Dairy industry in Maryland is drying up

Farms: The declining wholesale price of milk and the rising price of land are factors in the disappearance of a way of life.

September 16, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

POCOMOKE CITY - Dan Holland is a rarity in this part of Maryland: He milks cows for a living.

The 37-year-old farmer is the last dairyman in Worcester County.

For that matter, he notes ruefully, "There is only one dairy farmer in Somerset and Wicomico."

"Traveling south ... I have to go about 100 miles, nearly to Norfolk, Virginia, before I come to the next dairy herd," the tall, slender farmer said as he leaned against a crate of red peppers, painted in the black-and-white pattern of Holstein cows at his farm store on U.S. 50 just east of Berlin.

Milking cows was Maryland's top agriculture industry in the 1930s, long before the lower Eastern Shore transformed into one of the nation's top poultry producing regions.

Dairy farmers are now a vanishing breed across the state. The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which licenses dairy farms in the state, lists just one in Prince George's County. Three counties - Anne Arundel, Calvert and Dorchester - have none.

Maryland has been losing dairy farms at about twice the rate of the nation as a whole, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Maryland had about 4,000 dairy farms in 1970. That number dropped to 3,000 by 1980; to 2,000 by 1990; and had dwindled to 1,000 by the turn of the century, said Dale Johnson, University of Maryland regional cooperative extension agent and farm management specialist.

Today there are 643.

"If this trend continues, we will have zero dairy farms in 2010," Johnson said.

Johnson blames several factors for the decline. "Number 1, the biggest reason, is the suburbanization of rural Maryland and the high value of farmland," he said.

Alone in Allegany

Ron Shipley needs no convincing of the forecast: He is the last dairy farmer in Allegany County.

"I can remember when there was a good dozen, or more, dairy farms in this area," said Shipley as he brushed away cobwebs clinging to his gray baseball cap. "I'm the only one left."

Shipley, a stocky 62-year-old Allegany native, had just emerged from a concrete silo about three stories high where he had been installing a feed unloader.

With the help of his wife, Sylvia, and daughter, Lee, Shipley milks 83 Holsteins twice a day, every day. The paved driveway to their modest rancher is decorated with a half-dozen cow skulls. A wooden sign on the side of their home reads: "We came here with nothing and we still have most of that left."

Agriculture officials point to several reasons for the decline, including the sagging price that farmers receive for milk, the hard work required to run a dairy farm, the reluctance of the next generation to take over the family farm, and the pressures of residential development.

The decline feeds upon itself, said Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley: "As the farm numbers go down, the infrastructure needed to support the farms begins to disappear. That makes it hard on farmers."

The infrastructure includes feed suppliers, equipment and parts stores, and veterinarians. As the infrastructure declines, more farms go out of business.

"It used to be that you could drive 20 minutes to town to get equipment or supplies," said Holland, who milks 100 cows on a 200-acre farm. "Instead of a 20-minute drive, it may be three hours, both ways, now."

Holland said the nearest dealers for some of the milking equipment he needs are in Quarryville, Pa. The farrier who comes three times a year to trim the cows' hooves is based in York.

"We also have to pay more for labor and service when somebody comes in to fix something, because they have to come from Pennsylvania or northern Maryland."

In an attempt to tap new streams of revenue, Dan Holland and his wife, Laura, followed the lead of some other Maryland dairy farms and moved into retailing last month. Their Chesapeake Bay Farms Gourmet Dairy store sells ice cream, cheeses and other dairy products made from the milk of their cows. The store also offers seafood products, including crabs, and a selection of farm-fresh produce.

"We expected to benefit from the tourist trade, but 98 percent of our business is from local folks," Laura Holland said.

John and Mary Finch, who moved from Baltimore to Berlin when he retired from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., are regulars at the store. "It's ice cream to die for," said Mary Finch as she walked away with a cup of strawberry ice cream.

Shipley, the Allegany County dairyman whose farm is near the tiny community of Little Orleans, said equipment dealers used to exist in Flintstone and Cumberland. "Now there is almost nothing."

One reason: Maryland has the sixth-most-expensive farmland in the country, according to a report released last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Fueled by the red-hot market for development, the average price of Maryland farmland, including farm buildings, sold as farmland, is up 38.6 percent this year, to $7,900 an acre.

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