Number of Md. dairy farms still in freefall
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Jan. 30, 2018) — The number of dairy farms in Maryland fell to 417 last year as persistently low milk prices continue to crunch the state’s weakening dairy industry, agricultural leaders told a House committee last week.
Gathered on Jan. 25 to brief the state’s House Environment and Transportation Committee on the state of agriculture in Maryland, farming representatives repeatedly highlighted economic distress within the dairy industry, which has seen a steady stream of foreclosures and herd liquidations as farmers battle growing debt and more than three years of sunken milk prices.
“Unfortunately, in the Northeast, we have a surplus of milk,” said Steve Connelly, assistant secretary of marketing, animal industries and consumer services at the state agriculture department. “It’s unfortunate, but I don’t know that we have a silver bullet to solve it.”
The state has experienced a nearly uninterrupted decline in the number of dairy farms since the late 1980s. There were more than 1,400 dairies in 1989 and nearly 600 in 2008, according to state data.
Farmers, generally, are not making enough money to cover the cost of production, and Chuck Fry, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said the current price climate is imperiling his own dairy operation.
“I refuse to keep going to the bank to borrow money to milk cows that lose $900 a day,” he said.
Maryland agriculture “has some things to shine about,” he said, but the “golden age of farm income is over” as increasingly competitive global markets have pushed down prices while technology has helped farmers produce more food than ever before. It’s led to an acceleration of farm debt — particularly in the dairy industry — which could spark more farm bankruptcies if interest rates rise, he said.
“It’s been a struggle, and during the past year we’ve really seen that,” Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to turn that around.”
Farming interests should negotiate an improved support net for dairy farmers in the 2018 Farm Bill, Connelly said. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s efforts to push one-percent milk back into schools could also provide a boost to the dairy industry, panelists said.
Not all news was bad, however. The poultry industry continues to enjoy steady growth on the Delmarva Peninsula, said Bill Satterfield, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.
“Fortunately, we prepare a product that consumers want,” he said.
The number of birds grown in Delmarva grew by about 1.7 percent in 2017, and the number of new chicken houses grew by about 8.3 percent, he said.
“That surge (in construction) is slowing, and we’re not going to see that in the years ahead because the chicken companies are reaching their capacity they need in the chicken houses,” Satterfield said.
The state department’s Maryland’s Best Expo, which links local farmers with buyers, including grocery stores and restaurants, has grown considerably since it debuted in 2002 to just 25 participants, Bartenfelder said. Between 400 and 500 participated in this year’s expo in Annapolis on Jan. 24, he said.
The department has also compiled data on more than 1.1 million acres of soil as it continues to implement its phosphorous management tool, which regulates farm soil nutrient levels, said Hans Schmidt, assistant secretary of resource conservation.
And while state’s grain industry is struggling with the low prices and the effects of extreme weather on crops, it leads the nation in cover cropping and sustainability practices, said Steve Ernst, president of the Maryland Grain Producers Association.
But while millions of dollars are pouring into dairy processing infrastructure in the state, little of that is finding its way to farmers, said Matt Hoff, vice president of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association.
“It’s not a positive outlook for my daughter, who’s a dairy science major at Cornell (University),” he said. “So she’s going to have to stay in school a little longer, get a little smarter and get a better job.”