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
Staff Writer

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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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U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who has served on the House Agriculture Committee, said the farm bill "goes further and is better than what we've had in the past, but it doesn't do a good enough job of reflecting increasing costs."

"Between the drought and the impacts ethanol subsidies have had on the price of corn, it's just gotten so unaffordable" for farmers, said Pingree, who is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority shareholder of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. "They need a better price-support system, some of which is in the farm bill if and when we ever get it passed -- we will get it passed sometime.

"But (farmers are) stuck. They're stuck waiting for the farm bill to pass, and I think they're stuck a little bit because of the bad policy around ethanol."


Meanwhile, Maine dairy farmers continue to struggle. Feed companies have been as flexible as they can with farmers facing skyrocketing bills, Bickford said, "but they're at the limit to where they can't extend any more credit without jeopardizing their business."

So farmers, who have to feed their cows, are juggling their finances in order to keep the grain bills up to date. Now the financial pressure is being pushed onto fuel companies, veterinarians, equipment dealers and other related businesses.

"Farmers are basically eating up their equity," Bickford said. "There's not a whole lot left to live on."

If dairy farming is so hard, and there's so little financial return, why do people stick with it?

"When you've got farms that date back to the 1700s and you have generations of farmers who have been working that land, that's pretty tough," Bickford said. "You don't want to be the generation that couldn't make a go of it."

The barn on the Leary Farm in Saco was built in the 1850s, and there has been a commercial dairy operation on the property for 66 years -- ever since Tim Leary's father, Jim, graduated from high school in 1947. Oakhurst has bought the farm's milk for 32 years.

Jim Leary, 83, devoted his entire life to the dairy, and his son admits that weighed on his mind when he was making the decision to shut down. Some members of the family were not happy about it -- until he showed them the numbers.

"It's not an easy thing," he said, "but at some point, you've got to do the math."

When Tim Leary was growing up, his mother never needed to work off the farm. She took care of the house and children, while Jim took care of the farm and paid the bills.

"My mother never milked a cow and my father never changed a diaper, so they had a nice little division of labor," Leary said. "But now I think there isn't a single dairy operation in southern Maine where you don't have either a gravel pit, a woodlot or a spouse that works outside the home to support the farm operation."

Like the Leary Farm, Highland Farms in Cornish also has deep roots in the dairy business. Founded in 1886, it's always been a commercial dairy operation.

The farm sits atop a hill high above the town of Cornish, with stunning views of the mountains, even in winter. Bleakney's grandfather purchased surrounding farms as they went out of business, and over the years the family's property has grown to 1,200 acres.

Today, the farm is owned by the fifth generation of the family -- David and Lorie Pike, Libby Bleakney and her brother, Daniel Palmer, with whom she manages the dairy operation. All of the farm's milk goes to Oakhurst.

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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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