Steed’s Dairy from Past to Present
By Casey Willis
It was the precipice of the Depression Era, and John Steed Sr. was a farmer in Lincoln County who had sharecroppers. Anticipating that the price of cotton would soon skyrocket, Steed bought all the cotton from his sharecroppers before harvest. But, in 1929, the Depression hit, and the price of the cotton fell from 18 cents a pound to six cents a pound. Cotton prices would be slow to recover in the following years.
Looking to start over, in 1934 Steed sold everything he had in Lincolnton and bought some land in Columbia County off of Wrightsboro Road in Grovetown, where he began operating a small cotton farm on the side while working as a butcher in downtown Augusta. Over the years, he accumulated more and more land. His son, John Steed Jr., worked downtown at Bryson’s Dairy, delivering milk to stores and schools while helping farm the family land. In 1946, at age 16, he convinced his father to purchase a few Jersey cows to milk. In 1953, at age 23, he made a trip to Griffin, GA where he bought Cora and Alice, two of the first Holstein cows ever introduced into Columbia County. At the time, other farmers, including his own father, thought he was crazy for paying almost $600 a piece for the black and whites, since cows were only selling for $80 - $100 back then. However, when those two cows produced more milk than some of the other farmer’s jersey herds, black and white soon became favorite colors in the county.
Over the years, the father/son duo turned the dairy farm into a prosperous family business. John Steed Jr.’s sons, John III, Jim, and Pearre, began working on the family farm as children. These days, the three sons live on and operate the 194 acre farm, which consists of 124 Holstein and Jersey-Holstein cows. John Steed Jr. passed away in December, 2009, after nearly 64 years of dairy farming.
In the 1960’s, Steed’s Dairy expanded into hauling its own milk and picking up the milk of other dairy farmers to take to the processing plants. For many years, the hauling business was a prosperous venture. As things began to change on the business side of agriculture, milk hauling became not as profitable. As more dairies went out of business because of the low milk price paid to farmers, the trucks had to travel further to pick up the milk. This not only added to fuel costs for the local haulers, but also required milk to be shipped in from other states to supply the growing populations in states such as Georgia and Florida.
Now, most of the milk locally produced in Georgia (including the milk from Steed’s Dairy) is shipped to Florida, and milk that is sold in Georgia comes from farms as far away as Texas.
As the hauling business became less profitable, so did the business of dairy farming. Long gone are the days of the small family farm; as many farms have gone out of business and sold their property, corporations, most recently international corporations, have purchased the land and created large “factory farms” in the United States.
In 2005, Jim Steed began searching for a way to save the family farm. One option was to sell the valuable Columbia County land to a developer and move the farm to a more rural area with cheaper land to spread out on, but he knew he could not bear to see a neighborhood or shopping center on the pastures that had been in the family for nearly 70 years. He began to revisit an old dream to process his own milk, but as he researched the cost of a processing facility, the dream began to feel more unrealistic. The equipment would cost close to a half million dollars. He also began to talk to other farmers who had started their own creameries, only to go out of business by losing shelf space to their big business competitors.
He began to brainstorm about how he could raise the capital to start this creamery, while ensuring that there would be a secure market for his product. He still believed his milk would sell well as long he introduced people to the product on the farm first rather than going straight to the supermarkets. Milk from Steed’s Dairy is hormone free and is fresh from the cow as opposed to the milk in area stores which has been shipped in from other states, and he felt that people would purchase his milk once they knew about it. The results of a feasibility study performed by the agriculture extension service of the University of Georgia confirmed his suspicions, concluding that the milk would sell well in the area.
Around this time, Jim began to hear about the growing popularity of corn mazes around the country. Many farmers faced with the same dilemmas as the Steed family were turning to agritourism as a way to grow a profitable business while keeping the integrity of the farm, teach the community about agriculture, and offer family-friendly activities on the farm. He had long been giving occasional private tours to school children, and so this seemed like a natural fit. Although it would still cost a lot of money to develop, a corn maze would be a fun and less expensive way to raise the capital to eventually build a creamery. In addition, the farm seemed to be located in a great location- nestled perfectly in Columbia County, a market seeking family-oriented activities, in addition to being only miles away from Fort Gordon.
Five years later, the dream is becoming a reality. Steed’s Dairy has created a three-phase development plan with the first phase focusing on a corn maze on its property this fall. In Phase Two, The Market at Steed’s Dairy would open, where local growers could sell their goods and the dairy farm could sell its milk in a refrigerated section. Eventually, in Phase Three, The Creamery at Steed’s Dairy would open to produce and sell milk, cheese and ice cream and offer behind the scenes tours to the public.
The Steed family thinks there is a lot of growth potential within this phased plan. They have spent the past year in busy preparations for the corn maze, and have encountered more obstacles than expected, such as zoning and planning issues. When Jim took his plans to the county, he realized that the only land survey of the property on file was created in the 1930’s and was drawn in pencil on a small sheet of paper. The land had to be resurveyed. Another important detail in planning was to ensure the corn field was properly irrigated. The farm had long been growing corn for silage, a type of cow feed made from corn, and there were many years that the corn died due to drought, so everyone understood the importance of irrigating the field for the maze.
The Maize at Steed’s Dairy will create a rustic feel to new buildings by using tin roofs and recycled lumber. Old tongue and groove planks are being used to make a stage where local musicians can perform. The petting zoo barn is reconstructed to look similar to one of the first barns on the dairy farm. Originally, the barn was on the other side of Wrightsboro Road from the pastures- the cows traveled to the barn via a tunnel that ran under the road. Herding the cattle to the other side of the road became cumbersome, and in the mid 1980’s, a new barn was built where it remains today.
While there were once over 40 dairy farms in Columbia County, the city has grown up around it and Steed’s Dairy is the last remaining dairy farm in either Columbia or Richmond Counties. This fall, Steed’s Dairy is doing more than just milking cows, it is inviting the public to the farm in Grovetown for a corn maze with activities for the family such as a petting zoo, jumping pillow, PVC slides, games, and hayrides.
The Maize at Steed’s Dairy is approximately two miles from I-20 on Wrightsboro Road in Grovetown and opens to the public on September 20, 2014. We are available for private events, so contact us to schedule a company picnic, birthday party or family reunion.