A dairy farmer tries to save his industry Background: Maryland's dairy farms have been disappearing swiftly, and the operator of one is doing all he can to turn things around.

December 25, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

DETOUR -- Myron L. Wilhide remembers when there were 11 dairy farms along the 2 1/2 -mile stretch of country road that connects this tiny, rural community with Keysville.

Today, he and his brother, Richard, operate one of only three that still exist. The other dairy farms, along with a milk-cooling plant a quarter of a mile from Wilhide's farm, have gone out of business since the early 1960s.

The loss of dairy farms is not limited to rural sections of Carroll County. It's a statewide problem. Maryland has lost half of its dairy farms over the past 15 years, and more farmers are selling off their herds each month.

Since the early 1980s, Maryland's dairy farms have dwindled to 940 from about 2,000.

With the hope of reversing the trend and retaining the critical mass needed for a viable dairy industry in the state, Wilhide has become the driving force behind the formation of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association, of which he is the first president.

He thinks that the industry needs a stronger, more united voice so that its message is heard in the State House, in the offices and hearing rooms of the General Assembly and by each and every consumer.

"We need to protect our industry," says the 56-year old dairy farmer who represents the fifth generation of his family to earn a living from the land.

"There are fewer and fewer of us each year. If something is not done, there may be no dairy industry in Maryland."

According to Wilhide, the dairy association will be patterned after similar organizations established by grain producers, apple growers and livestock farmers. It will deal with issues unique to the dairy industry with an eye on boosting competitiveness and profitability.

In the past, Wilhide said, the interests of dairy farmers were represented by dairy cooperatives, which provided farmers with more financial clout by collecting milk from individual farmers and selling it in bulk to processing plants.

But over the years the cooperatives have merged and become larger regional organizations. "They have gotten so big and the area they serve so large that they can no longer deal with issues unique to Maryland," said Wilhide.

He said the primary role of the cooperatives was marketing, not lobbying.

Now, most of the dairy industry's lobbying is handled by the Maryland Farm Bureau. With 14,800 members, it is the state's largest farm organization.

The problem with this, said Wilhide, who is chairman of the bureau's dairy committee, "is that the Farm Bureau is not a dairy-oriented organization. It represents the various segments of agriculture throughout the entire state.

"If we put our request in they will represent us. I'm not being critical of the Farm Bureau, but we need our own voice. Our situation is different than other aspects of agriculture."

The Dairy Association has received financial support from three milk cooperatives serving the state.

Each has contributed $500 to help get the group started. The Farm Bureau has agreed to provide staff support.

While plans still need to be finalized, Wilhide said, the organi- zation would be supported by its members paying $40 in annual dues.

"We're operating on a shoestring. But we're farmers, we are used to that," Wilhide said with a hearty laugh.

He expects to have 450 of the state's 940 dairy farms as members the first year.

The plan is to hire a part-time business manager who will likely work out of his or her home. "It may be somebody who is retired and has some free time," said Wilhide.

"The dairy industry is not big enough to have a full-time staff and farmers don't have a lot of money to put into something like this," he said.

"We don't think we can afford a top-notch lobbyist," Wilhide said, "but some people have told me we can't afford not to.

"We will use the Farm Bureau lobbyists and hire somebody to help us on special issues. I'm not sure we can do it this year, but maybe down the road we can hire our own full-time lobbyist."

There is a definite need for a dairy organization, said S. Patrick McMillan, assistant to Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley. "There is a need for a strong voice in the state that addresses issues unique to the dairy industry."

"We feel that commodity organizations are good for the industry," said Norman E. Astle, a spokesman for the Farm Bureau. He said that the bureau generally concentrates on more generic issues like land use, water and air quality and transportation, and may not pick up on the details of issues that affect individual commodities.

"We will let them [the dairy group] take the lead on an issue and we will support them," Astle added.

One of the Dairy Industry Association's first goals is to persuade the General Assembly to approve a milk price-support plan for Maryland similar to those in neighboring Pennsylvania and Virginia.

But the idea is controversial and winning support for it could prove difficult.

The price plan, which would allow the state agriculture secretary to establish the minimum wholesale and retail price of milk, is designed to offset what some dairy industry officials say is the unfair competitive advantage enjoyed by farmers and milk processors in the surrounding states.

Wilhide has served on two state task forces in recent years that have recommended price-support plans for Maryland that could boost the price of milk and other dairy products at the supermarket.

The job now is to persuade lawmakers that such a system would be good for Maryland and for the state's dairy industry, he said.

"Our message: We are a very important industry. We are the third largest segment of agriculture with more than a $1 billion-a-year economic impact on the state. It's an industry worth saving," he said.

Pub Date: 12/25/96

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