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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About 20 years ago, the Cornish farm started a logging business to help supplement its income. Five or six years ago, the farm also started selling compost wholesale to nursery and garden centers.

Libby Bleakney can't imagine not being a dairy farmer. Sometimes it's Bleakney's cousin or children who do the day's milking -- they swap out shifts with each other so they all get a break -- but it's always a member of this fifth-generation farm family tending their 260 cows.

But for Bleakney, keeping the farm running is about more than preserving the family legacy. Dairy farming is something that gets in your blood after years of rising before dawn and long nights easing a new calf's way into the world.

"You have to enjoy and make farming your hobby," Bleakney said. "You don't want to get up and work 65 hours a week-plus and not enjoy it because it would be a miserable life."

The family always works holidays, and when Bleakney and her husband go on vacation, they invariably wind up visiting other dairy farms to meet other farmers and keep up with new ideas and technology. Bleakney's husband likes to joke that "there's always a cow at the other end of our vacation."


Tim Leary is a little wary of how he'll respond to the changes that are coming his way. Giving up one 9-to-5 job for another one is just a job shift, he notes, but giving up dairying means he'll have to learn how to let go of an entire way of life.

"Those cows have to be milked twice a day every single day, and it consumes you," he said. "And so when you decide to step away from it, it's a dramatic shift. It's not a minor thing; it's a gigantic change in your whole lifestyle."

Leary is, in a way, comforted by the hard facts he finds in his financial records. He doesn't see a huge shift in the fortunes of dairy farmers coming anytime soon.

And that makes the letting go a little easier.

"For me, I'm not such an old man that I'm so set in my ways and can't make a change," he said. "And this is a parallel track. We'll still be working off the land. I won't be building houses across the road from the house, I'll be able to look out and see a beautiful field. But instead of having hay growing out there, I'll have some kind of vegetables growing out there instead."

For the Learys, the long, slow slide has come to a gentle end.

When Jim Leary started shipping milk back in the 1940s, there were 50 dairy farms in Saco. Some of them were very small, but there were 50. By the time his son Tim graduated from college with a degree in animal science in 1981, there were just 12 to 15 dairy farms in the community. Now the Leary Farm is the only one left.

The farm's margin was thin before the price of grain soared last year. This year, it disappeared.

Leary says he can no longer afford to replace or upgrade anything on the farm. The decision to shut down has been tough, he said, but he is at peace with it. He has begun gradually selling off his cows, but will probably milk through the winter to keep himself busy.

"I don't have an end date," Leary said. "I don't know when it will come to an end.

"But it will. It will."

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:


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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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