COLORA — For more than 50 years, the Kilby name has been somewhat synonymous with Cecil County, first as a large farm operation, later with county politics and today, perhaps most prominently, in milk and ice cream.

After decades of working the land, serving the county and tending to loyal customers though, Bill and Phyllis Kilby are quietly retiring, having sold their 480-acre farm and Kilby Cream operations to two couples who they’ve known through the years.

On March 1, the Kilbys turned their operations over to Cliff and Andrea Sensenig and Ben and Liz Flahart, of Little Britain and Quarryville, Pa., respectively.

The Sensenigs are accomplished dairy farmers, having earned the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s 2014 Sustainability Award for its co-op manure digester program — a green energy technology that the Kilbys also utilize.

“We’re both fourth-generation dairy farmers who grew up on farms,” Andrea said of her and her husband. “It’s in our blood.”

Meanwhile, the Flaharts grew up on farms and today run a crop farm and a trucking company.

Andrea said she and her husband had always dreamed about getting into retail, but they already had more established competitors in southern Lancaster County, Pa. When they heard through the farming community grapevine that the Kilbys were quietly shopping their operation, Andrea said they jumped at the chance.

“It was probably five or six months of back-and-forth discussions about how a transfer might work,” she recalled. “When it was official, we were so excited. We see a lot of opportunity here.”

While the Sensenigs and Flaharts have known and worked with each other over the years, they have never been partners in an operation.

“We know each other’s personalities though, so we thought this opportunity would be a good fit,” Andrea said.

Primarily, Cliff Sensenig manages the herd of dairy cows, while Ben Flahart handles the farm’s crops. Andrea Sensenig oversees the Colora dairy production plant and Liz Flahart helps with the company’s marketing and event planning. The couples also hired a new Kilby Creamery store manager, Katie Holmes.

“It’s been a good fit because everyone has their own little area,” Andrea said.

While Andrea and her husband previously milked about 100 cows on their Pennsylvania farm, taking over the Kilby herd of about 350 cows took a bit more planning and management of additional employees.

“Most of the employees stayed and made it a pretty smooth transition for all of us,” she said. “Right after we took over, we had to think about ramping up for ice cream season, so this fall it will be good to step back and really take a look over the operation.”

Andrea said it was important for the new owners to keep the familiar Kilby brand, even without a Kilby family member directly involved, which is partly why the transfer was relatively quiet in public.

“The Kilbys have built such a good brand that it would have been silly to undo that five to 10 years of branding,” she said.

While Bill, 72, and Phyllis Kilby, 69, were looking to scale back on their involvement in work, they had no heir apparent in their immediate family. Although their daughter, Megan Coleman, was involved in Kilby Cream’s operation, she’s taken a position with Cecil County Public Library following the sale, Bill explained.

“We had grown so much that no one child could take over it all,” he said. “It works out that way sometimes.”

“So we really wanted to help these young couples achieve their dreams. They deserve it.”

Cognizant of the difficulties that young farmers often face in attempting to start out in the business, such as steep land costs and loan terms, the Kilbys sought to aid the next generation with their established farm, rather than make a quick profit.

“This is millions of dollars, and we want to make it work for them,” Bill added, explaining that their agreement will help transition the young farmers into running a full-fledged, multi-pronged operation. “We’re taking it one step at a time. That’s really the only way to make a transfer like this work.”

He was confident in the expertise of the couples taking over the well-known Kilby brand though, Bill said.

“They’re very good farmers, very good cow farmers. There is always some concern about the products (when you sell an operation), but they’ve done everything they need to do to have a good product,” he said. “Their milk quality is very good, they want to please the public. They also want to expand and improve the delivery service.”

In fact, that Kilby Cream home delivery service, which offers fresh milk, ice cream, butter, pork, beef and more, is already growing under the watch of the new owners. Currently about 900 customers in Cecil County, southern Pennsylvania and New Castle County, Del., subscribe to the service, which added a community supported agriculture (CSA) produce box as an option this summer along with additional beef and pork cuts.

“It’s really taken off. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on the CSA boxes,” Andrea said. “Right now we’re just learning what we’ve got, but someday I’d love to offer yogurts or cheeses in the plant. That’s going to take some time to learn though.”

Having lived at the family homestead at 785 Firetower Road for 56 years, Bill said he and Phyllis have no plans on leaving their longtime home, nor withdrawing from other passions, such as land preservation — Bill has served on the board of directors for the Cecil Land Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to land preservation in northern Cecil County, since its inception. Under the agreement with the new owners, the Kilbys will be allowed to live at their home for as long as they please.

“We’ve been here since 1961 and we plan on staying here,” Bill said. “Phyllis and I have a commitment to the community. We want to live here.”

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