Organizing Maryland dairies Dairy farmers want to cut out others' say, set prices themselves

October 14, 1997|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

A Wisconsin-based grass-roots organization created to boost the price farmers receive for their milk is seeking to establish a foothold in Maryland.

"We have got to do something," said Eddie Boyer, who milks 75 cows on his 160-acre farm a few miles south of Frederick. "There's no money in milking cows. Dairy farmers are going out of business every day, and nobody seems to care."

Boyer, 39, and his wife, Beth, 37, are spearheading the recruiting efforts in Maryland for the American Raw Milk Producers Pricing Association (ARMPPA).

The group, which was started last year by a dozen Wisconsin dairy farmers, would like to see farmers -- not the milk processors or the federal government -- setting the price of raw milk.

It is seeking to organize farmers into bargaining collectives that would demand higher prices from cooperatives.

"We have got to band together," said Boyer. "If we don't, we are not going to make it.

"I believe in what we are doing. It is time that farmers in Maryland and across the country get off their butts and take control of their cows and their milk. We produce it, why shouldn't we price it.

"Let's get the government out of pricing milk. We should set the price, based on farm production costs and a fair profit."

The Boyers have sent letters to nearly 900 Maryland dairy farmers, encouraging them to join ARMPPA.

"The only one that cares about the dairy farmer is the dairy farmer," they say in the letter. "Unless we stand up together, we will be in jeopardy of losing our dairy operations. We can change the future of the dairy industry by joining ARMPPA."

Mary Lippert, a former dairy farmer, is a program coordinator for ARMPPA. She said the organization was formed late last year, after the farm price of milk began dropping sharply.

The Boyers said they have seen their monthly milk checks decline 24 percent since November, falling to $1.12 a gallon from $1.47.

Lippert said the group eventually hopes to represent 20 percent of the nation's dairy farmers. Twenty percent, she said, would give ARMPPA the critical mass needed to influence the pricing system.

She declined to say how many farmers have signed up and paid the $20 membership fee.

"We're up against a $70 billion industry that would like to keep things the way they are," she said.

Lippert said the group doesn't want the dairy industry to know how many farmers have signed up until they are ready to set prices.

"It could hurt us either way," she said. "If they know we have a lot of members, they could put a lot of money into squashing us. If we don't have many members, they can say: 'Oh, yeah, you guys can't get your act together.' "

She said the group expects to reach its membership goal in the next 12 months.

Beth Boyer concedes that there has not been a stampede of Maryland farmers to join, but she thinks interest will pick up this month, when the group's organizers meet with farmers.

She said the organizers will be in Maryland from Oct. 22 to 25, and she is trying to set up regional meetings.

The ARMPPA leaders could have to engage in a lot of persuading.

Randy Sowers, a 43-year-old dairy farmer from Middletown, in Frederick County, still needs to be convinced.

"As far as unions go, I don't care for them," he said as he stopped by the Boyers' farm last week and joined in an ARMPPA conversation at the picnic table beside the house.

"This is not a union," Beth Boyer countered. "It's a price-setting organization."

"It's a union," Sowers repeated. "What's going to happen when the farmers who join hold their milk off the market and the guy down the road ships his milk. Somebody is going to get hurt. Somebody could get killed."

"I don't see any other solution, unless we want to sell out and go into some other business," Beth Boyer responded.

Others are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward ARMPPA. "Will it work?" Myron L. Wilhide asked. "I don't want to comment at this time. I need to study it a little more and see how it progresses."

Wilhide is interim president of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association, a lobbying organization formed last year to give the industry a stronger voice in dealing with milk processors and legislators.

Howard Leathers, an associate professor at the Agricultural and Resource Economics department at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that it seemed as if ARMPPA was taking over the role of a farm cooperative in getting a better price for milk producers.

He said the cooperatives have contracts with the milk processors, and farmers might fare better if they worked with the cooperatives and voted in board members who would reflect their pricing policies.

"We're not the troublemakers of Frederick County," Beth Boyer said of their ARMPPA recruiting efforts. "It's just that $13 milk [per hundredweight] doesn't pay the bills."

Pub Date: 10/14/97

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