Losses Put Many Out To Pasture

Third-largest sector of Maryland's agriculture industry shrinking at nearly twice U.S. average

Decline Of The Dairy Farm

December 16, 2007|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW MARKET — NEW MARKET-- For 32 years, Jeff England awoke each day at 3:30 a.m. The dairy farmer trudged in the dark across the gravel lane separating his red brick Civil War-era home from the cinderblock milking parlor about 150 feet away. He made the trek almost every day since he was 17 - seven days a weeks, at times in bitter cold, deep snow or heavy rain. It was time to milk the cows.

But not anymore.

England, a 49-year-old farmer whose peers view him as one of the most efficient dairymen in Maryland, has sold his cows.

"I told my wife, Judy, `If we can't make any money at this, we might as well get out,'" he said as he sat on a stone wall enclosing a patch of shrubbery adjacent to his house, which was built by a Confederate cavalry captain.

England's operation was added to the rapidly growing list of dairy farms in Maryland that have gone out of business. Dairy farms, the third-largest sector of the state's agriculture industry, have been disappearing at an alarmingly rapid rate, nearly twice the national average.

In 1970, Maryland had about 4,000 dairy farms. Today, 574 remain, a decrease of 85 percent. More than 80 dairy farms have vanished in the past two years.

Three counties - Prince George's, Wicomico and Worcester - are down to their last dairy farm. Five other counties - Allegany, Anne Arundel, Calvert, Dorchester and Somerset - have none.

Harford County was home to nearly 600 dairy farms at the end of World War II but now has fewer than 30, said C. John Sullivan III, the county's agriculture coordinator.

England's farm succumbed to the forces that have claimed so many others: low milk prices, increased production costs, dwindling milk consumption, lower production costs in other parts of the country and real estate development pressures that have made farmland in Maryland the sixth-most-expensive in the nation.

Economic reality

That combination is adding up to a simple economic reality that many farmers say they cannot overcome.

"We don't get paid enough for our milk to pay our bills," said Chuck Fry, owner of Rocky Point Farm on the banks of the Potomac River in southern Frederick County. "I lost $60,000 milking cows last year. The year before, I lost $40,000."

Chris Moxley of the Hickory area of Harford County ended his family's 65 years in the dairy business in March.

"It was seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, and the profit margin kept getting smaller and smaller," he said.

These days, Moxley operates a fleet of four school buses.

"There's more money in driving a bus," he said.

And there are no indications that the decline of dairy farming will end.

An additional 15 percent to 35 percent of the existing farms - up to 220 farms - could disappear in the next decade, according to Howard Leathers, an associate professor at the University of Maryland in College Park, who spoke at a meeting of the Governor's Dairy Advisory Oversight Council this year.

The task force was established to look for ways halt the demise of the industry.

Adding to farmers' woes, Maryland has lagged behind other East Coast states in taking steps to safeguard its dairy industry, such as tax credits, subsidy payments and price support programs.

Price of milk

There is little disagreement on the reasons dairy farms are vanishing, a trend that agriculture officials say could alter the rural landscape of Central Maryland and increase the price of milk at grocery stores.

Maryland farmers are at the disadvantage of being situated between Pennsylvania and Virginia, where milk commissions set the minimum price farmers receive, said Allen K. O'Hara, assistant general manager of Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative. The co-op purchases about half the milk produced in Maryland and serves nine other Eastern states.

"We try to negotiate the same price in Maryland as we do in neighboring states, but that is not always possible," he said.

Farmers in Pennsylvania typically get 15 cents more per hundredweight for their milk, O'Hara said.

"We are like the hole in the doughnut," Del. Paul S. Stull, a Republican from Frederick County, said of the juxtaposition of the three states.

Stull, a primary voice for the dairy industry in the General Assembly, said he plans to introduce legislation in the next session to "plug that hole," setting up a milk marketing board intended to make Maryland farmers more competitive with those in neighboring states.

Biggest threat

Development pressures also are taking a toll. Land prices are so high that it is nearly impossible for farmers to expand to take advantage of economies of scale, O'Hara said.

"It's the biggest threat to agriculture in Maryland," he said.

That pressure is in plain sight at England's farm. A Food Lion grocery store, a McDonald's, a bank, and a half-dozen other businesses stand on what used to be an adjacent farm. A housing development occupies another former nearby farm.

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