put milkers on the cows. She said they are only the second dairy in the state to use robotic technology.
“It’s definitely been part of our success, we stay on the cutting edge of technology,” Black said. “I think about six or seven years ago we put on neck tags that track the movements of cows, kind of like fitbits for cows. It tells us how much they eat and how much they move and checks if anyone is sick.
She said they had around 300 dairy cows and several babies for a total of around 700 animals.
“Really, at one point, 300 was a big dairy,” she said. “Compared to some of the other dairies in the state, we are now a smaller dairy. There are a few dairies in Gaston County with over a thousand cows.
Bell Dairy remains a predominantly family operation. Black said her father, uncle, brother and wife and she and three outside employees work full-time on the farm.
The milk is then sold to the PET plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina. She said their dairy produces 19,000 pounds of milk a day.
She said it has its challenges, including the current economy.
As in all other industries, there are supply chain issues and it can be difficult to find someone to work on broken equipment.
Food has increased and although the price of milk is better than it was during COVID, expenses have also increased.
Even so, Black enjoys it.
“I feel like it’s very rewarding,” Black said. “We like working as a family. It’s nice when you have my grandfather, my father and my children. You have four generations. My grandfather is 94 years old, he is out there making sure we do everything right. Probably one of the most rewarding parts, having all the different generations together.
Rebecca Sitzes can be reached at [email protected]