Dairy farmers face market challenges

By Joe Crocetta/Staff photographer
Dairy farmer Brooks Long moves his more than 60 cows into the milking parlor at his farm, Long Delite, near Williamsport, Md.

 

Brooks Long said he’s been “bred into” life as a dairy farmer, so he’s accustomed to the roller coaster rise and fall of milk prices.

That doesn’t make the ride any easier.

“The payments don’t go down when the milk price does,” he said.

Brooks and his wife Katie operate Long Delite Farm, the 2016 farm of the year in Washington County, Md. It’s one of many dairy operations in the Crossroads Business Journal region, and it’s part of the area’s historic link to the dairy industry.

“I’m (a) seventh-generation (farmer), so I kind of got bred into it,” Long said.

“We’ve been on the property since 1831. … (Katie) is a third-generation farmer herself.”

Many area dairy farmers belong to cooperatives, such as Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers and Lanco-Pennland, to market their milk. The end products range from milk to cheeses to milk powder for products such as processed cookies.

A dive into the numbers shows that milk makes up a large part of the area’s agricultural economy.

Milk from cows accounted for $177.9 million in sales in Franklin County, Pa., ranking it No. 2 in the state and No. 33 in the nation, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture, from 2012.

Frederick County, Md., was No. 1 in the state and No. 158 in the country in that category at $53.2 million. Washington County, Md., ranked No. 2 in the state and No. 183 in the nation at
$43.9 million.

In Berkeley County, W.Va., milk from cows generated a value of $2.4 million, ranking No. 5 in the state.

But some others numbers, specifically the price and consumption of milk, are troubling dairy farmers these days, according to farmers, academics and business people in the area ag industry.

In 2009, the price of milk dipped to less than $15 per pound (roughly 8.6 gallons). In 2014, it soared to record highs in the range of $25. Since then, it’s slipped again, to the $16 to $18 range, Long said.

Meanwhile, fluid milk consumption fallen 25 percent, from 247 pounds per person in 1976 to 154 pounds per person in 2016, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Consumption of some dairy products, such as certain varieties of cheeses, has increased recently, but the industry is still grasping at ways to make up the difference.

“We’re producing more milk per cow than ever, and there’s just not a market for it,” Long said. “We’re losing small operators every day.”

And small operators make up the biggest part of the area dairy industry industry. Many of those families are part of the Mennonite faith tradition, and many can trace their farming roots back for generations, Long said.

“The thing that is our big strength is the family farm,” added Jeff Semler, principal agent at the Washington County Extension Office.

There’s almost no telling who those family farmers feed, he said, because dairy products can wind up around the world. And because of its limited shelf life, liquid milk has to find a market quickly.

“We can have tankers full of milk going to Florida,” he said.

Semler said most farmers have weathered the most recent storm.

“Dairy prices are improving,” he said. “We’re not anywhere near 2014, but if you ask the average dairy farmer, he will say prices are improving. … The roller-coaster rides are the tough deal.”

Dave Forrester, general manager of Farmers Union Co-op in Greencastle, Pa., agrees with that assessment.

“The outlook right now is kind of bleak, but it will come back around,” he said.

By Joe Crocetta/Staff photographer
Dairy farmer Brooks Long starts the afternoon milking at his farm, Long Delite, near Williamsport, Md.

Long said it’s been hard for dairy farmers, as an industry, to smooth the peaks and valleys.

“Nobody can come to the same conclusion,” he said. “Nobody wants a quota system, like they have in Canada.”

But that does not mean farmers are helpless passengers.

Some larger dairy operations sometimes acquire smaller ones, but Long said land here doesn’t lend itself to the really large operations found farther west.

Some find ways to cut farm costs and seek off-the-farm income.

“I’m the only full-time guy on the farm,” Long said.

Some have turned over part of their properties to solar panel “farms” that generate electricity instead of commodities.

“On the flip side, obviously, you can’t eat solar panels,” he said.

Meanwhile, others have branched into niche markets, and Long Delite Farm could join those ranks. Long said he’s investigating on-farm processing methods with the idea of marketing some of his own products to consumers. He’s hoping that will dovetail with the “buy local” trend in the food industry to help farm revenue.

“That’s really the route we need to go,” he said.