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 dairy owner Sammy Busciglio, adding that the offer was too much money to “afford not to sell it.”
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 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. Though Busciglio dreamed of buying out the other owners, the price for the remaining 170 acres was too high.
The $13 million sale was finalized in early May. In the farm’s place will go a subdivision of 1,000 homes.
Rather than taking the payout and retiring, 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 Busciglio family has been milking cows, growing hay and raising livestock on a nearly 250-acre plot in unincorporated Hillsborough County since it was first purchased by Francis Romano Busciglio, her husband, Joe, and her two brothers in 1950.
“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.
His own four children were raised 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 tree line.
But over the years the farm has become suffocated by urban sprawl and has gone through challenging times.
“Every business isn’t profitable all the time,” Jeff said. “We’re in a good place now.”
Sammy and Jeff spent all spring preparing to leave the flat Florida farm, with its hurricane-stricken milking parlor, sandy soil and a barn that is no longer red. By mid-March, they 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 before the move.
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.
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 were dairies everyplace. Now, it’s houses,” said Cecil Lay, 81, a retired slaughterhouse owner 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 said. “Larger farms are getting bigger and bigger and there’s a kind of a saying: ‘Get big or get out.’ ”
Unlike cattle ranchers, who 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, yogurt producers or other food manufacturers. But milk goes bad quickly, and it’s heavy and expensive to transport.
Small dairy farms have struggled over the last couple of years as milk prices have remained low and feed costs have been high. Consumers have shifted breakfast preferences from cereals to more grab-and-go options. Meanwhile, competition in the beverage sector has exploded with dozens of beverage alternatives that simply weren’t around in previous generations, said Novakovic.
Water and other environmental restrictions have added pressure. Sammy wagers that there will never be another dairy in Hillsborough County because it would be so difficult 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.
In line with the rest of the agriculture industry, farms have scaled up to survive. Without selling specialty items directly to consumers, most small operations can’t survive bad prices for long.
At a diner the morning after the move to Georgia, Sammy and his family chatted with women from a nearby church.
“How long have you been farming?” one asked. “Sixty-seven years for him and 43 years for me,” Jeff answered. “That’s all we know.”