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Farmers playing catch-up

April 25, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - For nearly two years, Hagerstown-area dairy farmer Mike Forsythe has been strapped for cash because of the low prices he was getting for his milk. As a result, he's had to put off repairs around the farm.

But a recent spike in milk prices has allowed Forsythe and other area farmers to start playing catch-up. Machinery and buildings that underwent temporary fixes now will get much-needed attention.

"When you have the cash, you can fix it up right," said Forsythe, who milks 35 cows a day at his Downsville Pike farm.

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A drop in production has pushed up milk prices nationwide, said Jeff Semler of the Maryland Cooperative Extension office in Washington County.

After bottoming out at about $11 per hundred weight, milk prices now are averaging about $16 and are predicted to go even higher this summer, he said.

While it's good news for farmers, it means that dairy consumers will be paying more for everything from a gallon of milk to an ice cream cone.

Superior Ice Cream & Snack Bar owner Ron Horn was forced to raise his ice cream prices twice in the last month.

"I don't have much of a choice. There's not much of a markup on ice cream," he said.

Costs for a cone at Superior now range from $1.54 to $2.86, which is 8 cents more than last year.

Horn said consumers probably will still buy ice cream, although they might have to cut back on the number of visits to his shop on Chestnut Street in Hagerstown.

"They still want the good old American dessert," he said.

One local dairy hopes to parlay the higher milk prices into a boost for its companion business, delivering locally bottled milk door to door.

By keeping its own milk prices the same, South Mountain Creamery in Middletown, Md., hopes to lure consumers away from store-bought milk, office manager Abby Brusco said.

"We're going to be right about the same price or cheaper," she said. "We're hoping to get a whole lot of new customers from this."

A half-gallon at South Mountain Creamery costs $2.19, she said.

Meanwhile, the dairy operation on the farm is benefiting from the higher milk prices, she said.

The reason milk prices have gone up is that production has gone down, he said.

Last year's low milk prices and high feed prices forced some dairy farms out of business, Semler said.

Also, farmers have been weeding out lower producing cows because of relatively high meat prices. The mad cow disease scare has prevented U.S. farmers from replacing them with imported cows from Canada, he said.

Over the last decade, as federal milk price supports waned, milk prices have become more volatile, said Chris Galen, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation.

"You just have to learn to ride out them lows and wait for the highs to get straightened back out," Forsythe said.

Boonsboro-area farmer Myron Martin also isn't complaining about the fluctuations.

"It makes us better farmers," he said. "We just learn to tighten up our belts. Learn to know what we don't have to have."

In the last few weeks, Martin has seen the price for his milk jump from $12 to $18 per hundred weight.

Martin, who has 70 milk cows, said he plans to donate some of the extra money toward a new church building for Yarrowsburg Mennonite Church.

He'll also make investments in the farm that will allow for a more efficient operation, he said.

"We can breathe a little easier now," he said.

Semler said many farmers will use the extra cash to pay off some short-term debt.

They'll also set aside some money as a buffer for when prices inevitably drop again, he said.

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