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Tom and Alice Mason find success through diversifying

2021 Master Farmers: The dairy farmers from Kent County, Md., are well-known for their agricultural and community involvement.

Nearly 47 years ago, Tom and Alice Mason started their farming journey together on a 150-acre rented farm.

It was a different time then. The Masons had heifers, raised feeder pigs and market hogs, and plowed their 150 acres using an Oliver 77 2-bottom plow and 8-foot disk.

A lot has changed since then, but the Masons have adapted. Planting equipment has gotten bigger with GPS guiding all their seed placement; genomic testing is now crucial to continued development of their Jersey and Holstein herds; and land has gotten a lot pricier and tougher to come by.

But Tom and Alice have kept their focus on keeping their Mason’s Fawnwood Farm profitable and viable in a region where dairy farms have all but vanished.

Tom is originally from southern Chester County, Pa. He stayed in Pennsylvania until he was 8, then moved to Florida with his family to follow his father’s job. The family then moved to Port Deposit, Md., where he was raised until attending college at the University of Maryland.

While he wasn’t raised on a farm, Tom still did things in 4-H with animals. When he was 6 years old, he earned 50 cents a week by helping a neighbor bring hay to his cows. When he was 10, he started helping on his uncle’s dairy farm in Nottingham, Pa., on weekends and in the summer.

He turned his parent’s 5-acre property into his own little farm, buying a calf from his uncle and raising several other small animals.

Even as a little girl, Alice was busy helping on her parents' dairy farm, the same farm she and Tom now own and operate. It was originally purchased by her grandmother, Margaret Morris.

Growing up, Alice was active in 4-H showing dairy cows, sewing and participating in fashion revue.

She attended Wesley College where she studied secretarial science and took a job with a local Nationwide Insurance agency. Along the way, she and Tom developed a relationship and married in 1975.

Getting started

Things were tight when they started farming part time. Tom was an Extension agent for University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, and Alice worked off the farm.

Tom’s salary was a princely $7,500 a year, but he was able to rent a room in Chestertown for only $35 a month.

Their first farm was in Kennedyville near the Chesapeake Bay. They raised heifers and hogs, which were trucked to an Esskay buying station in Wye Mills where Tom would normally get 63 cents a pound. But dairy was always the long-term goal. By the 1980s, the hogs were gone.

“Our plan was to milk cows,” he says.

Tom quit his job in Extension in 1977 to pursue farming full time. The couple started milking cows on Alice’s father’s farm in 1977. They had 30 cows to start and milked a neighbor’s cows while the neighbor was getting his barn ready.

Their plan was to buy older cows that were pregnant as they were cheaper, still provided milk and were bred for future production and herd growth. They commonly sold groups of cows to other farms, providing a supplemental income.

In 1986, the couple sold most of their herd and bought 40 more cows for a lower price. It was around this time that they made probably their most important decision. Their kids wanted Jerseys for showing, so Tom and Alice decided to buy a Jersey cow at a local sale for $450. Back then, Tom says, dairy farmers with Jerseys were ridiculed, but he was able to buy some pretty good animals.

“It was a cheap way to get milk, because they milk and the kids were interested in showing,” he says.

Today, the dairy has grown with Jerseys as the primary type, but also some Holsteins. The higher components from the Jerseys combined with higher production from the Holsteins make an attractive combination, Tom says.

The 550 Jerseys average 18,093 pounds, 5.0% butterfat and 3.5% protein. The 133 Holsteins average 28,073 pounds, 3.9% butterfat and 3.0% protein. Another 20 Ayrshires average 20,000 pounds, 4.4% butterfat and 3.2% protein.  

All milk is shipped to Land-O-Lakes.

Growing the land

The Masons grow all their own feed for the year — a combination of corn silage, barley, triticale, alfalfa and soybeans.

Bunk silage space has expanded over the past five years, and their upright silos have largely sat idle.

To grow their land base, they’ve purchased neighboring farms, using some “innovative” financing to do it. One example is a 100-acre farm they bought in 1986 for $170,000. Tom explains that he had $100,000 in cash, but was short of the $70,000 to buy the farm outright.

Rather than get financed, he came up with an idea to pay the landowner $25,000 a year for three years. The landowner liked the deal, and it was approved.

In 2000, a farm near Worton was listed for $1 million. The farm, he says, was sitting idle for a year, and Tom knew that the bank was pressuring the owners to sell. He made an offer for $475,000, but the landowner and bank initially said no. He then came up with an additional $25,000, but only if it could be paid at $5,000 a year for five years.

After some negotiations, the deal was signed. He raised the money by selling land he already had.

An adjacent 40-acre parcel with development potential came up for sale, and he bought it. But in 2005, as the housing boom was taking shape in Maryland, he and Alice sold the 40-acre parcel and started buying land in other states — Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, Louisiana and New York. He took advantage of 1031 Exchanges to buy up farms with good income potential.

A 1031 Exchange is a tax-deferred swap program where a farmer can defer capital gains taxes by replacing it with a “like-kind” asset of equal or higher value.

The properties are rented out to other farmers, and this created yet another income source. But to do it right requires quick thinking and knowing local real estate markets, so it’s not for everyone.

“You better have every line dotted and every T crossed with those 1031s because the government is looking to find something they can cash in,” Tom says.

All told, Alice and Tom own 4,450 acres across 26 farms, more than half of which is in other states.

Venturing into cheese

Around 2000, Tom and his friend John Nunn were driving home from the Maryland State Fair when they started brainstorming ideas for value-added products from milk.

This is where the idea for what would become Eve’s Cheese was born. The two heard of an Amish cheesemaker in Quarryville and decided to visit the cheesemaker.

After talking to the cheesemaker, they agreed on the man making 700 pounds of cheese in 2001. Tom and Alice came up with a name and label, Eve’s Cheese, which was named after their daughter Katie’s old Jersey cow, “Eve.”

The cheese was an instant hit. The 700 pounds of Colby and cheddar were sold at the Chestertown farmers market and quickly sold out.

Production ramped up, and today they sell 10,000 pounds a year at local farmers markets, roadside stands and in a limited number of grocery stores.

“We can’t get him to do it faster than he does. In the summer, we’re picking up cheese ever week,” Alice says.

She and Tom weigh the cheese and label it in a storefront in Chestertown.

Giving back and getting back

With all their success, Tom and Alice have never forgotten to give back.

They’ve run a dairy cattle leasing program, leasing animals to more than 20 area youths through the years. They’ve also devoted lots of time to many community and ag-focused organizations.

Alice is the chairwoman of the county’s FSA committee, while Tom is president of the Kent County Commissioners.

The Masons have been named Kent County 4-H Family of the Year, and in 2017, they were awarded Friend of 4-H in Grateful Appreciation for Outstanding Service to the Maryland 4-H program.

In 2000, Alice was awarded the W. Sherand Wilson Service Award by the state 4-H program.

Looking ahead

While Tom and Alice are still owners of the farm, their youngest son, Andrew, has largely taken over the farm’s operation.

The couple have three other children: Jonathan, the oldest, who helps on the farm; Jeremy, the second-oldest, who is a controller for a company in Raleigh, N.C; and the youngest, Katie Epstein, who is assistant regional manager of AgChoice Farm Credit.

The farm’s last major expansion was in 2012 when the herd was expanded from 80 cows to 300 cows. Another barn is being built to relieve overcrowding.  

The milking facilities were last upgraded in 2012, but they are being upgraded again from a double-eight parallel to double-12 parallel parlor.

The barn is a flush barn bedded with sand. The sand lane allows for the sand to be reclaimed, and the flush water is reused.

Even as the dairy industry has gone through its struggles, Tom and Alice remain optimistic about the industry. But thinking outside the box and venturing into other areas is also critical, too.

“The other thing I think farmers need to do, whether you’re a dairy farmer or a grain farmer, is to diversify to a certain extent out of agriculture just to get some diversified income,” Tom says. “But it’s a diversification out of agriculture, so that when maybe things are slower in agriculture, you have something to fall back on.”

P. Thomas and Alice Mason, at a glance

Operation: Fawnwood Farm, Chestertown, Md.; 4,450 acres, 1,336 head of cows, heifers and young stock

Family: Four children — Jonathan, Jeremy, Andrew and Katie; seven grandchildren

Ag and community involvement: Members or leaders of Kent County Farm Bureau; Maryland Farm Bureau; Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation; U.S. Holstein Association; Maryland Holstein Association; American Jersey Cattle Association; Genex; Kent County 4-H Clover Calf Club; St. James UM Church; Omicron Delta Kappa; Alpha Zeta

TAGS: Dairy
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