ANNAPOLIS – If the dairy industry gets its way, milk will soon share the spotlight with square dancing, a snail fossil and the black-eyed Susan as an official state symbol.
Proponents of a bill to make milk the official state drink of Maryland made their pitch Tuesday in front of the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee.
They argued that milk is one of the most nutritious drinks on the market and that making it the state drink could help boost promotions for the dairy industry.
There are about 950 dairy farms in Maryland, which produce about 1.3 billion pounds of milk annually, not to mention yogurt, cottage cheese, ice cream and other products.
But in recent years, Maryland has lost more dairy farmland and more cows than the national average, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
“We didn’t have an official state drink, and milk is one of our most nutritional and perfect foods. It’s good for the young and old, and I guess it does a body good,” said Del. Paul S. Stull, R-Frederick, one of the bill’s sponsors.
Joy Crothers of the Maryland Holstein Association also touted milk’s nutrition — one glass of milk contains the same amount of calcium as seven cups of broccoli, 29 apples, or five pounds of roast beef, she said.
She also said the milk industry was strictly regulated and that milk farmers were proud of their high health standards.
“We are one of the few professions where we donate back 1 percent of our profits into promotion and research,” she said.
Those ubiquitous “Got Milk?” commercials and print ads featuring celebrities with milk mustaches are largely funded by an assessment paid by milk producers and processors.
But out in the field, it is difficult to tell if those ads are making much difference, according to Michael J. Wilcom, president of the Frederick County Farm Bureau.
“Right now dairy farmers are not making a decent living. A lot of small dairy farmers are going under,” he said.
The state lost 40 percent of its dairy farms and 14 percent of its milk cows between 1988 and 1994, occurring to the Agriculture Department. The national average over the same period was a loss of 31 percent of dairy farms and 7.6 percent of cows.
The biggest problem, Wilcom said, is that the price of milk has been relatively flat for the last ten years while the price of everything else has been rising under normal inflation.
“Fertilizer is up. Feed is up. Milk doesn’t have a cost of living index to it. It would be a good idea to give it a raise once in a while,” Wilcom said.
Worried about the health of the dairy industry, the Maryland Legislature formed a special task force to study its problems. Several bills based on its recommendations have been introduced this year that would:
* set minimum milk prices and give Maryland a more equal playing field with Pennsylvania and Virginia.
* give farmers more flexibility in setting sell-by dates, as long as they meet health criteria.
* create a task force to study the future of state agriculture, including farm preservation programs and helping young farmers.
Supporters of the bill to make milk the state drink admit the move is largely symbolic. But sometimes symbols carry more weight than you might imagine, they said.
“It would be a nice boost for the dairy farmer to see that the legislators and the public are behind them,” said Susan Summers, chair of the Maryland Dairy Princess Association.
“While it sounds simple, it’s everything to a dairy farmer to have someone pat them on the back and say they believe in what they’re doing,” she said. -30-