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Frey Dairy herd dispersal set for Sept. 19-20 at the farm
It’s the end of an era on ‘turkey hill’

Tom Frey says he’s ready to say goodbye to the dairy herd and give the next generation a chance to stay in agriculture across the road from “Turkey Hill”, possibly raising turkeys for Plainville Farms.

By SHERRY BUNTING
Special for Farmshine

CONESTOGA, Pa. -- The end of an era opens a new chapter for Tom Frey and his son-in-law Tracy Martin, as general manager, at Frey Dairy Farms, Inc. after their herd dispersal next week. The dairy sits just behind the Turkey Hill Dairy plant -- between it and the landfill -- on the ridge dubbed “turkeyhill” by the Conestoga Indians and referenced as such on the sheepskin deed to the Frey family by the sons of William Penn himself.

What began as Armor Frey’s Depression-Era foray into milk bottling for his neighbors from the back of his car, became a thriving business known for its ice cream and iced tea, nationwide.

While Tom’s uncle’s side of the family had the processing business, it was Tom’s father who took over the farm and cowherd. Today, the Turkey Hill Dairy plant is owned by Kroger, and Tom’s cousin Quinton recently retired as its CEO.

Now the Frey farming operation will also go a new direction -- off “turkeyhill.” What started as a dairy transition team transformed late last year into the sale of the dairy facilities and the 70 acres on which it sits.

Tom Frey and his son-in-law Tracy, married to daughter Ruth, worked with their accountant Fred Weaver and attorney Brian Black -- with Mike Hosterman of AgChoice serving as the facilitator -- on their would-be dairy transition team. In that transition team process, it soon became obvious that a new course would be charted.

After selling the main dairy farm to the Lancaster County Solid Waste Authority last December, they set a date with the Cattle Exchange to sell the dairy herd on Sept. 19 and 20.

“That seemed like a long way off when we set the date back in January, but we’re ready for it now,” said Tom during an interview Monday evening at the farm. They have until June 2014 to vacate the facilities, and they have budgeted the remaining forages to get them to sale day next week. This season’s corn crop will be shelled and sold instead of making silage for dairy cows.

On the first day of the two-day sale, 500 cows (mainly first and second lactation) will sell in milking form Thursday, Sept. 19 at the farm. Selling on the second day, Sept. 20, will be 100 dry cows, 230 bred heifers, and an assortment of machinery. But the milking parlor and manure separation equipment will stay. The landfill owns that.

Sale manager David Rama says buyers can expect the high quality commercial Holsteins with great udders that Frey Dairy has always been known for. This is a young herd of good, solid cows in all stages of production to choose from.

The August DHIA report listed 639 mature cows with a 2x rolling herd average of 24,127 milk at 3.6% 856 lbs fat and 3.0% 732 lbs protein, with a somatic cell count RHA of 175,000.

“This is a young herd,” Tom notes. According to DHIA reports, they were recently at 26,700 pounds on 3x milking before Frey Dairy went to 2x milking after the sale date was set.

Even though the dairy is sold, the family will continue to farm. Frey has the ability to farm, rent-free, some of the acres purchased by the landfill. Plus, Tom and Tracy also farm an additional 650 acres of owned and rented ground in the area.

“Our family is enthused about the future,” they both agree as they talk about the new direction for the farming operation. Tracy has researched cropping and livestock options, and they are moving toward raising turkeys for Plainville Farms.

In its heyday, Frey Dairy milked over 1200 cows. Then, in the spring of 2009, Tom sold a piece of ground at the main farm to Turkey Hill Dairy (where the planned new plant will be sited). At that time, he also liquidated the cowherd through the Cooperatives Working Together (CWT) buyout. But then in the fall of 2009, Tom forfeited 10% of the CWT payment to begin freshening his bred heifers and milking them again.

“That’s when Tracy, as general manager, set up the dairy management team, and we began to think about the future,” Tom recalls. “But I was getting weary of the dairy business, and the next generation wasn’t all that enthused about it either, so we are ready to do something else. We started the dairy transition process two years ago and Tracy was the key in this. My other sons-in-law say ‘go ahead’ because they have no tie to dairying.

“Somewhere along the line during the transition process, I said to myself: ‘Do I really wish this on him? Do I really want to pass on this burden?” Tom added.

Tracy wants to stay connected to agriculture, but is looking forward to having more time for family life, like taking son Ezekiel “Zeke”, 6, to ball practice that evening.

He also is enthused that they have more cropping options now on the ground they will continue to farm. In the past, they grew straight corn silage with some grass hay conservation buffers.

“Once we made the decision to sell, we started looking seriously for a buyer for the facility and the ground it sits on,” Tom recalled, explaining that he sold to the landfill because they offered the best deal. They had a keen interest in a 10-acre piece, and it helps that they are giving the Freys the ability to farm some of the purchased acres for the next five years.

The cash generated from the December 2012 sale allowed Tom to complete the buyout of his brother Clifton, in order to transition the remaining farm business -- albeit a non-dairy farm business -- to the next generation without the encumbrance of monthly payments to members of the current generation.

“I’ve had the privilege of buying out all of my family members,” said Tom with a wry and fleeting smile. “I didn’t want the next generation to have that burden. This… is so much better.”

He explained the difficulty in planning a farm transition when a sibling still has ownership. Tom’s brother left the business in 1992 still a 50% partner. “We went into this wanting to turn over something that works,” Tom said. “That means Sue and I can’t turn over this real estate at market price if Tracy is to make it. But at the same time, we have five daughters. Tracy is married to our third daughter. We have their blessing to do what we are doing… to transfer the land at a discounted price and still provide a living for Sue and I so that we can also plan our inheritance for our other daughters.”

The family is preparing to build a storage shed on land owned across the road from Turkey Hill Dairy and the former Frey Dairy Farm. The storage facility will sit between Tom’s house and Tracy’s house as they prepare for their next chapter in agriculture.

As for the sale of the dairy herd next Thursday, Tom said: “We have no problem saying goodbye to the dairy. We won’t miss the struggle to be profitable.”

Tom is also ready to take life a little easier (if that’s possible). He’s the type of person to throw himself into whatever he does, but says: “I’m tired of being driven by what I do.” He recalls his father, who died of a heart attack at age 55. “He was also driven by the dairy and I remember him asking once: ‘Why do we work as hard as we do?’”

After the sale of the cows and machinery, Tracy will take over the next chapter and “I’ll work for him,” Tom grins.

As he walks over to the most recent of seven large framed aerial-view photos along the back wall of the office, he points out the famed “turkeyhill” ridge: “That’s where a four-story manufacturing plant addition is planned,” he says about the land he previously sold to Turkey Hill Dairy. He sold it to generate cash to help bring his farm out of its debt to current-generation family members in anticipation of transitioning his dairy farm to the next generation of his own family.

While he is ready to say goodbye to the cows and the dairy facility, he is also ready to see the ground that has been in his family (since it was deeded by the sons of William Penn) continue on its current path of manufacturing and the landfill’s partnership with Turkey Hill Dairy in generating power on “turkeyhill.” He wishes them well.

And at the same time, he knows his and his father’s and grandfather’s farming legacy will continue in agriculture… across the road.