Keeping dairy farmers in field, in the black

Maryland legislature to consider emergency fund

some businesses are trying to diversify

December 30, 2007|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,special to the sun

In hopes of addressing the decline of the dairy farming industry in Maryland, lawmakers plan to propose legislation in the upcoming session of the General Assembly aimed at bringing relief to beleaguered farmers.

One measure under consideration would create a Maryland Dairy Emergency Fund, similar to those adopted in other East Coast states that have confronted difficulties with their dairy industries. The fund would subsidize the income of farmers during years of low milk prices.

Such a fund was a primary recommendation of the governor's Dairy Industry Advisory and Oversight Council. The 21-member panel -- composed of farmers, milk processors and university and government officials -- has been meeting during the year to come up with ideas for halting the decline of dairy farming in Maryland.

The council recommends that $5 million be appropriated each year until the fund reaches $15 million, with the state Department of Agriculture distributing payments to farmers during periods of economic hardship.

A dairy subsidy could be a relatively inexpensive way to preserve the 250,000 acres of farmland used in milk production, said Dale Johnson, a farm management specialist with the University of Maryland.

Since 1970, Maryland has lost 85 percent of its dairy farms and the trend is projected to continue. As in other East Coast states, Maryland farms have fallen victim to low milk prices, rising production costs, decreasing milk consumption and rising land values.

Moreover, Maryland has the sixth-most-expensive farmland in the country, making it hard for farmers to boost their income by expanding their operations.

"We need to do something to keep our young people in farming," said Del. Paul Stull, a Republican from Frederick County and a member of the council. "The way things are going now, it won't be long before all of our land goes to the developers."

Earlier this year, Howard Leathers, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, told the council that a $10 million subsidy program could put an extra $15,860 a year in the pockets of every dairy farmer.

"It could make a big difference," he said.

Many farmers are not waiting for government assistance, but are changing the way they work, in hopes of staying in business.

Frederick County farmer Randy Sowers runs one of the most closely watched dairy operations in Maryland. In an attempt to keep his 200-acre farm near Middletown viable, Sowers has undertaken a throwback approach: delivering milk to customers' doorsteps.

Sowers' South Mountain Creamery is believed to be the only dairy farm in the state offering home delivery. He caters to a more upscale customer base that is willing to pay a premium price to have fresh, locally produced milk and other farm products delivered.

Most of his nearly 2,000 customers are clustered in the Washington area, including Rockville and Silver Spring, and Arlington and Leesburg in Virginia.

"It's been a struggle to pay the bills," Sowers said of his investment in the on-site dairy. "But if God gave me the chance to go back and start all over, I would do it again."

"Randy is a pioneer," said Jeff England, who operated a Frederick County dairy farm near New Market until he recently sold his cows. "I applaud him for trying something new.

"Other farmers are watching to see if he makes a go of it."

Outside the Cecil County town of Rising Sun, there's another attempt at diversifying farm revenue: Kilby Cream, a made-on-the-farm ice cream store.

In addition to the store, the operation features a playground and a petting zoo with goats, calves and other animals.

"It's what we hoped to accomplish when we opened the store," said Phyllis Kilby, whose family owns the store.

The Kilbys concluded that there is more money in converting their milk into ice cream and selling directly to the public than there is in sending it to a processor.

In Baltimore County, Bobby Prigel made a fundamental shift in how he runs his dairy farm. In 1990, the Glen Arm farmer became a "grazer" -- his cows feed on grass out in the pasture instead of being kept in barns and fed grain.

Cows in a grazer operation produce about 30 percent less milk, but the drop in production is more than offset by lower operating costs, primarily reduced feed expenses.

"I had to do something different to survive," said Prigel, 45, a fourth-generation farmer. "I had to forget everything that I knew about running a dairy farm. I had to go against what the experts were saying and what the vast majority of the other farmers felt was right."

In southern Frederick County, Chuck Fry's operation is looking less like a dairy farm every day.

Fry still milks about 200 cows at his Rocky Point Dairy near Point of Rocks. But the cows are outnumbered by 64,000 turkeys housed in three buildings.

"It's the turkeys that keep the farm going," Fry said of the birds he grows for Pilgrim Pride.

The farm's dairy operation was $60,000 in the red last year and posted a loss of $40,000 the year before, said Fry, adding that he has left few stones unturned in his attempt to remain profitable.

He opens part of the land to hunters who pay a fee to come in and shoot deer, foxes, ducks and geese. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts pay to speed around his farm, and Fry sells firewood on the side.

"My passion is farming," he said. "It's not about dollars, but you have to grow the business each year to keep up with inflation. We are doing whatever we can to keep the farm."

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