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Local dairy farmers might benefit from a N.Y. senator

November 21, 2009

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New York and the U.S. Justice Department aren't entities that you would normally associate with having a positive impact on Washington County land use, but in a roundabout way, it could be the case.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is having the Justice Department investigate milk prices, with a specific question in mind: Why are dairy farmers getting rock-bottom prices, while there has been only a minimal drop in the cost of a gallon of milk at the grocery stores?

That's been a question on the minds of local dairy farmers, who represent a rather respectable amount of local land. At the milk market's bottom, some farmers said they stood to lose as much as $1,000 per cow.

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According to Schumer's office, prices paid to dairy farmers have fallen by nearly half, while the price of a gallon of milk fell just 15 percent. One New York dairy farmer reported expenses of $60,000 above income.

The reason, said dairy farmer James Normandin, is "because there is no competition" among milk buyers.

When dairy farms suffer, we all suffer, because it has the potential to destroy property values, along with the rural atmosphere we're legitimately so proud of. "Most dairy farmers would prefer not to go out of business, but at some point, you have to stop the bleeding," Washington County extension agent Jeff Semler said.

Even some local large-animal vets, who usually remain nonpartisan, are speaking out because they see the bulk-milk buyers reaping profits while the farmers and consumers see no relief.

Globalization is all well and good, but the U.S. is importing milk proteins at a time when, in some states, there are government buyouts of dairy farms because of too much production.

Given shipping costs, some local farmers say it's a mystery why overseas milk producers can sell milk products for cheaper prices than what can be produced here.

As a percentage of national milk production, Maryland is small beans, just as it is in any agricultural aspect. There are counties in Iowa that produce more corn than we do as a state.

But if our farmers give up the ghost, that means more land on the market, which lowers local property values and opens up more rural land to housing - properties that are purchased by people who drive to the cities to the east for work.

As it is, probably the only reason more farms haven't been sold is that that local farmers are in a trap. They might be losing money on their herds, but getting out of the business isn't an attractive option either, Semler said. "The problem is, what are they going to do? Cows aren't worth much, and what they would receive would go into paying debt."

Lower land values that correspond with a down economy are compounding the downward spiral because farmers typically borrow for spring planting against the value of their land. Lower land prices mean that they can't get as much money from the bank.

Vets say that the public needs to be aware of the situation and help pressure the government into further action.

Even the New York investigation could help here, to some degree.

"Even if it only opens the door for further investigation," it would help, Semler said. Although "the spotlight has been shined on them before and we really haven't seen any big change."

As Semler likes to say, 2 percent of the nation farms, but 100 percent of the nation eats. The 98 percent of nonfarmers (but eaters) need to be aware that something fishy seems to be afoot and support the farms that support our eating habit.

The alternative could be dairy farms that operate much as hog and chicken farms do today, in an unhealthy formula of "vertical integration" in which monolith corporations own everything from cow to milk cartons and farmers become farmers in name only - instead they are little more than drones on an assembly line floor.

So it would pay to follow and support Schumer's effort. "When bigger states get involved, the little guy tends to get helped," Semler said. "And they may open a can of worms that turns out to be a bucket."

It's a bucket that has implications for us all, from milk drinkers to property owners, and those who wish to see the rural values of Washington County remain as they are today.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video at www.herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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