40 YEARS OF ‘THE FARMER’
A monthly supplement to The Delmarva Farmer
Ten years covering ‘dairy country’
(Editor’s note: Karl Berger was a former associate editor for The Delmarva Farmer and is now the environmental planner of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.)
Twenty-five years is a long time in the ever changing world of American agriculture. In the little piece of it that I knew best, the dairy farms clustered in the rolling hills of the Maryland Piedmont, it is long enough to wash away much of what I had known.
I joined The Delmarva Farmer staff in 1980, fresh out of Penn State. My assignment was to cover the “Western Shore,” the term that solipsists on the Delmarva Peninsula apply to the rest of the continental United States.
In practice, my beat was somewhat more limited: Central Maryland from Harford County west to Washington County, including Montgomery and Howard counties, with occasional forays to far western Garrett County.
This was dairy country for the most part, comprised of more or less equal parts well-run commercial dairy operations and internationally known purebred herds – with far more dairy cooperative leaders, Excellent-type cows and dairy showmen and judges than such a small state should have.
In my 10 years of covering it, I learned an awful lot about milk pricing, a little bit about dairy herd management and next to nothing about dairy cow conformation. I learned from a lot of Extension agents, farmers and dairy industry officials who generously shared their time and knowledge.
I left my full-time job with the paper in 1990 and stopped writing articles about dairy farming a few years later.
Although I have had some involvement with certain aspects of agriculture in my new job, I have had almost no contact with my former dairy industry colleagues and have paid little attention to what’s been happening. So, like a lot of my old columns for the paper, my observations now are arbitrary and only as informed as a few hours of Google searching can make them.
Still, some things are obvious. Continuing a trend that was evident even when I was covering the business, the number of dairy farms in the state has continued to decline rapidly – from 1,432 in 1990 to 476 in 2013, according to state ag statistics I found.
Cow numbers are down as well, but at a lower rate of decline than farm numbers, as herd sizes increase. And despite the seemingly neverending increase in production per cow, overall milk production statewide also declined about a third in the last 25 years, to just under one million pounds a year.
That’s still enough to rank dairy farming as the fourth highest grossing farm enterprise in the state, behind broilers, greenhouse and nursery stock, and corn.
But it has meant that Maryland, along with other states in the region, has lost market share and industry clout to dairy farmers in other parts of the country.
Whether this is cause or effect, I no longer recognize the landscape of milk marketing in Maryland.
Gone are almost all of the milk marketing cooperatives that I knew, with the notable exception of the venerable Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative.
Gone as well is the old federal milk order marketing system and the protective bubble it supplied for dairy farm income in the Mid-Atlantic area.
There still appears to be some sort of differential pricing from which Maryland dairymen benefit. And the old dairy price support structure has been replaced by various federal insurance-type mechanisms, such as the Milk Income Loss Control Program and now the Margin Protection Program, that only the accountants can understand.
But the gyrations of farm milk prices coupled with the volatility of grain prices has sent the milk-feed price ratio on a roller coaster ride from down (2009) to up (2014) seemingly more wildly than ever before.
Despite these vicissitudes, Maryland dairymen appear to be hanging on to their purebred heritage. True, the number of herds on the monthly DHIA lists is a fraction of what they were in the 1980s. But there are a lot of farm names and a lot of last names that I still recognize, even as the first names change.
A new generation has taken over from the farmers I knew and some new names have risen to prominence. Like Kiera Finucane, a former dairy and beef Extension specialist for the University of Maryland and the latest in a long line of coaches of champion dairy judging teams from Maryland. Following in the considerable footsteps of John Morris and Lee Majeskie, she coached the 2013 team to a national championship at the World Dairy Expo, the third in the last five years and the 31st title overall.
Dairy has deep roots in Maryland soil, deep enough, I trust, that the culture of excellence built by all the innovative marketers; the accomplished breeders; the dedicated herdsmen; and by the many fine fitters, 4-H showmen and judges will withstand the forces of urbanization and global marketing that would otherwise wash it away.