Dairy business declining in Md. 30 commercial farms lost since beginning of year, officials say

November 15, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Maryland has lost 30 commercial dairy farms since the first of the year, when a legislative task force began looking into the economic woes of this segment of agriculture, a new survey says.

pTC Since 1995, the number of dairy farms in Maryland has declined 7 percent, to 940.

The rate of decline is faster in Maryland than for the nation and for the northeastern United States, according to figures compiled by the American Farm Bureau.

"Not a week goes by that we don't have two or three farms going out of business," said William Zepp, of the state health department's Division of Milk Control.

Zepp's section, which oversees and regulates all commercial dairy operations in the state, also keeps track of the number of milk farms.

Just last month, Lewis R. Riley, the state agriculture secretary, talked of 970 dairy farms in the state as he presented a dairy task force's recommendations, aimed at stemming the industry's decline, at a public meeting in Frederick. Riley is co-chairman of the task force.

S. Patrick McMillan, a special assistant to Riley, said yesterday .. there is some concern that the number of dairy farms may fall below the critical mass needed to maintain a viable industry in the state.

He said losing dairy farms also has an adverse impact on retailers that serve the industry, such as farm equipment stores.

An encouraging development, McMillan said, is that Maryland milk production has not declined as sharply as the number of farms, because farms have become larger and more productive.

The American Farm Bureau survey showed that the nation lost 5.3 percent of its dairy farms in the first seven months of 1996. The Northeast fared better: 3.8 percent of its farms disappeared.

McMillan said land use is a major factor in the disappearance of farms. He said development pressures, both residential and commercial, along with urban sprawl have taken a toll on farms near Baltimore and in Montgomery and Frederick counties.

The state task force is recommending several actions to preserve the dairy industry in Maryland, including creation of a controversial price-support system that likely would result in consumers paying more for dairy products at the supermarket.

Under the price plan, Riley would have the authority to set minimum prices on milk for farmers, wholesalers and retailers.

He would be guided by a seven-member advisory group, composed of four consumers, a farmer, a processor and a retailer.

Maryland's price-setting system would be similar to those in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The proposed Maryland pricing plan and other task force recommendations are scheduled to be presented to Senate and House committees of the General Assembly on Nov. 26.

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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