West Chester’s Bailys Dairy Pushes on as the American Dairy Industry Collapses
The family-owned enterprise is one of Chester County’s last dairies, but thanks to innovation and community support, it’s plowing ahead.
These days, female dairy farmers are a rare sight in our region. Remarkably, you’ll find two of them at Bailys Dairy on Pocopson Meadow Farm. Bernard Baily’s daughters, Meredith and Becky, are integral to that fourth-generation operation. The last dairy farm with a West Chester, Pa., address, it produces 100-percent natural hormone-free milk and dairy products. For 30 years, Bailys has pioneered and developed the award-winning, grass-fed American Lineback, a rare breed of dairy cattle. Eighty percent of the family’s herd, Linebacks are an old English breed recognizable by their speckles, dark muzzles, dark ears, and the white stripes on their backs. The rest of the Bailys herd is made up of purebred Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Holstein, Jersey and Dairy Shorthorn cattle. “We have such a mix,” says Meredith. “My family couldn’t agree, so we have them all.”
The herd continues to produce 1,500-1,600 gallons of raw milk a week. There’s a major co-op pick-up by Land O’Lakes each week. The family bottles and sells the rest to local markets and restaurants. They also have their own farm store. “It sure is better than selling only wholesale,” Bernard says of the market, which opened in 2010. “But it’s still no bed of roses.”
That could soon change. The Bailys are planning to convert from traditional A1 milk to an A2 protein supply, which favors the lactose intolerant and is less likely to trigger allergies. “We’re working toward it,” says Meredith, who’s hoping to certify the entire herd. “Some say they can’t drink milk,” says Bernard. “But people who can’t drink other milk can drink ours.” “It’s more than grass fed,” Meredith adds. “There’s some science to it.”
Bernard’s paternal grandfather began the dairy with 28 cows, which was enough to earn a living in his day. But when his dad died of cancer at 35 in 1981, the current Bernard—an only child—was the future. “It all fell on me,” he says.
These days, Bernard serves as “senior advisor” to his daughters. He’s “happy as a clam” to attend herd auctions, and even happier that his farm and business could survive for the long haul. “We’ve made him start going to the doctor,” says Meredith of her father. “He hadn’t gone in 30 years.”
Bernard’s grandfather, Eusebius Barnard Baily, bought the farm from an English relation in 1874. It began as 130 acres, and Bernard sold 53 of those in 2004, when he thought he’d have to retire to survive. That land is now a housing development, and two-thirds of its residents shop in the farm’s market. “They’re the reason we’re still here, really,” Meredith says. “Their kids ride their bikes here for ice cream.”
Just then, a local customer appears. She’s looking to buy eggs for breakfast, but Bernard is ready to put her to work. “You know how it is with the young ones,” he says. “You need to get them working before they get their phones out.”
Eric Cockroft, Becky’s husband, verifies the sighting: “I saw her, and I asked, ‘Are you working today?’ She said, ‘No—but Bernard thinks I am.’”
There’s life all around Bailys Dairy. West Chester’s John Walsh and his 10-year-old son, Trevor, are weekly visitors. “Trevor loves the cows, and the community here is so welcoming,” his dad says. “Trevor has autism, and this kind of thing gets him social. It’s all the senses, the smells, the touches.”
Things could really come to life if the Bailys’ instincts about A2 milk are correct. Close to half the family herd is already certified. GeneSeek, a division of Nebraska-based Neogen Genomics, is doing the A2 testing. At the time we spoke, GeneSeek was headed to Bailys for a tour. Testing is based on tail-hair samples.
The key to survival, the family says, is value-added product like its farm stand, its birthday parties—and, of course, plans for A2 conversion. “It’s the future,” Meredith says.
And that future has to be better than the present. In this country, more than 42,000 dairy farmers have gone out of business since 2000, according to a recent NBC News report. Most were the victims of an outdated business model, burdensome loans and aggressive corporate agriculture. There were nearly 650,000 dairy farms in the U.S. in 1970. Just 40,219 remained at the end of 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cows are producing more milk than ever, but they’re concentrated on bigger, more efficient farms. Locally, the next nearest dairy operation belongs to the Wickersham brothers in Kennett Square, Pa. Bernard sums it up this way: “Where there were once 2,000 50-cow herds, now there’s 50 farms with 2,000 cows each.”
According to NBC News, farmers spend an average of $1.92 to produce a gallon of milk, but they make just $1.32 when they sell it to processors. Last year was the fourth consecutive year that farmers’ milk prices dipped below production costs.
And still the Bailys milk on. Meredith, 35, lives at the farm. Becky, 31, and her husband share a house in Pocopson Township that Bernard’s grandparents once owned. Bernard, 65, lives with his wife of 36 years, Jane, two miles north on the 122-acre Davidson Farm, which was passed down on his mother’s side. It dates to 1809 and, like Pocopson Meadow Farm, is a recognized Century Farm in a state agricultural recognition program. The family also rents acreage on Chester County parkland. Like the Davidson tract, the land is used for growing self-sustaining feed corn and grass pasture and raising young milking stock. There are 72 cows in the Bailys milking herd, and 200 in all.
Bernard Baily’s laugh is hearty, distinctive, even rejuvenating. “Everyone knows it,” his daughter Meredith says.
Not many old farmers are laughing these days. “More are crying,” says Bernard. “The price of nearly everything else has gone up, and only milk goes down. We’re getting $13 for 100 (wholesale) pounds— but we got that 25 years ago. I can go up to the attic and get my mother’s receipts, and they’ll tell me that we were getting $12 or $13 back then. Tell me one other thing that’s the same price as it was 25 years ago.”
Corporate milk processing plants are squeezing out every last drop of small dairy farmers’ income and incentive. Their cows get sold at auction for slaughter, and their land becomes fodder for housing developments. “It’s one thing knowing that you’re selling cows to another farm. But it’s another thing to load them onto a trailer (destined for a slaughter house),” says Meredith.
The stress is leading to documented suicides and intervention programs. “It makes you wonder when—and what if. But I don’t know anything else,” says Bernard from the on-site bottling facility the family added in 2009 as part of a reorganization. “I thought I was going to retire—then [Becky] said she wanted to keep the cows. She saved me from selling them.”
Becky typically handles the day’s 3 a.m. shift, 12 hours ahead of the second one at 2:30 p.m. “I never wanted to not milk cows,” she says. “It’s a generational thing.”
As far back as elementary school, Becky dreamed of being a veterinarian. By high school, though, she just wanted to work with her own cows. Meredith earned a business degree and moved to southern Delaware. But she missed her family and farm life. “There’s just something about coming home,” she says. “If milking the cows helps keep us here …”
Meredith’s 12-year-old son, Tyler, is the future at Bailys. A budding fifth-generation dairy farmer, he, like his mother and aunt before him, is a member of the same Chester Valley Jersey 4-H Club Mildred Seeds started in 1957. There are four in Chester County, with just 10 members in Tyler’s club and maybe 50 in all. “The dairy program used to consist mostly of farm kids who lived on their family farm,” says Meredith. “Now, most of them are non-farm kids who ‘lease’ a cow to raise from a farm in their community. It’s still a wonderful program. We’ve seen 4-H lease kids go on to be veterinarians, environmental engineers, nutritionists and agricultural lawyers. But it just shows the decline in the number of dairies over the years.”
Today, Tyler is walking Halo, a two-month-old calf. All Bailys cows have names that fall in an A-to-Z sequence— and Halo is a rare perfect Lineback- Gloucester mix, with her solid coloring, red legs, white garters, and the traditional white line down her back. She’ll show for the first time this summer at fairs in Chester County. “We haven’t had that pattern in years,” says Meredith.
Halo has already been tested and certified as an A2 milk producer. “He’s a lucky little guy,” his mother says of Tyler, who’s also in charge of the farm’s ducks, chickens and rabbits. “His pop-pop is proud.”
Bailys milk isn’t ultra-pasteurized like the supermarket product that requires a longer shelf life. This helps maintain its flavor and the layer of cream on top. Every season, the cream is a different color and flavor, depending on the grazing pasture. On the earliest spring days, the color of the cream goes from bland winter white to an almost golden hue later on.
“Dairies bred for production for so long,” says Becky. “Now, quality can be tied to heritage again, so we’re sending it backwards, really.”