Detour farmer works to keep the dairy industry alive Maryland task force reports Carroll, state losing farms

July 22, 1992|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff Writer

Detour dairy farmer Myron L. Wilhide says some of his neighbors and friends are smarter than he.

They have given up the long hours in the barn and field, the frustrations with the weather and fluctuating milk prices that he has battled for 30 years, he adds wryly.

But Mr. Wilhide, 52, intends to stay in the business and now is part of a statewide effort to keep the dairy industry alive.

"People want the most abundant, cheapest and safest food; we have to keep working on it," he said.

Mr. Wilhide is one of 26 members of a task force appointed by state agriculture officials last spring to study the industry and recommend ways to help it survive.

He represents the Maryland Farm Bureau on the task force; he chairs the Farm Bureau's dairy committee.

A preliminary task force report is gloomy. It says the industry in Maryland is at "a major crossroads" and that the state is losing dairy farms at a higher rate than other states.

If nothing is done now, it is likely the state will lose 60 percent of its existing 1,120 commercial dairy farms in the next 20 years, the report says.

The loss of dairy farms means milk and dairy products for Maryland consumers must be brought in from other states, which adds to the cost, said Boyd Cook, manager of Dairymen Inc., a milk cooperative in Sykesville.

Maryland farmers now produce only 50 percent of the milk and dairy products consumed in the state, the report says.

Carroll farms produce a large share of that. The county is the state's second-largest milk producer; Frederick County is the first. Carroll and Frederick together produce 623,000 pounds of milk, 46 percent of the state's supply, the report says.

But Carroll also is losing dairy farms. Farmers leave the business for a variety of reasons, Mr. Wilhide said. They sell their land to developers who offer a good price, or they retire and have no one to pass the farm to, or they leave because they're no longer making money.

The 1980s brought many hot, dry summers in Carroll. Eight of the 10 years were bad ones, he said. The extra money farmers spend in hard years can't be made up in good ones, he said.

"There's no incentive for a young person to put in the hours," he said.

Carroll lost 62 percent of its dairy farms from 1960 to 1989, according to a 1989 county planning department report. In 1960, there were 419 farms; by 1989, there were 161.

The task force is looking into whether Maryland should have a state milk-marketing commission to regulate pricing. Pennsylvania and Virginia have such commissions.

A commission could help Maryland producers compete with out-of-state producers, Mr. Cook said.

The price farmers are paid for their milk should more accurately ++ reflect their costs, he said. Farmers near Maryland's urban areas pay more in taxes and to comply with environmental regulations, he said.

Producers in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia could form a pricing cooperative to help make sure prices are high enough to cover farmers' costs, Mr. Cook said.

A cooperative would not raise the price of milk to consumers, but would help protect dairy farmers from price gouging by producers in states where it costs less to produce milk, Mr. Wilhide said.

The dairy industry generates $266 million a year in Maryland. When related industries, such as equipment and feed suppliers, are included, the dairy industry becomes a $798 million-a-year industry, the report says.

The task force also is looking into forming a state dairymen's association, which would do research and provide scholarships for students interested in the industry.

The group is studying whether more education and improved science and technology could help dairy farmers become more productive. Maryland's rank in milk production per cow dropped from 10th in the U.S. in 1980 to 32nd in 1990.

The task force plans to sponsor public hearings later this year before issuing a final report, but dates and places have not been set, said member Robert R. Peters, a Cooperative Extension Service dairy specialist in College Park.

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