Steed's Dairy from Past to Present
It was the precipice of the Depression Era, and John Steed Sr. was a farmer with sharecroppers in Lincoln County. 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 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, Georgia 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 each 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.
In the 1960’s, Steed’s Dairy expanded into hauling its own milk and picking up the milk of other dairy farms 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 places such as Georgia and Florida. 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. John Steed Jr. passed away in December 2009, after nearly 64 years of dairy farming. 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 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 keep the family farm going. One option was to sell the valuable Columbia County land to a developer and move the farm to a more rural area with less expensive land to spread out on, but he hated to part with his family land. 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.
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, 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 continue farming. In addition, the farm seemed to be in the perfect location- nestled perfectly between Columbia and Richmond Counties, a market seeking family-oriented activities, in addition to being only miles from Fort Gordon.
Five years later, the dream became a reality. 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 cornfield 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 opened to the public for the first time in the fall of 2010. It created a rustic feel to new buildings by using tin roofs and recycled lumber. Old tongue and groove planks were used to make a stage where local musicians can perform. The petting zoo barn was constructed 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 run 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 alone, the city grew up around it, and Steed’s Dairy was the last remaining dairy farm in both Columbia and Richmond Counties. Although the cows had to be moved to a family friend’s dairy in Louisville after the passing of Jim’s brother John in 2015, the Steed family is still inviting the public to the farm in Grovetown to enjoy time in this little slice of country with their family and friends. Visitors can learn about farm animals and even see a cow being milked. Families can take a hayride around the pasture and play together on the jumping pillow and giant slide. And of course, the older generation can spend time reminiscing about days gone by growing up on their parents’ and grandparents’ farms and now getting to share in that experience with their own grandchildren.
The Maize at Steed’s Dairy is approximately two miles from I-20 on Wrightsboro Road in Grovetown and opens to the public on weekends in the fall and for private events and birthday parties in the spring and fall.