Robert Duncan, milk is a natural—it runs in the family
By Leif Zurmuhlen
Duncan remembers the day his father sold the cows: April
1, 1972. Robert was 11 years old.
knew it was coming, and I was against it. I tried to talk
to my father about keeping the animals. My mother was tired.
The milk market stunk. There were six kids, and he had all
this equity here. He was 45 years old,” Robert says, resting
at a picnic table in the same backyard after a long day
of work. Behind him is the house where he grew up. Around
him is the farm and its barns and fields, and a sign for
the car-storage business his dad started after he set up
a tent and auctioned off the last 38 cows.
Duncan is a dairy name in Brunswick. One branch of the family
runs Duncan’s Dairy Bar on Hoosick Road. Another runs Sycaway
Creamery. The great-grandfather, also Robert Duncan, who
links them all, set up his children in business after a
long career selling milk from the back of a wagon, with
a dipper and a milk can, down in Troy beginning in 1906.
Earl M. Duncan, Robert’s son, was among the next generation
of Duncan dairymen, growing his business to be the sole
dairy for Central Markets, the supermarket that became Price
Duncan’s father raised purebred Holsteins and delivered
milk home to home, on routes that stretched into Averill
Park and down to Watervliet. In addition to milking his
own herd, which numbered up to 40, Duncan’s father bottled
and pasteurized milk from other farmers down the road at
Earl M. Duncan’s bottling facility and delivered it to his
A month ago, Duncan began milking at the farm again, pasteurizing
and bottling in a small, new facility he built at the front
end of his cow barn. The milk is available for sale onsite,
and at a few locations: Sunoco stations on Wolf Road and
Hoosick, Henry’s Meat Market in Waterford, Route 66 Meats
in Wynantskill, and Jiffy Marts in Schodack and Averill
Park. Saturdays he sells at the Brunswick Farmers Market,
and soon he’ll be delivering his milk to other outlets—a
new farmers market run by students at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute, La Posta’s in Speigletown and at Fresh Direct
This last market invites an immediate expansion. In building
his business, Duncan started small, with just four Holsteins.
This week he’ll be adding two more animals and another two
the following week. Daily yields are now 32 to 35 gallons,
and he’s selling out all he makes now, which reaches the
customer in glass bottles, half-gallons, quarts, and pints,
in whole milk or chocolate. Whatever the color, the milk
is cream topped, and kids fight for the privilege of drinking
the cream plug that rises to the top of the jar.
at the farmers market, Duncan stocks his stall well and
his helper Megan says it sells out fast, especially the
chocolate. Sometimes she’ll have to call to the farm for
him to bring more.
love it because it tastes different, a lot better. I’m not
into the natural stuff, but I don’t trust the hormones,”
says one woman, handing over two bottles, one half-gallon,
same?” Megan asks, and the woman says yes. The woman leaves
with a large bottle of white milk and a small bottle of
Another customer gets just a half-gallon of white, and says
he comes to the market to support the farmers. “If I don’t
get it here, I buy organic at the market. They don’t have
coffee milk though. I’m from New Hampshire,” he explains.
He also laments the lack of skim, as do many customers.
fall, Duncan will add a separator to his processing equipment
and be able to sell the skim milk so many people are requesting,
as well as half-and-half and heavy cream. Over the winter,
he plans to add American cheese to his list of products,
which already includes produce like corn and tomatoes. In
the spring he sells flowers, bedding plants and starts from
his three greenhouses.
While he’s always wanted to be a dairy farmer, he has done
a lot of other jobs along the way. After his father sold
the cows, he helped at cousin’s dairies, feeding, making
sure there was hay. As a young man, he continued to find
opportunities to farm, once working for 500 days straight
at a cousin’s farm where a Wal-mart is now.
remember being in the back of a tractor throwing the patties
of hay out to the cows,” Duncan says. He thinks of the farm
every time he sees the store.
In his early 20s he gave up on the dream of dairying and
moved to off-farm jobs such as construction and working
with food. He started a catering company with his first
wife, and worked for Price Chopper in their food-service
departments when he moved back to the family farm in 2000.
Throughout his many careers, Duncan made lists of what it
would cost to start a farm, and never wanted to undertake
the mountain of debt to buy equipment, animals and land.
The change came a few years ago, when his father died from
cancer. The death was swift, coming 17 days after diagnosis.
watch a disease destroy a man made me want to do something
natural for people,” he says. “Cancer is manmade. I’m convinced.
We’re all too busy trying to perfect nature. God had it
down from the start. We think we’re smarter, but we’re not.”
He and his father discussed dairy right up to the end. His
father told him he would have never sold the cows if he
knew his son would carry on with his boyhood desire to continue
the family tradition.
Duncan studied the market, looking at what other dairy farms
were doing. He knew he didn’t want to wholesale.
Many dairy farms sell their milk to cooperatives. Bulk tanks
come to farms, take milk, and bring it to facilities for
milk pricing system is a very complicated set of formulas
that go into the way milk is priced,” says David Balbian,
dairy specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension. “The
price of milk has become much more volatile in the last
20 or 30 years. Farmers could depend on what the price could
be, but now it goes up and down and it swings to a great
extent. 2006 was a bad year. 2007 was a great year, but
all the money people made in 2007, they used to pay the
bills they fell behind on in 2006.”
Balbian works with dairy farmers in six Central New York
counties, including Fulton, Montogomery, Herkimer, Otsego,
Chenango and Schoharie.
instability of milk prices was a hot topic at a workshop
in Wisconsin in June, one of five agriculture antitrust
hearings held by the Department of Justice this year. Hundreds
of dairy farmers and farm advocates came to Wisconsin to
talk about their experiences and lobby for change.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted that in the
past decade, the number of dairy farms has dropped from
110,000 to 65,000. A further peak at USDA numbers reveals
more startling figures: In 1970, right before Robert Duncan’s
father sold his cows, there were 648,000 dairy farms in
The transcript from the June hearing is available online
and reads like the raw material for a novel by the next
Upton Sinclair. The personal stories are riveting, and the
plain facts delivered within these often emotional narrations
John Peck of Family Farm Defenders said that there are more
prisoners than farmers in the country. He teaches economics
at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has a hard time
explaining to his students why there’s “no connection between
what farmers get at the farm gate and what consumers pay
at the store.”
The milk pricing system, another person said at the hearings,
is so complicated that only five people understand it and
four of them are dead. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange has
a lot to do with that pricing, which is tied to cheddar
cheese, rather than directly linked to fluid milk.
In April 2009, milk prices plunged so far that production
cost per hundredweight—the unit of measure that’s used in
milk sales—was $24.08, but farmers were paid only $10.78.
While the government offered a small payment to help make
up the difference, it didn’t begin to close the gap. Just
how many farms go bankrupt from the poor return is unclear,
but New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is holding a listening
session with constituent dairy farmers, and Washington is
paying attention to the problem.
To get some historical perspective, statistics from the
Department of Agriculture and Markets in New York State
illustrate the changing landscape of dairy. In 1950, 60,000
farms had 1.3 million cows. By 1975, 17,000 farms had just
under a million cows. In 2000, there were 686,000 cows and
17, 482 farmers. The volume of milk production, however,
reveals another story. Half as many cows are yielding not
just as much milk but more, about another 50 percent.
I was growing up, if you had 100 cows you had the biggest
farm around. Now that’s average,” says Cornell Cooperative
Extension’s Balbain. “There’s been huge increases in efficiency
and productivity. Production per cow compared to 50 years
ago is probably about double. That’s come about with the
use of research and technology.” The technology he refers
to are in all areas of the industry, from the processing
end to understanding cow’s metabolism, and better management
of field crops for feed.
Just because fewer cows are giving more milk doesn’t explain
why dairy country is turning into housing. MacChesney Avenue
Extension, where Duncan lives with his family and farms,
is half farmland and half apartment complexes. Many fields
are posted with signs for further developments. While some
of his relatives are still in the dairy business, plenty
of farmers are out; he was able to furnish his business
with equipment that cost 20 to 30 cents on the dollar. The
tools of his trade came from dairies that didn’t survive.
clean room at the front of a refurbished barn is not crowded.
There’s a small tank where milk is heated to 150 degrees
Fahrenheit and held for 30 minutes. The low-heat pasteurization
preserves more enzymes than flash pasteurization, which
heats to a higher temperature for a shorter period of time.
A few other small dairies in the area, such as Battenkill
and Meadowbrook, and beyond, Ronnybrook, which largely supplies
a downstate market, also pasteurize at low heat.
After his father died, Robert observed what those dairies
were doing. He knew he didn’t want to wholesale and be a
slave to the vagaries of milk pricing. He saw that retail
was the answer to staying solvent in dairy and started off
building a nursery and vegetable business as he studied
the milk industry. It took about a year to develop the dairy,
working closely with the Department of Agriculture and Markets
to meet state standards for running a plant.
Duncan is seeking to re-create and improve the dairy that
he knew as a kid. A big difference is the community involvement
he seeks to develop.
isn’t about me,” he says. “I want to get kids out of the
city. They think milk comes from a store.”
Visitors to the farm can see the facility and the animals.
Sundays especially, families come out and get their milk
for the week. He plans to invite school groups, have them
sample the milk, and hopefully, get their parents to the
farm, too. He sees this as good marketing, and good education.
want to catch them at an early age. Show the importance
of what we eat, how we grow food,” he says.
The “we” is an integral part of Duncan’s Dairy Farm. He
rented land up and down his road, paid the farmer for the
use of his equipment, and seeded 62 acres of alfalfa and
22 acres of corn. This will be food for the winter and next
year. His cousin Jackie works for him, along with other
Still, what he’s doing is seen as dangerous in the farming
community. People tell his wife to tell him he’s nuts in
the head. Their lack of faith doesn’t bother him. He’s gone
into debt for this operation, and he’s researched the business.
He’s confident that following his dream is the right thing
to do and is happy to be setting up his kids in business,
much as his great-grandfather did.
got a payment every month, but I’ve got milk flowing into
the bottle,” he says, smiling. A light rain is trying to
beat the heat off the muggy late afternoon. Dinner is next,
and the day will end, another day to begin much as today
did, much as days began for Robert Duncan’s ancestors, with
the cows on his mind.