Farmers under increasing financial squeeze

August 10, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Like many 18-year-olds in Washington County, Brian Forsythe is spending part of this summer getting ready to go away to college for four years. But unlike some of his peers, the Downsville youth says he's sure he's coming back when he graduates.

Forsythe was raised on the historic Linden Hall farm on the Downsville Pike. After he's done his studies at Delaware Valley College, he told me he plans to return, even though farming is no easy job - or a secure way to make a living nowadays.

If farming were as easy as winning prizes, Forsythe would have it made. "Pumpkin," a Jersey cow the color of a camel-hair coat, had just won honors in the "dry cow" class at this past week's Ag Expo competition when I approached him, the red and gold trophy still in his hand. The third generation of his family on the farm, he seems to have it in his blood.


"I love doing it. I really don't want to do anything else. I was raised up on a farm and that's who I am," he said.

Working on a dairy farm means getting up at 4:30 a.m. seven days a week, to milk Linden Hall's 33 cows. That's just one of two milkings a day. In between those sessions, the animals must be fed and the field work attended to. Linden Hall also has an orchard, so trees must be pruned, sprayed and at harvest time, the fruit must be picked.

Brian's father, Mike Forsythe, told me he had mixed feelings when his son told him he wanted to stay on the farm. On one hand, he said he was pleased his son wants to carry on the family business. But the well-tanned dad's smile faded a bit when he talked about his concern that farming won't provide his son with an adequate income.

Milk prices are now at about $11 per hundredweight, the elder Forsythe said, just about the same as dairy farmers were getting 10 or 15 years ago. The costs for fertilizer, machinery, power - just about everything - have gone up in that time, leaving farmers no choice but to work more efficiently if they hope to sell their milk for more than it costs them to produce it.

"It's really kind of tough," Mike Forsythe said, adding that "the only way you can do it is to improve your efficiency."

Janet Shank Stiles, a local director of the Maryland-Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative and a dairy farmer herself, confirmed Forsythe's glum outlook.

"For 18 months, (prices) were at an historic low. Usually within a year they go up or down, but this time the low prices lasted for 18 months," she said.

The expiration of the Northeast Dairy Compact hurt, she said, because it eliminated farmers' ability to plan ahead. When the compact was in force, prices were set for six months at a time, by a panel that did not include farmers. Without it, she said, farmers have no certainty about the prices they'll get.

And after all the hoopla about how the compact was hurting consumers at the supermarket, Stiles said that when it expired, shoppers didn't see any big drop in milk prices.

Stiles said her group does all it can to develop and keep markets for the co-op's 1,300 member farms. A new supply system has cut $9 million in transportation costs, she said, by matching milk purchasers with the dairy farms closest to them.

The group is also putting together a marketing effort and building milk-processing plants of their own, she said, adding that "You have to be pretty crafty to serve this market."

But while Stiles' efforts promise much in the long run, in the meantime the East Coast dairies face lots of competition from the western U.S., where farms are huge compared to smaller spreads here.

"During the past 18 months, I've heard more people talking about selling out than I ever have," Mike Forsythe said.

Brian Forsythe said that what's needed is a minimum milk price, like the minimum wage, so farmers could know they'd get at least that much for their milk.

Farmers did get some help from the 2002 federal farm bill, according to Don Schwartz, an agriculture extension agent with the Washington County office of the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. The subsidy amounts to $2 per hundredweight, which is a bit of relief, he said.

Agricuture in Washington County is still big business, according to Schwartz, who said that local farmers receive about $60 million annually for what they produce, with $45 million of that total going to dairy farms, which milk 18,000 cows. The problem is that many local farms milk fewer than 100, which means they have a tough time competing against West Coast farms with 1,000 head or more.

"Its just like the mom-and-pop grocery stores, which have a tough time competing against the big chain stores," Schwartz said. There are ways that some farmers do it and do it well, he said. And I'll explore some of those in a future column.

What's important to say now is that this important local industry is facing some major problems. If you care about the effect the conversion of many farms to housing developments would have on your taxes, not to mention your quality of life, you and local officials need to be interested in how to improve agriculture's bottom line. In the next few weeks I'll look at this topic in more depth.

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