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The final roundup: Hillsborough County's last dairy farm moves on

TAMPA — The 160 cows were milked and corralled into four 18-wheelers before the morning light struck the fifth-generation Florida dairy farm.

As it traveled north on Interstate 75 — passing one-time farmland that had long ago given way to houses, offices and shopping malls — the bovine caravan marked the departure of the last operating dairy in Hillsborough County.

"I really wanted to make it work," said the dairy owner Samuel "Sammy" Busciglio, adding that the offer was too much money to "afford not to sell it."

SEE PHOTOS: Take a look at Tower Dairy as family members prepare to move

In the 1970s, at least 60 dairy farms operated in Hillsborough. Their demise in a handful of decades seems the inevitable aftermath of urban encroachment, rising land prices and consolidation making it tougher for small and mid-sized dairy farms to milk profits.

Earlier this year, the extended family trust that owns the land received a multimillion dollar offer from Miami-based Lennar Homes, eager to build a thousand homes there. Though Busciglio dreamed of buying out the other owners, the price for the family's remaining 170 acres was too high for a small dairy farm with no room to expand beyond a herd of 160.

The $13 million sale was finalized in early May. In the farm's place will go a massive subdivision of about 1,000 houses and condos. The only indication of its agricultural past will be street names, titled after different members of the Busciglio and Romano families.

Rather than taking the payout and retiring to his comfortable home in Temple Terrace, Sammy Busciglio poured some of his new fortune into a long-shot financial investment: A 270-acre plot home to a failed dairy about an hour south of Atlanta. He felt it was the safest option for preserving the family business that he worked so hard to build with his father and his son.

The Land

The Busciglio family has been milking cows, growing hay and raising livestock on a nearly 250-acre plot off of South 78th Street in unincorporated Hillsborough County since it was first purchased by Francis Romano Busciglio, her husband Joe and her two brothers in 1950. Their middle son, Sammy, was just a year old when the first barn was built.

"I followed my daddy around this farm since I could walk," said 68-year-old Sammy Busciglio, whose two brothers went into the medical field. "We would go pick palmettos and put them in piles and he would come along and later on he'd burn 'em. We cleared this whole place like that."

His own four children were raised the same way: helping him with the never-ending demands of work on the dairy farm. And that's how his son and business partner, Jeff, is raising his own two young boys.

When Sammy was a child, the family farm was on a sprawling plot of fertile land at the end of a dirt road, long before Tampa's skyline could be spotted through the property's western treeline.

But over the years the farm has become suffocated by urban sprawl and has gone through some more challenging times.

"Every business isn't profitable all the time," Jeff explained as he waded through mud and muck one February afternoon. "We're in a good place now."

The move

Sammy and Jeff spent all spring preparing to leave the flat Florida farm, with its hurricane and tornado-stricken milking parlor, sandy soil and a barn that you could no longer tell was red. By mid-March they were feeling the pinch, and had just a few weeks to move the cows, sell old equipment, tear out gates, and bid goodbye to their neighbors.

"Sometimes you kind of wish the deal falls through," Jeff said prior to the move.

On the eve of the cows' departure, extended family who visited the farm for family weddings and birthday parties, or had even helped as farm hands gathered to remember the past. Jeff and Sammy rushed to get everything ready, loading the feeder and equipment onto a flatbed for the move as family and old friends came and went.

Before their final photo-ops in front of the old metal "Tower Dairy" sign, Sammy's older daughter Samantha, a kindergarten teacher, gently brushed the hay and dust from his collared cotton shirt. She is worried about him and the harsh bronchial cough that kicks up when he takes a few minutes to sit down. She doesn't want him to move away from his doctors, his house and the rest of their family.

Others echoed her concern that night, over cans of Busch beer and toasts to the old days. Sammy cried with the rest of them, bowing his head as tears streamed down his wide, weathered cheeks.

Emotional as he is, Sammy won't hear their concerns. He won't quit on the business, on his son or on their herd. He plans to split time between the new and old, bridging those 450 miles in silence behind the wheel of his black Chevy 3500 with his thoughts and regrets from the past.

"I wish there was some way we could buy it," he explained as his maneuvered a tractor through a hay field a week before the big move. "We could make it a showcase place. We could make it a place where we could teach children where milk comes from."

The new landscape

Tower Dairy's relocation comes during a tumultuous time in Florida's agriculture industry. The state's largest cash crop, citrus, has seen a 75 percent drop in production due to the citrus greening virus. As the state's population has swelled in areas like the southern region of Hillsborough County, many farming families have sold out and some, like the Busciglios, have reopened elsewhere.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Dying on the vine? Florida's shriveling agriculture industry can't shake the fall of citrus, loss of land

The family's old property is just the latest of the roughly 1 million acres of Florida farms that have been sold to developers over the last decade.

"There was dairies everyplace. Now, it's houses," said Cecil Lay, 81, a retired slaughterhouse owner with nine fingers who has lived down the street from Tower Dairy all his life.

Andrew Novakovic, an agriculture economist at Cornell University who specializes in the dairy industry, said that he has heard of several Florida dairy farmers who have moved out of Florida to states like Georgia, Alabama and Texas, where land is less expensive and there are fewer environmental restrictions.

"There's an adjustment going on," he explained. "Larger farms are getting bigger and bigger and there's a kind of a saying: 'Get big or get out.' "

Unlike cattle ranchers, who make money by raising cows for beef and can adjust when they sell their cows to get the highest price, a dairy's business model is structured. Cows must be milked twice a day, every day. The milk is then picked up, packaged and marketed under a co-op rather than an individual farm. From there it is sold to grocery stores, Greek yogurt producers or other food manufacturers. But milk goes bad quickly, and it's heavy and expensive to transport. If prices in the Southeast United States are low, dairy operators don't have the option of stockpiling their product or selling to a foreign buyer.

Small dairy farms have struggled over the last couple of years as milk prices have remained low and feed costs have been high. Younger generations have not been kind to the dairy industry. Consumers have shifted breakfast preferences from cereals to more grab-and-go options like breakfast bars. Meanwhile, competition in the beverage sector has exploded with dozens of beverage alternatives that simply weren't around in previous generations, said Novakovic, the Cornell economist.

"Lifestyle changes and alternative beverages have really taken their toll," he said. "Then you have manufacturers come up with something without one molecule of anything that comes from the cow and have the audacity to call it milk."

Water and other environmental restrictions have added pressure. Sammy wagers that there will never be another dairy in Hillsborough County just because of how difficult it would be to secure another permit.

The roughly 40,000 remaining U.S. dairy farmers are milking more cows and getting more milk from them than ever before, USDA data shows.

Some dairy farmers wistfully recall the boom of the 1970s, when fast food joints relied heavily on boosting the flavor of cheap meat products by topping them off with a slice of gooey yellow cheese. That was before international trade agreements increased competition, and the U.S. government stepped in to prevent prices from falling too low. A family like the Busciglios could keep the farm at the same size for years and make a decent living.

In line with the rest of the agriculture industry, farms have scaled up to survive. Without selling artisan or specialty items directly to the consumer, most small operations can't survive bad prices for long.

"If you're going to be a dairy farmer today you've got to milk a lot of cows," said Dale McClellan, owner of M&B Dairy in Citrus County and fourth generation dairyman. He moved his herd of 150 cows from northern Hillsborough County to a new property in Citrus County more than 10 years ago after he realized that he couldn't scale his business with the footprint that he had.

"We felt like we were swimming upstream to milk enough cows to be profitable on this small amount of land with the city around us," he explained.

Now up to a herd of 700, he has plans to double in the next year or two. But that still isn't to the sweet spot, he said. "To milk cows and make money I think you need to be around 2,000 head."

In prior generations, that scale was nearly impossible. Dairies needed plenty of farmhands to milk an entire herd with a bucket and their own two hands. Someone else needed to siphon the milk into bottles and cap them. Sammy still keeps a browning photograph of his grandfather with a horse and buggy, with a sign advertising a quart of milk for 5 cents.

Automation has allowed farmers to save on labor. Dairymen can track the number of gallons each individual cow produces through an app on their smartphone. The process and science behind artificial insemination — which keeps the cows almost continuously pregnant so that they generate milk — has also been greatly refined through scientific advancements over the last decade.

Engineers have even developed a robotic milking machine, where the robot scans the tag on the cow's ear and milks her when she comes up to eat. McClellan is skeptical of the technology.

"We milk about 140 cows per hour with two people," he said. "How are you going to improve on that?"

At milking time, Tower Dairy's cows know where to go, and young cows adjust quickly by following the herd. Some push to the front of the line. Others dawdle in the back or prefer a particular side of the milking parlor, which holds 10 at a time. Jeff Busciglio is eye-level to the cow's belly and hits a button that shuts the gates behind the cows, holding them in place. With a wet towel and spray bottle, he wipes down and disinfects each teat before attaching a black plastic hose, which sucks the milk through at the pace of a steady, 4/4 cadence reminiscent of a marching band's base drum. The four short hoses meet at an intersection under the cow's udder, where a glass gauge shows the roughly two or three gallons of white milk flowing through plastic lines toward a stainless steel tank in a refrigerated room in the next building.

Some cows fidget as they relieve themselves on the floor of the parlor, splattering excrement on those standing too close. When that group files out, a high-powered hose directs the waste to the nearest drain. After milking, "the girls" make their way through a gated path to the pasture, where a meal of oats and hay will soon be piled into rows of wooden troughs. Lunch is followed by leisure time in the field, where they will build up another two to three gallons of milk for the evening routine.

At their new home, everyone needs to learn the new routine. On day one, a cow jumped a gate and nearly hurt herself as Jeff tried to herd her into the parlor.

The facility is just a few years old and can handle 16 cows at a time. CFL Dairy, founded by Chris Waters, became a side business after the logging family cleared the land around their farmhouse. But milk prices fell too low and the business became unsustainable, so it shut down last summer, Waters said. Not technically for sale, the Busciglios heard about the land from one of their inspectors, after deciding against buying a property they had considered in Mayo, Fla.

While even further from home, "it has everything we had desired," said Jeff's wife, Jana.

A green-roofed farmhouse for their family of four overlooks green hills and a large pond. Down the dirt driveway will be Sammy's house, with views of the dairy behind it. There's even a modular home on the property for a couple friends who have been in the dairy business all their lives and like to help raise the calves. There's a creek, space for hunting and room for their children to build forts and search for pine cones and graphite rocks.

A 20-minute drive from the nearest hotel, the landscape is so remote it's been used as the set for zombie apocalypse show The Walking Dead.

"You've got to put this in the story," Sammy laughs over breakfast at a nearby diner the morning after the move. "We went from eating in restaurants in Tampa to eating in a gas station in Georgia."

They chat with a couple of women from a nearby church.

"How long have you been farming?" one asks.

"Sixty-seven years for him and 43 years for me," Jeff answered. "That's all we know."

The final roundup: Hillsborough County's last dairy farm moves on 05/18/17 [Last modified: Saturday, May 20, 2017 12:09am]
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