Save Maine's Dairy Farms
The collapse of Maine’s dairy industry is a calamity for more than our dairy farming families. It is a disaster for all of us.
This summer’s rain wiped out hay, corn, and alfalfa crops vital to dairy farms, forcing farmers to purchase costly grain and feeds. “Everything is just devastated,” Dr. Rick Kersbergen of the Waldo County Cooperative Extension told Bangor Daily News reporter Sharon Kiley Mack.
“The season is lost. With milk prices so low and this feed disaster on top of it, farmers are like deer in the headlights,” added Julie Marie Bickford of the Maine Dairy Industry Association.
This followed a decision in the spring by a major milk producer to cancel contracts with many organic dairy farmers, due to low prices and the recession.
At one time, organic dairy farms seemed to guarantee the future of these family farms. Now, in some areas of the state, there will be no dairy farms in the future.
In the last legislative session, as an advocate for sportsmen, I testified at a public forum in favor of milk price supports. Some found it odd that a representative of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine was there to support Maine’s dairy farmers, but the values found on the state’s dairy farms go far beyond the milk produced there.
I have spoken out for dairy farmers for many years, including a memorable press conference outside the Capitol building at which I stood next to a cow. I can tell you this – if you want to get your photo in the newspaper, stand next to the cow at the press conference!
As a sportsman, I pleaded for help for our dairy farmers because their farms provide some of the most valuable habitat in the state for many wild critters: songbirds that are found only in the farm’s grasslands, deer fawns that are born each spring in the hayfields, turkeys that chow down in the corn (and, unfortunately, all winter long in the silage), or the Canadian geese that I often enjoy seeing in the Halls’ farm pond in my town of Mount Vernon. The edge growth surrounding those fields is critical habitat to many Maine species as well. We have precious little of it left.
And this fight is about more than the land. As we’ve lost farms, we’ve lost touch with our rural heritage as well as our food. My town of Mount Vernon encompasses about 25,000 acres. Seventy five years ago more than half of those acres was open farmland. Today, we have less than 800 acres of open land, much of it maintained by Dick Hall, who is an organic dairy farmer. If Dick’s farm goes, so too go those farm fields. The property most susceptible to development in Mount Vernon is the open fields on Bowen Hill, the highest point in town, fields maintained by Dick Hall and owned by the Somers family.
Maine people want to save Maine’s farms. As a consumer, I buy Oakhurst milk. It’s almost a religion with me. I like their family ownership. I admire their values. My wife says I can buy their milk more cheaply with a generic label, but I march up the aisle with that Oakhurst jug feeling downright patriotic.
As a sportsman, I strongly support the farmland preservation program of the Land for Maine’s Future. We’ve spent millions to keep only a few thousand acres of farmland undeveloped. And that’s all we bought. We don’t get rights of access to that farmland. Saving Maine farms using conservation easements is an expensive proposition.
Maine citizens would purchase development rights on every Maine dairy farm if we could afford it. But we can’t afford it.
Milk price supports are one thing we can support because it helps assure the viability and future of dairy farms, using a mechanism that is far less expensive than the purchase of development rights through the Land for Maine’s Future program.
This is conservation on the cheap. We get tremendous value for the state’s milk subsidy.
I confess that I do not understand the complexities of milk pricing and milk subsidies. I just know how much I value the Halls’ dairy farm, for its aesthetics, its accessible hunting land, its wildlife habitat, its fresh eggs and corn, its manure that Linda and I spread on our garden – and so much more.
When our kids were small, we never missed the annual opportunity to watch the cows come out of the barn for the first time in the spring. Have you ever seen this? It’s what passes for entertainment in Mount Vernon.
The cows dart out of the barn, dance and strut, excited to finally get outside after a long winter in the barn. Crowds got so large that the Halls had to install bleachers for the event!
Dairy farms are the heart of our communities. And that heart is on life-support today, with very poor prospects of survival.