As Milk Prices Fall, Life On The Farm Sours

'Now, We're Worse Off Than In The '80s'

April 03, 1991|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff writer

Dairy farmer Myron L. Wilhide says he's holding his breath these days. But the usual barnyard smells aren't the culprit -- it's milk prices that stink.

"It's kind of dismal," said Wilhide, who milks 170 cows with his brother and father on a farm in Detour.

"We're just holding our breath," hoping prices rise soon, he said.

Milk prices paid to area farmers are the lowest since 1979, saidBoyd Cook, manager of Dairymen Inc., a cooperative in Sykesville.

Across the county, farmers are trying to cut costs and work more efficiently to compensate for lower incomes.

Malcolm D. Hoff, a dairyfarmer in Uniontown, said he earned a total of $20,000 less in December, January and February than in the same months a year ago.

"People didn't get rich in 1990," he said.

But he added, "We know it will get better sooner or later."

John W. Wysong, an economist withthe University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in College Park, Prince George's County, said milk prices began dropping last August. He expects them to stay low through June.

Prices dropped because too much milk and too many milk products were on the market, he said.

In 1989, prices were up because overseas demand was burgeoning, he said. Now, European markets have plenty of their own milk.

"Export possibilities last year were way down," said Cook, adding that national production was up about 3 percent.

Farmers are paid per100 pounds of milk, or about 11.6 gallons, he said.

The price per100 pounds for farmers in the co-op was about $3 less in February than a year earlier, Cook said.

The average dairy farmer in Marylandwill earn one-quarter to one-third less profit than last year, Wysong said.

Wilhide said his profits for 1991 will be off 25 percent from last year.

"I'm afraid we haven't seen the tight time yet," hesaid. "Hopefully, my banker will understand."

Wilhide, who has been farming for 31 years, said he's never seen a bigger drop in pricesfrom one year to the next.

"It's terrible. Last year was a breathof fresh air. It really gave us a breather. Now we're worse off thanin the '80s," he said.

Farmers suffered through some drought years in the county in the 1980s, but last year brought ideal weather, a bumper crop and good milk prices.

"Supply and demand worked out, and prices went up," said Wilhide, who also farms 600 acres.

"The risks are so high. Now, the good years aren't good enough to make up for the bad year," he said.

C. William Knill, a Mount Airy dairy farmer and president of the Carroll County Farm Bureau, said he expectshis income to drop about 15 percent this year.

"We're used to these fluctuations somewhat," he said.

Last spring, prices rose higher than many had expected; now they're down again, he said.

"You just have to trim corners," Knill said.

Hoff, who milks 110 cows with his son, Bruce, said he has depleted his savings to pay the bills.

"It really makes you feel sorry for these young kids who are trying to pay interest," he said, referring to younger farmers who have mortgages to pay.

To save money, Wilhide said he is repairing equipment himself, rationing supplies and selling cows that aren't efficient milk producers. He also probably won't take a vacation.

"It's very depressing," said the 51-year-old farmer. "I'm not going to fight it many more years."

Wysong said the dairy farmers hit hardest arethose with large herds (200 or more cows), outstanding debt and highlabor costs.

The price of milk for the consumer dropped last fallwhen prices paid to farmers began to drop, he said. But the price ofmilk in the store hasn't changed much recently, he said.

Farmers receive about 40 percent of the retail price for a gallon of milk, Wysong said.

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