Maryland's dairy farmers, milk processors struggling to create a united front

On The Farm

December 18, 2005|By TED SHELSBY

Seven years ago, when Maryland dairy farmers were fighting for the right to join a regional dairy compact to stem their steadily declining numbers, they were bitterly opposed by another major segment of the industry: the milk processors.

Things haven't changed much today.

Dairy farms still are disappearing in alarming numbers in Maryland. They are going out of business at a pace nearly twice the rate of the nation as a whole, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In rough numbers, Maryland had about 4,000 dairy farms in 1970. That number dropped to 3,000 in 1980; 2,000 by 1990; and about 1,000 at the turn of the century.

Today, there are fewer than 650 dairy farms in the state.

If the trend continues, Maryland's last dairy farmer will turn off his milker before the end of the decade.

Despite this dismal forecast, there seems to be no united front within the industry to battle the economic forces that have taken such a big toll on farms and to ensure consumers of a continuing source of fresh, local milk.

This was apparent at last week's meeting of the Dairy Regulatory Review Committee in Frederick.

There was more bickering over the member composition of a Milk Advisory Board than there were expressions of determination to save Maryland's dwindling milk industry.

The processors -- folks who take the milk from the farm, pasteurize it, package it and ship it to the retailers -- insisted that they have as many seats at the table as the dairy farmers that produce the milk.

They also oppose the farmers' desire to have farm inspection transferred from the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to the state Department of Agriculture, which farmers believe would be more user-friendly.

"There's no question about it. The various groups [that make up the dairy industry] could accomplish more if there is more cooperation and trust between them," said state Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley.

Riley set an example of cooperation in July when he attended the first meeting of the Dairy Regulatory Review Committee.

The meeting was held in the administrative building at the Great Frederick Fair Grounds, and Riley sat at the table next to Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary S. Anthony McCann -- two Cabinet members who don't always see eye to eye on issues of milk production, processing and distribution.

"This is the first time you have seen the secretary of agriculture and the secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene sitting at the table trying to work out problems," Riley told those at the meeting.

Chuck Fry, who milks 200 cows at a farm near Point of Rocks, would like to sit at the table with representatives of the processors to discuss a plan he thinks could help more farmers pay their bills.

"I think Maryland consumers would pay a few pennies more for their milk if they felt they were supporting state farmers," he said.

But his plan for the distribution of milk labeled "Maryland Pride" or "Maryland milk" was rebuffed by processors, he said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. established the Dairy Regulatory Review Committee in May when he asked the two secretaries to informally meet with the industry to determine whether regulatory reform was needed to stave off the death of Maryland's dairy industry.

At Tuesday's meeting, the committee agreed to seek legislation to codify the Milk Advisory Board.

"It is a good thing," said Riley. "It will give the board a lot more strength. It means the group will be given more serious attention by the legislature."

When the squabbling halted, the committee agreed on a Milk Advisory Board.

Voting members include:

A local health officer from the Maryland Association of County Health Officers.

A member from Maryland Farm Bureau.

A member from the Maryland Dairy Industry Association.

A member from the Maryland State Grange.

A dairy farmer.

A representative from the milk-hauling industry.

A member from the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension.

Three representatives from commercial dairy processing plants.

A representative from a laboratory that tests milk samples.

Three representatives from milk marketing cooperatives.

Two citizens.

Its first job is to learn to work together while there is still a milk industry in Maryland to protect.

ted.shelsby@baltsun.com

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