David Patrick’s eyes start to tear up when he recalls selling off some of his cattle at auctions around the Baltimore area for bigger milk producers. In recent times, this dairy farmer’s prized heifer sold to an Indiana farm for $4,800.
Simply put, “cows are being sold off to bigger farms,” he said. However, the animals aren’t selling fast due to lack of money from farmers in general. The situation is so dire that he’s read stories where low pay checks and suicide hotline letters sent to dairy farmers are all too common.
Patrick, owner of Maple Dell Farms in Woodbine, is the last dairy farmer in Howard County. He said there used to be 56 dairy farms and a few months ago, Jones’ Bowling Green farm closed due to labor and financial hardships, selling off their herd gradually in the process. Thanks to the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation Program, Patrick was able to buy his farm. The County paid $6,000 for the first acre and paid 7.5 percent interest over 30-year period. Still, despite having 2 farms, 150 acres and another 250 acres bought out of 400 acres, all their equipment is leased.
Overall, the state of Maryland has a total of 350 dairy farmers. Back in the 1940s, Montgomery County had more dairy farmers than any other county in the United States.
The current situation is there is a dairy crisis in the U.S. — people lost their love for milk, the prices are way down, and as a consequence the dairy farms are producing excessive amounts.
“If the low prices continue, some of the ground we bought we need to sell, to pay some bills. We are working to sell some lots and selling heifers,” he said.
The farm currently has 180-190 cows total, which 10 months out of the year they are milking and 2 months are “dry cows” to have rest for breeding too.
Patrick sifted through his recent letters from the Dairy Farmers Association and it showed his most recent report from January to February 2019: He earned $16,000 gross pay for 2 months’ milk, which translates to about 1,900 gallons produced. (1 gallon is 8.6 pounds). His tank can hold up to 2,500 gallons every other day and so there is a problem with the pricing and supply going on. His pay is dependent on the butter and protein testing as well as premium on observed milk quality. In February, the farm’s report showed earnings of $18.39 per 100 pounds of milk, which is about 12 gallons.
Since he made about 1,900 gallons in two months, there is clearly a gap in the marketplace. He said years ago, he used to get $25.00 per 100 pounds. The DFA controls 33 percent of the milk market in the U.S., and for Maple Dell, they used to send their milk to Dairy Maid in Frederick but now that’s been acquired by the DFA in 2013 and their coop system processes, pasterizes, labels, and distributes the product to stores.
What’s more troubling, in 2014 he earned $92,000, but in 2015, even though he had 700 pounds more milk, his check was only $52,000.
“Overproduction has killed the milk market,” he said. “Unless we control production the picture will look grim,” he added.
In 2017, 7.5 percent of dairy farmers went out of business in Wisconsin. However, in Texas, there can be 12,000 herds on a farm. And big industry is continuing to kill the small farm. Walmart has opened their own processing plant in Indiana.
“It’s not part of the problem, but they [Walmart] are adhering to big dairy business. They like to get their milk from them [the larger farms],” his wife Ann said.
Times have changed with lenders and agribusiness too, where nowadays Patrick, who has been a long time community banker, now deals with giant PNC, who the tellers ask for his identification and background information all the time as if he’s a foreigner to this part of town.
Taste and advertising
Other than the problems with big business, the Patricks said taste and false advertising is another battle.
The couple agree the school systems need to do away with skim milk and cartons and switch to whole milk and bottles. There also needs to be a removal of the label “milk” in almond milk and soy milk because milk is not derived from almonds or soy.
“The U.S. is the only country which has these products milk in the name,” they said.
There also needs to be a re-education about antibiotics. The Patricks said milk is free of antibiotics before it is loaded onto trucks.
Another area they see is people need to revisit is drinking whole milk. Whole milk is 97 percent fat free and this is what makes the product taste better, said Patrick. He’s been drinking whole milk all his life, maintains a healthy weight under 200 pounds. While he said all of his male high school classmates have either passed away or in wheelchairs, he’s been able to stay healthy at 88 years old.
“You need to send a healthy, wholesome product from the barn,” he said. “You eat quality food, the cows need quality food to produce well,” he added.
Despite their hardships, the married couple of 65 years still wake up together every morning around 3 am to prepare the herd and do what they love.
“We have a lot of family help,” they said, who are proud parents of 4 girls and 3 boys.