Dairy's dwindling role in Maryland As profits disappear, 40 farmers a year are calling it quits

September 09, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

LEWISTOWN -- Harold Lenhart scratches the head of a 4-week-old Holstein and wonders if the 110-acre Frederick County dairy farm he has worked since 1969 will still be around by the time the calf reaches peak milk production in four years.

For a variety of reasons -- most of them dealing with economics -- Maryland has lost about 20 percent of its dairy farms over the past four years.

The decline continues, and the rural landscape of central Maryland, the heart of the state's dairy industry, is changing forever.

"We're still losing about 40 farms a year," said John W. Wysong, a professor of agriculture economics at the University of Maryland and a consultant to a state task force that is studying the financial situation of the state's dairy industry.

Lenhart, 62, is a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder with large callused hands. But he is not certain that hard work will keep his farm -- Len-Land Acres -- from becoming the next victim.

Out in his farm office -- a windowless, 12-foot-square paneled room cluttered with cardboard boxes, work boots, plastic buckets, clothing, rope and an assortment of other things you would find around a farm -- Lenhart leans back in a vinyl-covered chair with foam protruding in at least three spots -- and talks

about the problem he and his neighbors face.

"When I bought this farm in 1969 I milked 30 cows," he said. "Today we milk 300, but I'm no better off. I'm putting in more hours, but I'm not making any more money. My standard of living hasn't improved."

Lenhart, who rents an additional 1,000 acres which he farms with the help of his grown sons, blames the uncertain future of his farms and others on production costs that have risen much faster than the size of milk checks.

"I remember back in 1964, we were getting $7 [per hundredweight] for milk, and a pickup truck cost $3,000 to $3,500. Today I'm getting $14 for my milk -- and this is up from $11 a year and a half ago -- and a pickup is close to $30,000, if you want four-wheel drive.

"It's the same for all farm equipment. An 80-horsepower tractor was $6,000 to $7,000. Today it's $40,000."

Lenhart's farm will gross about $800,000 this year. He hopes to break even.

"It will be close," he said.

And it's not that someone is milking the profits out of the operation. Lenhart said he and his three sons will be paid $18,000 each this year. That's for a seven-day-a-week job with hours that typically start at 5 a.m. and may not end until 9 or 10 at night during the harvesting season.

The farm employs one full-time worker at $6 an hour. "I would like to have another, but we can't afford it," Lenhart said.

The price Maryland farmers receive for their milk has essentially remained flat since 1981, according to Wysong. Adjusted for inflation, prices have actually declined.

This is due primarily to the gradual withdrawal of the federal government in regulating the supply and price of dairy products.

Price structure is tough

"It has been tough," said Wysong, who grew up on a dairy farm in Harford County and has followed the industry for 35 years. "There is no question about it. The price structure has been very, very tough."

Stanley W. Fultz, a dairy science extension agent assigned to Frederick County, said the price farmers receive for their milk has been in the $12 to $14 per hundredweight price range for 17 years. Only within recent months has the price risen, to about $16.

In this price environment, Wysong said, "Farmers have had to sell more and more milk just to stay even."

Selling more milk, Wysong said, involves a significant capital investment in larger herds, additional barns and more machinery.

Wysong estimated that it would cost a farmer about $240,000 to boost the size of his herd from 90 cows, which is about the average for the state, to the 150 or 200 needed to maintain a reasonable standard of living.

"We're not talking about big profits," he said, "just a reasonable living."

Many farmers are reluctant to make the investment, and the banks are becoming increasingly hesitant to finance such expansion, according to Wysong.

The net result is more farmers are selling their herds.

Asked how many of his neighbors have gotten out of dairy farming, Harold Lenhart Jr. thought for a few seconds and responded: "The Luceys are gone. The Heflins sold their cows. The Bell brothers got out. "

According to figures compiled by Wysong and Dennis C. West-hoff, chairman of the Department of Animal Science at the University of Maryland, the number of dairy farms in the state has fallen to about 970 from 1,200 in 1992.

Frederick Co. hurting

"I can remember when we had more than 1,000 dairy farms in Frederick County alone," Lenhart said. Fultz said the number of dairy farms there dropped from 1,225 in 1959 to 287 in May. Thirty-six have disappeared in the past four years.

Baltimore County has lost nearly half its dairy farms over the past four years, according to David Martin, the county's extension agent.

"To the best of my knowledge, we're down to 20, and it could be 18," he said.

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