NEW MIDWAY - Maryland's dairy industry is looking for new ways to expand milk consumption and broaden its market to help offset a sharp drop in milk prices that continues to force farms out of business.
Patricia Purcell, director of retail sales promotion at the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association, told farmers at this year's annual meeting of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association that the key to improving their declining fortunes is to get more people to drink more milk.
While milk consumption among children ages 6 to 12 rose in 2001 for the first time in many years, per capita consumption is at its 1991 level.
She said the regional milk promotion organization is looking at a variety of strategies to boost milk consumption and the incomes of dairy farms.
The price farmers are paid for their milk has dropped more than 30 percent since last year, according to Myron Wilhide, president of the state dairy association.
Wilhide, who milks 210 cows at a farm near Detour in Carroll County, said he is getting $12 per 100 pounds for his milk, down from $18.50 last year.
That's a bigger decline than some farms can handle.
According to Ted Elkin, chief of the division of milk control for the state Health Department, 35 of Maryland's dairy farms have gone out of business so far this year.
"Two years ago," Elkin said, "we had about 800 dairy farms in the state, now we're down to 730."
"The landscape of Fredrick County is changing constantly," Elkin said of one of the state's leading milk-producing regions where housing is taking over more fields where cows once meandered
To help reverse this trend, Purcell outlined efforts at this week's meeting at New Midway, in Frederick County, to expand the demand market for milk by getting more of it into school lunch programs.
The association also seeking to have milk vending machines in schools as well as industrial plants.
Currently only about 7 percent of the milk produced in the state makes it way into schools.
To help keep milk in the public's mind, she said, the association will be sponsoring NASCAR racing this year and is looking at sponsoring kids' soccer tournaments.
Allen K. O'Hara, assistant general manager of Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association Inc., said the co-op is also seeking to improve the financial situation of its member farmers.
The cooperative serves about half of Maryland's dairy farmers, and about 1,450 farms in a region stretching from Pennsylvania to Alabama that produce 14.5 million gallons of milk a month.
In an attempt to develop new markets for the milk produced by its members, O'Hara said, the cooperative has formed an alliance with four other Southeast co-ops with a combined supply of milk of about 116 million gallons a month.
"It is more and more difficult for the smaller cooperatives to be competitive," he said. "Big marketers, like Wal-Mart, want to buy their milk from one entity rather than deal with several smaller co-ops."
O'Hara said the Maryland & Virginia co-op is looking at forming a new alliance with other cooperatives in the Northeast
Return `is pathetic'
Robert Ramsburg, who milks about 100 cows at a farm near Walkersville, in Frederick County, is hoping dairy farmers' fortunes will rebound, but he isn't too optimistic.
Ramsburg, 58, said he is in the process of turning the farm over to his son, James. "He's hopeful of keeping the farm going as a dairy operation. But that is very questionable. The return on investment in dairy farming is pathetic."
Ramsburg said the 214-acre farm has posted a profit in only one of the past five years. Something has got to change," he said.