Listening for Maine's Last Moo
When Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb started dairy farming, Maine had 2200 dairy farms. In 1991, I wrote my first newspaper column lamenting the loss of Maine’s dairy farms. Six hundred farmers were still in the dairy business at that time. In 2002, I wrote a sorrowful plea to save the 412 dairy farms still clinging tenuously to their way of life.
Listening last week to legislators struggle with complex bills designed to help dairy farmers, I leaned forward and asked former Senator and dairyman John Nutting how many dairy farmers we still have. His answer: 305. When the final moo comes from the state’s last cow, will anyone hear it?
Of course, nothing is this simple. Maine’s remaining dairy farmers are producing just as much milk as they did when young Walt Whitcomb started milking cows. Each farm is bigger, with a lot more cows. But the loss of dairy farmers and dairy farms has had a devastating impact on communities, wildlife habitat, and open space.
At one time, 75 percent of the 25,000 acres in my town of Mount Vernon was cleared land. Today, we’re down to 700 cleared acres – much of which is maintained by our last dairy farmer, Dick Hall.
Dick’s mother Mildred once told me, “You have to be stupid to be a farmer,” and Dick added, “or crazy.” I thought their comments were amusing at the time. Now they are coming true.
And the loss of dairy farms signals more than the loss of our rural landscape: it’s the end of that marvelous rural attitude of independence and neighborliness, the place where doors are left unlocked, where a cash box sits by the roadside inviting the purchase of corn and other vegetables.It’s the loss of a visual landscape of farm fields, stonewalls, cows grazing on a hillside, a red-roofed barn dwarfing a white farmhouse.
Members of the legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Committee certainly understands all of this – but most committee members struggled in last week’s work session to understand changes proposed for the dairy stabilization fund and the details of a new Dairy Improvement Fund. Bless their hearts for trying.
Two things jumped out at me. Seven committee members had bottles of soda in front of them. Soda! The enemy of milk!
And the Dairy Improvement Fund would get its money from slot machine income. Lots of Mainers will lose money playing the slots, so we can try to save Maine’s last dairy farms. Sad.
When our kids were small, we never missed the annual spring “cows coming out” experience at the Hall’s dairy farm. Word would spread throughout the community, and so many people turned out that they eventually had to install bleachers.
We’d all be there, beside the barn, when Dick slid open the green door in the early morning dew and the cows emerged for the first time after a winter cooped up in the barn. The cows danced, kicked, ran, mooed, and butted heads. It was an unforgettable sight, our spring ritual, the thing that passes for entertainment in our small rural town.
That ritual is worth saving – even if it takes slot machines, I guess. Got milk?