WASHINGTON – As the price he was getting for his milk continued falling through November and December, dairy farmer Gary Dell thought about older farmers he knew, who had found it easier to sell their land to developers than continue to scrape out a living on the farm.
“It’s so hard to survive,” said Dell, 27, who has a herd of 170 cows near Westminster. “You have to love it to do it.”
Dell and other dairy farmers across the nation were given a bit of relief last week from milk prices that had been falling 20 percent between October and December, and 26 percent overall from their September peak.
Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman announced that the federal government would buy an additional $5 million worth of cheese, which would increase demand for milk and prevent milk prices from sinking any further.
“It’s an excellent idea,” Dell said. “Something definitely needed to be done.”
In addition, Glickman said a program providing incentives to market American dairy products around the world would be boosted.
The actions taken by Glickman should provide some help to farmers, at least in the short term, said Allen O’Hara, manager of member services for the Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers.
“Farmers couldn’t afford to buy feed and produce milk” with such a sharp dip in prices, O’Hara said.
Dairy farmers in Maryland’s leading dairy-producing counties – Frederick, Washington and Carroll – seemed to agree.
“Anything to help the cheese market would help dairy farmers,” said William Schnebly. Schnebly, 45, has a herd of about 80 milk cows in Clear Spring, about 10 miles west of Hagerstown.
The USDA sets the price of fluid milk by what price cheese earns at the National Cheese Exchange in Green Bay, Wis.
The exchange is a commodities market, but is only open for half an hour every Friday. Milk prices are so volatile in part because the market does not always have time to correct periodic downturns.
Dairy farmers are “pretty much at the mercy of whomever determines the price of cheese,” Schnebly said, which can make for up-and-down times in the dairy business.
Glickman also announced that the USDA would review its use of cheese exchange prices to set milk prices. If the system is changed, it could help dairy farmers over the long term.
David Weitzer, who has a herd of about 70 cows near Poolesville, said the volatile nature of milk prices makes for some tough times. “It really puts the squeeze on.
“It would be better if the price of fluid milk were decoupled from the price of cheese,” he said. This would make the price of fluid milk more market-dependent, adding a degree of stability to the lives of dairy farmers.
Across the nation and in Maryland, dairy farming has been on the decline. According to the National Agricultural Statistical Service, the number of milk cows on farms in 1996 was the lowest on record.
In Maryland, the number of cows declined from about 92,000 in 1995 to 85,000 in 1996. Overall milk production has declined so much in the state in recent years that Maryland has slipped to 28th nationwide in dairy production, from 20th a decade ago.
Part of the decline in production, O’Hara said, was due to farmland being sold at an increasing rate for residential and commercial development. This, combined with high feed prices over the past year and fluctuating milk prices, can make getting or staying in dairy farming a daunting task, he said. -30-