March 10, 2013

Maine's dairy farms in twilight

The state's dwindling milk producers toil every day in operations that are particularly fraught with financial uncertainty. Is it any wonder some are closing the barn doors for good?

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Libby Bleakney rises at 2 every morning to start milking a barn full of Jersey cows by 3 a.m.

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The light at dusk in January bathes Highland Farms in Cornish, a dairy farm owned and operated by the fifth generation of farmers. Despite federal and state safety nets, farms like this one struggle to make ends meet as prices for feed and fuel add to costs of production. Over decades, the number of Maine dairy operations has fallen precipitously, from 5,100 in 1945 to just 307 last year.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Libby Bleakney, a fifth generation dairy farmer who runs Highland Farms in Cornish with her family, says keeping the operation going is more than preserving a legacy – it's in her blood.

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The milking at Highland Farms in Cornish takes about four hours and is followed by breakfast, then office work -- or, depending on the season, haying.

The afternoon milking starts by 2 p.m. and goes until about 6. Bleakney tries to be in bed by 9 p.m. so she can get some sleep before rising at 2 and doing it all over again.

"It's got to be done," said the fifth-generation dairy farmer. "Twice a day, seven days a week. Holidays and snowstorms."

Despite all this hard work, the dairy operation on the farm is losing money. And that's the norm rather than the exception for the state's dairy farms.

Maine dairy farms have always struggled to make ends meet -- even with the help of federal and state safety nets -- but big spikes in fuel and grain costs last year hit them hard. Now many of them are teetering on the edge of going under.

Maine has 307 dairy farms, down from about 500 in 2000, and every one of them is family-owned. That's a fraction of the number of dairy farms operating in the state 50 years ago, and the number is decreasing with each passing year.

There are numerous reasons for the decline, some as simple as the fact that as farmers have aged, there are fewer younger farmers willing to replace them. Farms have either gone out of business altogether or shifted their focus to something other than a dairy operation.

Maine farms also have inherently higher costs in some areas. Feed for the cows, usually a farm's largest expense, must be purchased and shipped to Maine from other parts of the country. As booms and busts in dairy pricing become more extreme, these costs take a greater toll on a farm's bottom line.

But mostly, farmers blame a federal price support system that favors the larger, industrial-style farms in the Midwest and West over the nation's smaller dairy farms.

"If I had to guess, I would say probably about a third of our farms are going day to day (financially)," said Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association. "If there's a big crash in the price that farmers get paid for their milk, or feed starts to creep back up, it's pretty sketchy."

Last year, the price of milk dropped, and dairy farmers absorbed the loss -- as they are used to doing. Then came the drought, and grain prices went through the roof.

That was the final straw for Leary Farm's dairy business in Saco.

In January 2012, Tim Leary paid $380 a ton for feed. Feed prices started going up in summer and peaked at more than $500 a ton, "to the point where it was frightening," Leary said.

Leary has just made the decision to stop dairy farming before he gets into deep financial trouble. His family's 500-acre farm, which at its height milked about 50 cows, is the last commercial dairy operation in Saco.

"I could keep going," Leary said. "I could struggle along probably for several more years. But right now everything's paid for, and I think this is a prudent time for us to pull the plug."

Leary is converting part of the farm to a vegetable operation. His daughter, Alison, will keep a few cows to make value-added products like cheese and yogurt, and the family will keep a cow or two for their own needs, but Leary has begun gradually selling off his herd.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Alison Leary carries equipment as she milks some of the 17 remaining cows at her family's farm in Saco last month. Because of low prices for milk and soaring production costs, her father, Tim Leary, has opted to close the 500-acre Leary Farm, the last commercial dairy operation in the city limits.

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Alison Leary squirts a stream of milk into the mouth of her Australian cattle dog, Pepper, during morning milking chores last month. After the Saco farm closes its dairy operation, she plans to keep a few cows to produce enough milk to make products such as cheese and yogurt.

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