As many of you know who read this blog, from time to time I write about growing up on a dairy farm in the Adirondacks in the 1960s and '70s. As a kid you don't always know the struggles your parents go through when times are tough on a farm, but you know enough. You know life on a farm is a struggle and there are good time and bad. Mostly bad, lately for the small farmers. Living here in Maine now, I see there's bad time ahead for farmers again. This time, it may have a huge impact on all of us
Dairy farmers in the US are in desperate trouble. Probably not since the Great Depression (should we start calling our own economic times GDII?) has the milk industry faced such a crisis. Unfortunately, unlike the 1930's, there are more of us now who work in jobs totally unrelated to producing food, and more of us who think food prices are directly related to the farmers who grow the product. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Take milk production. Most of us get our milk from the corner store or the mega-supermarkets. We pay what the store asks, often without thinking about how that price was determined. If the cost is low one season, we reason the farmers must be producing a lot of milk and the price comes down. When the price sky-rockets in the stores, we grumble about those farmers asking too much for their product and ripping the consumers off. How little we really understand.
Some numbers to think about: Dairy farmers do not set their milk prices -- that is fixed by the federal government through old, rather arcane rules (including the price of Chicago cheese commodities, which doesn't help farmers in New England.) Then there's the middle-men. And there are a lot of them.
Farmers are forced to sell their milk to cooperatives and shippers that take the milk to the processing plants. There's added cost for fuel and wages for the truckers. Then there's the pasteurization process to keep milk safe to drink. Added cost to the price of a gallon of milk. Then there's the cost of bottling and delivering that milk to all those stores that sell it to you and me. More added cost.
Then there's the price those stores charge for that gallon of milk. This is where we grit our teeth and pay the price asked. Or go without until there's too much product and not enough buyers and the price has to come down.
And what about that price? Some more facts: Dairy farmers sell their raw milk by the hundred-weight. Think pounds -- not gallons. Just one more area to complicate the situation. 1 gallon of milk = 8.5 pounds; 11.75 gallons = 100 lbs of milk. So, if farmers in Maine are currently getting around $12 per hundredweight, their share of the cost you pay in the supermarket (say around $4/gallon) equals just about $1. So, one quarter of the cost you pay at the supermarket goes to the farmer. The rest? Well, we all know who gets that. Everyone else who handled the milk before it got to you. Especially the supermarkets.
And think about this. Price per hundredweight is expected to be as low as $8 by March or April. Maine farmers will be in real trouble then. Maintaining a farm is not cheap. The average price for a milk cow in Maine in 2005 (the most current price I could find on the internet) was around $1300. Let's say the average herd in Maine is 50. That's an investment right there of $65,000. Not to mention the cost of land, feed for the cattle, fuel for the tractors, vet bills, etc...
And now, on top of all this, a task force appointed by Gov. Baldacci is recommending a cut of 4.8 million in subsidies to Maine farmers. At this critical time for dairy farmers in this state, I have to interpret this as at best, a lack of understanding on the panel's part of the importance of keeping this industry alive in Maine; at worst, a real shift by the Maine government away from agriculture as a way of life here in the future.
So, Governor, reject this cut in farm subsidies, support Maine farmers and help them weather this latest economic storm. Keep the long heritage of farming in Maine alive for future generations. It's in your hands now. Frankly, we need to keep dairying going for no other reason than relying on milk from China in the future, with all the risks that brings with it. What do you say Governor?
And for you farmers in Maine (especially in the Franklin County area): I want to hear from you. How are you making it? What do you see for your future in Maine? I'd like to pass along your stories here in this from time to time.